DEQ, after decades of work, taking heat now over Montana Pole cleanupSource: Montana Standard
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The year was 1996. The federal government issued a news release announcing a settlement of more than $30 million over Butte’s Montana Pole Plant site and said, in celebratory language, that the site would be returned to Butte as “usable commercial property” and would be safe for workers, nearby residents, and Silver Bow Creek.
But 21 years later, Butte is getting a different message from the Department of Environmental Quality, the agency in charge of the cleanup. At a September meeting and in August interviews with The Montana Standard, the state mostly talked about the site’s potential as a park or open space — not an industrial site — and about the fact that one of the contaminants, dioxin, has not been effectively cleaned.
There’s also a money problem.
DEQ says it will run out of money before the projected 50 years it will take to remove all the petroleum-based pollutants out of the groundwater. The agency says the settlement money it has left in the bank for the cleanup — approximately $29 million — will only get them through the next 30 years.
And then there’s the water treatment plant, which is not producing water that can meet all water quality standards. (See information box.)
DEQ has plans for all of these problems. Project manager David Bowers said in recent interviews with the Standard that it’s still possible that the site can become mixed-use, which would allow for industry to use the land. DEQ is also looking at upgrades to the water plant to both save money and bring water quality up to state standards.
The agency says that after years of unsuccessful treatment, the dioxin will go underneath what the agencies call “an engineered cap.” DEQ had always planned for a cap to go on the site. Now it’ll just have more layers and be more protective.
And the “dirty dirt” was always supposed to be buried underneath the cap.
But the list of issues swirling around the site have irked many and raised eyebrows over what DEQ has been doing out there on South Montana Street for the last 21 years.
And the future of the Montana Pole Plant now appears uncertain. A neighbor to the site, Todd Hoar, wonders if, due to all the issues, the 40 acres will become permanently fenced off and if that, in turn, will affect property values in his neighborhood.
County Commissioner Jim Fisher, who grew up near the site and has family members who still live near it, said he is “disappointed” in DEQ’s cleanup.
“I think it’s a knock in the face to everybody,” Fisher said.
What’s going on?
Todd Hoar is one of the many critics of DEQ’s cleanup at the former wood treatment plant.
Hoar can’t remember exactly when he stopped trusting DEQ in its two-decade-long cleanup at the edge of the Boulevard neighborhood where he lives. But he says it dates back to when he attended meetings on the Montana Pole Plant where people at the meetings asked questions and he felt the answers were “not coming back.”
Hoar says it was the era, approximately 15 years ago, when DEQ’s work on the site created dust and an odor he couldn’t recognize. Neighbors were upset, and DEQ held meetings to discuss it.
Sitting in his home one recent evening with his dogs, describing the talk at one of those long-ago meetings, Hoar said residents were asking about the unfamiliar smell.
“They really couldn’t answer that,” he said.
The residents who live around those 40 acres had reason to worry. Contaminants at Montana Pole, wedged between Silver Bow Creek and Mt. Moriah Cemetery, are carcinogenic petroleum byproducts, which include PCP and dioxin.
But DEQ listened. They planted trees. They let the weeds grow. They brought in an irrigation system to keep the soil moist.
To ease the neighbors’ minds, DEQ cut back on tilling the soil — from once a week to once a month to once or twice a year, DEQ project manager Lisa DeWitt said earlier this month. Tilling encouraged the naturally occurring microbes to eat away at the contamination.
They monitored the air. DeWitt said DEQ “never found anything conclusive from Pole” in the air.
That was years ago.
But when Todd Hoar walked into the crowded meeting in the Silver-Bow Fire Training building on Josette Avenue last month, it felt like déjà vu to him. As he watched, he felt the DEQ official dodged questions, and he left feeling confused. Hoar learned at the meeting that while the PCP and other contaminants responded to treatment, the dioxin didn’t.
“It’s a colossal waste of money without results,” Hoar said.
Todd Hoar isn’t the only one disappointed and surprised by DEQ’s recent public meetings. Butte-Silver Bow County wrote a letter to DEQ earlier this month. The letter expresses, among other things, a demand that county staff be included in DEQ’s “future design and decision-making meetings.”
Butte-Silver Bow Superfund coordinator Jon Sesso drafted the letter. But Sesso said “it’s not about trust.” DEQ “is trying,” he said.
“It’s about the fact that we believe they’re not really considering the input we’ve been giving,” Sesso said.
‘There are a lot of questions’
Even after a 20-plus-year cleanup and presence in Butte, Sesso said, “there are a lot of questions” for DEQ.
One of the first is money.
The state’s overall budget for the entire site is roughly $900,000 per year.
Of that $900,000, the treatment plant costs approximately $500,000 a year to run. (See information box.)
That leaves an estimated $400,000 DEQ says it needs annually to oversee the site. That money has gone toward an array of work, such as removal of contaminated material in 2012. DEQ projects it will continue to need the $400,000 to oversee the site in the future, but that figure may decrease over time, DEQ public relations specialist Karen Ogden said via email.
When the legal documents establishing the cleanup and the costs were signed in the 1990s, it was estimated that the cleanup would cost anywhere from $27.5 million to $55.2 million and take 11 years.
DeWitt called that an “optimistic number based on the information they had at that time.”
