Orphan Girl mine dump

The Orphan Girl mine dump behind Montana Tech is part of West Side Soils, where the Environmental Protection Agency hasn't begun to investigate the environmental damage. 

Susan Dunlap, The Montana Standard

Montanans know all about frustration with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. From Butte to Libby to Missoula, some communities in the state have logged decades of experience dealing with – and waiting on – the EPA to move forward with Superfund cleanup.

Superfund sites are supposed to be a public health priority for the agency, but that doesn’t mean cleanup is necessarily quick or easy. The EPA must often coordinate with dozens of other local, state and federal stakeholders, identify responsible parties across complex histories of private ownership, and separate the sometimes muddled layers of cleanup options.

It also must ensure reliable scientific testing is conducted before, during and after the entire process, while maintaining open communication with the local community and public transparency throughout. That’s a tall order – one that requires a great deal of public resources to fill. And unfortunately, any Montanan who lives within spitting distance of a Superfund site can tell you that the EPA has a long history of filling it agonizingly slowly.

Yet the EPA under new administrator Scott Pruitt is currently making plans to grind through its duties even more slowly. Its current proposal would reduce its $8 billion budget by about one-third – including a 30 percent reduction to the Superfund program. No one in his right mind can argue that losing nearly $327 million will make the program more efficient.

Then, just last week, the New York Times reported that the EPA is also considering cutting off more than $20 million in funding for the Environment and Natural Resources Division of the Justice Department. This is the division that sues polluters on behalf of the Superfund program to force them to pay for cleanup.

If Montanans thought it was difficult to get the EPA to clean up Superfund sites in a thorough, timely manner before, it will be even more difficult if the agency has less money to oversee cleanup and no way to collect money from the companies responsible for contaminating the sites in the first place.

Worse still: On the national list of priority sites, the unfortunate reality is that smaller, more rural communities usually fall to the bottom. That’s why it’s important for Montana communities to band together, to amplify the volume of voices calling for urgent action on long-languishing Superfund sites in our state. And for Montana’s elected officials to unite across party lines to push for sufficient funding to get the work done.

While Missoula County residents certainly have our own Superfund sites to worry about, right now we should also be lending our support to our upstream neighbors in Anaconda and Butte. Consider that the Milltown Dam was added to the National Priorities List in 1983 – the same year as the Silver Bow Creek Superfund site. Now, 34 years later, Missoula residents are enjoying a restored confluence and new state park – while Butte residents still don’t even know if they are being contaminated by heavy metals from hundreds of long-abandoned mines.

Last week, an internal report produced by the EPA’s Office of the Inspector General pointed to the various results of agency understaffing, including the possibility that an area in Butte called West Side Soils could contain “potential health threats” such as “direct contact with and ingestion of contaminated soil, surface water and groundwater and inhaling contaminated soil.” The EPA isn’t quite sure what the risk is, because it does not have the data it needs to make an assessment. And it doesn’t have the data because the agency’s Region 8 lacks enough staff to handle the workload. This the region that covers six states, including Montana, as well as 27 tribal reservations.

As it stands, the West Side Soils area has no project manager, and the EPA has not yet identified the party responsible for it. With no firm timeline or even defined boundaries, this site has yet to take even the first steps in what will doubtless be a very long process.

It’s not for lack of attention on the state’s part. The Montana Department of Environmental Quality has requested more than once that the EPA launch the Superfund process, arguing that an evaluation of the human health risks is clearly warranted despite the agency’s limited resources.

But individual states – and even individual neighborhoods – should not have to compete with others for basic information on the environmental health risks they may be living with. Assessments of this nature should be enough of a priority to warrant the EPA’s attention.

Montana is home to 17 known Superfund sites. All of Montana must band together to urge our delegates in the U.S. House and Senate to push for greater transparency and accountability from the EPA. That means first making sure the agency has the budget it needs to do its job effectively – and then following up to make sure it is doing it.

As budget discussions begin in Congress this month, Montana’s U.S. Sens. Jon Tester and Steve Daines, and U.S. Rep. Greg Gianforte, must not allow the proposed cuts to the EPA to take place, and must fight together to keep funding for the Superfund program intact.

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