The Montana Environmental Protection Agency’s director, Julie DalSoglio, sought in her recent (May 22) opinion piece to allay residents’ fears along the Clark Fork River system that the Berkeley Pit presents an imminent threat to Butte and the Clark Fork River system. DalSoglio essentially tells residents, don’t worry; the EPA is on top of things and has a sound, protective plan for the Berkeley Pit. In discussing the EPA’s pit plan, we need to remember that if the Berkeley Pit remedy were to fail, Butte would be severely ravaged and the Clark Fork River system would be devastated.
DalSoglio’s opinion piece ignores or glosses over several significant pit remedy problems.
First, the remedy calls for only a meager 60-foot (1 percent) margin of error. This is not much when you look at the depth of the water in the Pit. This is not much if you consider the devastation that will occur if the EPA gets it wrong. Why don’t we start pumping now? Is it because EPA wants to save British Petroleum money? Far too many of the remedies in the Butte area are driven by cost, not protecting the public’s health and the environment.
Second, there have been significant landslides in the Pit that have caused the water level to rise. We live on top of an active earthquake area. With such a small margin of error for the pit’s water, should Butte residents feel secure? Should people living below the pit feel safe? Is the Clark Fork protected? What if a landslide compromises much of the buffer?
Third, the EPA has failed to consider the problem of carbonate scaling. Vast amounts of lime are being used and will be used to treat the pit’s water for eventual discharge into Silver Bow Creek. This discharged water will be high in lime, which can cause carbonate scaling in Silver Bow Creek. As an analogy, think of the white scum that forms on the bottom of a teapot. Do we want a large section of Silver Bow creek coated with a white scum deposit? Scaling can wreck the cleanup of Silver Bow Creek. The EPA says that if this is a problem we will deal with it in the future. The EPA has called the expression of concerns about scaling alarmist. But after scaling occurs it will be too late.
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Fourth, the EPA, in saying that the pit plan is a good plan, relies on models and estimates. Do we want Butte’s future and the future of the Clark Fork River to depend on models and estimates that can be wrong? The EPA’s models have been wrong in the past. For example, the model that EPA used in assessing the environmental impact of the Parrott tailings on Butte water has been totally discredited.
Finally, I don’t like the EPA’s characterization of arguments against their pit plan as hyperbole and misinformation. The issues I have raised are serious, and many scientists and engineers share them. The EPA’s dismissive and condescending attitude is not conducive to public debate and discussion about the pit remedy. The EPA often publicly laments the lack of public participation in Superfund decision-making, but then turns around and castigates public comment if it doesn’t agree with the EPA’s position.
If the pit plan fails, the entire cleanup of Silver Bow Creek and the Clark Fork River system will be destroyed. The risk is too great to tolerate the EPA’s wait-and-see attitude. It is time for the EPA to take a second and third look at the pit remedy. It is time for the EPA to start treating the pit water. There is an old English proverb that says: It is folly to bolt the door with a boiled carrot. Is the EPA using a “boiled carrot” approach to dealing with the threat of the Berkeley Pit?
Dr. John W. Ray of Butte is a political science and public policy professor at Montana Tech, and is currently president of the Citizen’s Technical Environmental Committee, which is the EPA-funded Technical Assistance Grant group in Butte. Ray has served on the board of the Clark Fork Coalition and the Montana Environmental Information Center. The views expressed in this opinion are his own and do not necessarily represent the views of any of the groups or institutions listed.