Clark Fork Perspectives: Silver Bow Creek Cleanup Jeopardized

The following commentary is from CFRTAC volunteer Pat Munday, one of the organizers of the Rally Round the Creek educational forum held in Butte in April. That event was spurred by concerns that stormwater runoff in Butte through old mine wastes is re-contaminating downstream work that's been completed at Silver Bow Creek.

Rust never sleeps: that is an important lesson that citizens who care about the environment have learned about Superfund cleanup and restoration.

The state of Montana, which has the lead role on the Silver Bow Creek Superfund site, has done a fantastic job of cleaning up and restoring the corridor. Just a few years ago, it was a lifeless and blighted place-toxic to fish, plants, and people. Today, the area downstream of Butte is an inviting place. The Greenway public trail will officially open soon. A few trout have been showing up in the creek, too, and rumors are that some intrepid angler caught a trophy.

We cannot, however, take the restored Silver Bow Creek for granted. The three million dollar per mile project is threatened by contaminated run-off from the Butte Hill. The origins of Silver Bow Creek are buried in toxic mine waste, resulting in polluted groundwater that - given the current remedy - will need to be treated forever. Though most of this groundwater is captured and effectively treated before being discharged, surface water pollution still finds its way to the creek.

Although the Record of Decision for the "Butte Priority Soils Operable Unit" remedy was signed more than two years ago, it is stalled in the so-called Consent Decree process. In the Consent Decree, the parties - Arco-BP, EPA, and Montana - must come to an agreement about how the remedy will be implemented. The Record of Decision was vague, and could allow a whole series of trial-and-error strategies that might take twenty years to stop polluting Silver Bow Creek.

There are some simple solutions that are likely to be effective-such as capturing polluted runoff in a settling and treatment basin. Perhaps such simple solutions should be tried sooner rather than later if that is what it takes to protect the creek. Remember, we have spent $63 million dollars thus far on cleaning up the creek and its floodplain. Let's protect that investment.

Silver Bow Creek's recovery has begun, as evidenced by trout and other fishes found in recent surveys. We know that one day our stream can be returned to a self-sustaining wild trout fishery and a wonderful place for Butte families and visitors to recreate.

But environmental restoration does not just happen. Unless the remedies for Butte and the creek that runs through it are coordinated, things could get worse. Agencies such as Montana's Department of Environmental Quality want to do the right thing, but it's always easier for government to do the right thing when people actively support that choice.

It's your creek. Wade in, and help make a difference.

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