DEQ got around $35 million thanks to the settlement with the responsible parties. DEQ became the agency in charge at that stage, while EPA stepped back to play side fiddle as the support agency.
DEQ invested the money and has, more than 20 years later, around $29 million still in the bank.
Because of hazardous contaminants located underneath the Interstate 90-15 bridge, DEQ expects the water treatment plant will have to run for another 50 years.
To revisit the cleanup costs, a “round robin” process would have to go into effect. There is a clause for that in the legal documents, but DEQ and EPA would have to bear the first $6 million in cost overruns before the responsible parties — which include the railroads, Atlantic Richfield Company and Montana Resources Inc. — would have to pony up. Of that $6 million, DEQ’s portion would be about $600,000, Ogden said by email.
The dioxin problem
DEQ says the agency never made it a secret that dioxin was not breaking down and responding to the planned treatment.
That’s true, says Citizens Technical Environmental Committee consultant Ian McGruder. CTEC receives grants from the agencies to pay a few staff to help the volunteer organization translate the technical language of Superfund for the public. McGruder has been involved with the group as a consultant since the mid 2000s.
“The information was out there, but it wasn’t easy to find,” McGruder said.
McGruder says DEQ is taking heat right now because the agency “sugar coated” the information about dioxin in the past. Now, McGruder says, DEQ isn’t sugar coating anything.
“DEQ is being honest and straightforward and transparent. It’s a more difficult conversation. What they did in the past, they acknowledged the dioxin problem deep in the report, but the first paragraph says everything will be hunky dory when it’s done,” McGruder said.
Butte Silver Bow Superfund Coordinator Jon Sesso said he never saw the information.
“All I know is, show me in which five-year (technical) review DEQ concluded it would not meet the standard, because why not stop then and bury it sooner?” Sesso asked.
Why not stop and bury sooner?
DEQ says the agency knew before the technical reviews started coming out in 2001 that dioxin wouldn’t likely break down in the soil. Because of a government report published in 1995 — before the treatment process began — DEQ knew that dioxin would not likely respond to the naturally occurring microbes breaking down the hazardous pollution in the dirt.
But DEQ said via email that the plan to “clean” the soil using microbes and let the bacteria eat away at the waste “was the best available approach for dioxin-contaminated soil at wood treatment facilities.”
“This approach was commonly used for cleanup of wood treatment facilities around the country,” DEQ said via email.
That’s also true, because only about 85 miles away lies a very similar site: Idaho Pole Plant, along the northern edge of Bozeman. While considerably smaller with considerably less toxins left in the soil, Idaho Pole was a former wood treatment plant with the same contaminants — PCP, dioxins, and other petroleum-based byproducts.
The same soil treatment implemented at Montana Pole Plant was also used at Idaho Pole Plant. But at the Bozeman site, the soil treatment ended in 2002.
The dioxin there also didn’t respond to treatment. So EPA buried the dioxin on a portion of the site and placed what the agencies refer to as “an engineered cap,” over it.
Which is exactly what DEQ plans to do now with Montana Pole Plant 15 years later.
DEQ says ‘it’s complex’
It is complex. When EPA arrived in the 1980s, the place was so dirty from the oil used to treat wood poles, the federal agency had to take emergency action. There was oil in the soil; oil had seeped into the groundwater; the operators had dug a trench that allowed oil to run directly into Silver Bow Creek.
And it wasn’t just regular oil. It was a mixture that contained five percent PCP added into the blend.
Hoar’s grandfather lived in Williamsburg, a neighborhood that overlooks the interstate and the pole plant site. He remembers it in the years before the plant shut down.
“It was bad stuff. It was all over the place. I can only imagine how much of that seeped down in the ground,” he said.
DEQ says the Idaho Pole process “went faster because of the relative scale of the project.” In addition, DEQ waited on the Montana Pole site to see the results of a study EPA conducted on dioxin. That study wasn’t concluded until 2012.
But it still took DEQ five years to arrive where it is now on planning to make changes to the cleanup plan and make final plans to bury the dioxin-laden dirt.
And the future?
There does appear to be good news.
Bowers believes, based on preliminary information, that there will likely be places at the 40-acre site which the county will be able to turn over to industry. If that proves true, then the engineered cap could become, for instance, a parking lot for an industrial company.
The other piece of good news is that the PCP, which was the worst of the hazardous waste and the most prevalent, did respond to the treatment, as did the other contaminants. DEQ excavated 200,000 cubic yards of the worst of the worst and treated it on site. The microbes ate away over 266,000 pounds of PCP. The dioxin is not nearly the problem PCP is, nor nearly as hazardous.
Bowers also says that the soon-to-be-released report will show whether there are still “hot spots” of contamination at the site. If there are, DEQ will address those.
Bowers points out that having an engineered cap over toxic waste is nothing new. Butte has one such site already — the Copper Mountain ball field, which is an engineered cap over an old dump site.
As for Todd Hoar, who lives a stone’s throw from the site, he’d like to see a walking trail go in that would connect his neighborhood to the Greenway Service District trail that begins at Whiskey Gulch Station on Santa Claus Road. He also wants to know that if the county or state does leave it as a place to recreate in, he can send his grandkids there and they will be safe to play.
But the question still lingers.
“Will it be nice?” he asked.