Tuesday night the Environmental Protection Agency organized what it called a “public availability session and workshop” in Butte to give locals a different kind of opportunity to learn about the proposed Superfund cleanup that was unveiled last month.
The top floor of the Butte-Silver Bow Public Archives was buzzing after hours with about 20 folks like Suzanne Stefanac. Members of the public who are really interested in Superfund.
“As a Butte native, I really care about how this all settles out, Stefanac said, "and I think it’s great that so many people do care in town, and the various entities that are involved are responsive. They put together an event like this - where you can actually come in as a regular citizen.”
While 20 community members might not sound like a lot, there were about three times that number of people filling the room. That’s because EPA, as well as the state Department of Environmental Quality, Atlantic Richfield Company, and Butte-Silver Bow County brought several representatives each. Those are the parties responsible for this large chunk of Butte’s Superfund cleanup called the Butte Priority Soils Operable Unit.
Stefanac said she didn’t come with any specific agenda, she just wanted to catch up on the Superfund news, and compare and contrast answers from experts and decision-makers.
And this was a prime opportunity to do just that, Stefanac met Nikia Greene, the local EPA project manager, face to face for the first time.
This open house style event was a departure from the kinds of big formal public meetings the agency has hosted in Butte in recent months to update the public on the progress of the conceptual cleanup plan.
Instead of a presentation in an auditorium, staff and technical experts were stationed around the room, armed with sharpies, blown up maps, diagrams, and ready to field questions.
Daniel Hogan is the host of a program called Superfund 101 on KBMF, Butte’s community radio station. He said he’s been to all the other meetings, and he prefers this format.
“This to me is better than a big Powerpoint presentation," Hogan said. "It’s nice that you come here and say, 'if you lived next to one of these places, that’s my house, what’s going to happen to right there?' I really like that.”
Agency representatives were also prepared to dive deep into the details of the proposed plan.
Daryl Reed, the state project officer with DEQ, talked with local Rayelynn Brandl about the planned cleanup and restoration of Blacktail Creek, and what that area will look like when the cleanup is finished.
Dave Palmer, the Chief Executive of Butte-Silver Bow County said that kind of open exchange was the point of this event, to gather community input, and to move past the veil of secrecy that has shrouded Butte’s cleanup for more than a decade and contributed to a culture of mistrust.
“I may have not always agreed with the privacy and the secrecy of the meetings," Palmer said, "but people can see by looking at all the information that’s out there now that there was nothing underhanded, no back door deals being made."
The workshop was also a chance for members of the community to try to get their questions and concerns met head on.
Mary Kay Craig, with the Restore Our Creek Coalition, wanted to know how the cleanup plan could accommodate the Coalition’s vision of a free flowing Upper Silver Bow Creek.
“While [EPA Regional Administrator] Doug Benevento said the design does not preclude a creek, it does not include the creek. So how do we include the creek?" Craig asked.
"We not the remove the tailings coalition- we’re the Restore the Creek coalition. And we’re trying to get the creek back into the design," she said.
Craig said she could see some obstacles, but was hopeful the agencies and Atlantic Richfield would be open to some crowdsourced creative solutions.
Julia Crain, the special projects planner with the county, noted that the crowd mostly contained a lot of familiar faces, or usual suspects.
She said she hopes to be able to reach more Butte residents with these kinds of non-traditional outreach events in the future. And she encouraged the public to come early and often.
“The more you come and share your position, the more easily we can understand it and can integrate those comments and try to be responsive to those ideas in the overall design of projects," Crain said.
Crain said that all the comments and questions that the public offered at this public availability session were being captured, and will be shared with the other responsible parties as they continue to refine the cleanup plan.
The EPA says they are planning more public education and involvement events this summer, and that there will be a formal public comment period. No dates have been set yet.