At approximately 1:00 p.m. Tuesday on Tuesday, Intermountain Construction Services Operator Mike Masica launched his Cat excavator and collected the final scoop of known and removable debris from the Parrot Smelter, marking a significant milestone in the cleanup of Butte’s upper Silver Bow Creek corridor .
Since the state’s Natural Resource Damage Program began the project in June 2018, a total of 4 million cubic yards (1.9 million cubic yards) of soil has been removed from the expansive site north of the Civic Center, where the smelter dumped its waste in the late 1800s.
Of that, about half a million cubic meters of waste – both black slag and tailings containing lead, arsenic, copper, zinc and cadmium – were removed from the site. About 100,000 cubic yards of the slag, which is less hazardous to groundwater than the tailings, was used as the base for a four-foot-thick cap near the elevated railway abutment at the site. The tailings have all been shipped to a repository at Montana Resources for processing.
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“We’ve been pushing to make the end of the calendar year, and obviously we made it,” said Project Manager Jim Ford. “We still have a lot of work to do, but it feels so good to have this done.”
For more than a century, the Parrot waste contaminated the groundwater flowing through it. After this was known, it remained unclear for many years whether the waste would ever be removed.
In 2006, the EPA, along with Atlantic Richfield, decided that the waste would remain in place and the creek’s water would simply be permanently treated to remove the toxins that were leaching from the tailings.
But the state firmly disagreed, claiming that the rubbish had to come out in order for the corridor to have a chance of really being cleaned.
The issue was a major bone of contention for more than a decade, stalling negotiations for Butte Priority Soils’ Consent Decree. Finally, in October 2015, Gov. Steve Bullock announced to The Montana Standard that the state would take the issue out of the hands of the Superfund and act unilaterally to eliminate the waste.
On June 21, 2018, Bullock removed the first shovel of dirt from the site with the words “It’s about damn time.”
On Wednesday, arriving in London to fly to Edinburgh to visit his daughter who is studying there, Bullock expressed great satisfaction at the milestone.
“I remember all too well those who wanted to keep Parrot residue in the ground and the frustrations of the community of Butte at the long and unnecessary delays in clearing the debris from the water,” Bullock said. “One of the easiest decisions I made as governor was to stop hand-wringing and get to work.
“I am very pleased that Butte can now begin the next chapter of redevelopment and economic growth at the site, and I know that we have done the right thing by future generations.”
Even before NRDP project manager Ford, his crew and contractors have to fill the hole and bring back the clean spoil; restore utilities; rebuild Civic Center Drive; and green up the capped areas where the litter could not be removed. The “evaporative transpiration covers” actually become usable recreational areas after full greening. Ford said he installed similar caps in East Helena with the metallurgical waste disposal project there, “and they have trails there now.”
Because of the depth of the caps, they can be planted with “woody species” as well as grasses, Ford said. The Natural Resource Damage Program is working with Montana Tech professor Robert Pal, an expert on native plant species, to conduct the replanting work said Ford.
“I can’t wait to see them,” Ford said. “It’s going to take a couple of (growing) seasons. We’re hoping to raise the bar for BP, EPA and others to show how covers like this do.” can look like.”
As for the tailings, Ford said they all ended up in the Pittsmont or “lunchroom” depot at Montana Resources.
Aside from reclamation, Ford expects the remainder of the work at the site to be completed by July 2023.
A promising and unexpected benefit resulted from the project.
In the first phase, the NRDP, in cooperation with Montana Resources, set up a temporary system to pump contaminated groundwater from the site to the mine where it was mixed with contaminated water from the Berkeley pit to be treated at the mine and at the mine “Polish Plant” built by Atlantic Richfield.
Because this temporary system has above-ground lines, it could only operate part of the year, but pumped many millions of gallons of water from the site.
Now NRDP is working with Atlantic Richfield on a permanent version of the groundwater pumping system that could reduce the pollution that Atlantic Richfield is committed to clean up downstream.
“Atlantic Richfield was open to the idea,” Ford said, and negotiations are ongoing.
Although this work is not included in the consent order, it could reduce Atlantic Richfield’s cost and effort required to comply with the terms of the order.
Butte-Silver Bow Chief Executive JP Gallagher said on Wednesday: “As the last of the contaminated debris is removed from the Parrot Tailings project, it is time to celebrate a successful cleanup but also reminds us to cheer up to focus everything The other projects are progressing We still have many miles to go that will require the collaboration of many different agencies.
“The parrot is just one chapter in the novel that needs to be written about our purge,” Gallagher added. “The Butte-Silver Bow government will be the driving force to ensure we receive the cleansing we deserve in our community.”
When the excavation was complete, Ford’s thoughts were also with the community.
“With the EPA and BP (Atlantic Richfield) struggling to get the consent decree cleanup going, it feels good to get this done,” Ford said. “These projects are finally doable. When everyone in the community works together, much can be accomplished. We’re not sending a man to the moon, we’re digging up contaminated dirt.”
Ford added, “I’m happy for the community. Butte has come a long way in Superfund and as a community, it deserves to get the job done.”