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Public Involvement Network News

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“Rally 'Round the Creek”  A Celebration of the Past, in the Present and for the Future

By Wendy Thomi
Community Involvement Coordinator, Region 8

Montana citizens from Butte to Missoula and areas in between along the 150 river miles of Silver Bow Creek and the Clark Fork River came together on April 7 to celebrate the work that has been done on the largest Superfund area in the nation.  In particular, event planners wanted to focus on the participants’ love of the river- a meandering thread that connects them- and encourage them to get involved and stay involved on cleanup issues.

The expansive Superfund area consists of a complex system of four sites, both geographically and historically linked starting with the Silver Bow Creek/Butte Area site.  The “Creek” originates in Butte, flowing through this proud city that was once touted as “the richest hill on earth.” Butte soils and ground water were contaminated as a result of heavy metals exposed by waste rock and mill tailings from more than a hundred years of mining. 

The Montana Pole and Treating Plant in the southwest corner of Butte released organic compounds and creosote from wood treating operations onto the soil, into the ground water and into Silver Bow Creek. Wood for construction of thousands of miles of mine tunnels, railroads, the development of the city and other things, was treated here.  Flowing northwest toward Missoula, the Creek continues past the communities of Rocker, Opportunity, Anaconda, Deer Lodge, and Drummond becoming the Clark Fork River and merging with the Blackfoot River at Missoula, unimpeded by the Milltown Dam since 2008. 

The largest smelter stack from this booming era still looms to the northwest, in Anaconda, near the river, and is part of the Anaconda Smelter Co. site.  The 300 square mile site contained millions of cubic yards of smelter tailings, furnace slag and flue dust.  Heavy metal contamination generated by exposed waste rock and by-products from both Buttes’ mining and smelting and Anaconda’s smelting operations was dumped or washed into the river and deposited along the banks of the Clark Fork River or dispersed by flooding to the floodplain.
Contaminants were transported down the 120 mile Clark Fork River stretch (a separate Operable Unit) between Warm Springs and Missoula to the Milltown Reservoir Sediments site. The Reservoir was the result of the dam built to harness hydroelectric power to serve the mines and smelters. It served as a settling area for metals which over time seeped into surrounding groundwater that once served as a water supply source for Milltown.
The four distinct sites were listed on EPA’s National Priorities List in the 1980s as some of the nation’s first Superfund sites.  Investigations and cleanup have progressed steadily since that time.  Many dedicated community members have been involved in the process for years.  EPA has completed emergency responses and long term clean up actions as part of the Silver Bow Creek/Butte Area site.  Having measurably reduced risk, the focus is now on finishing the cleanup of the rest of the Butte Priority Soils Operating Unit through the long-term remedial response actions, prescribed in the Record of Decision.  EPA, the Montana Department of Environmental Quality and the Potentially Responsible Parties are currently negotiating over the implementation of final cleanup actions for the site.
Focus of the Rally
The Community’s well-organized rally focused on the $63 million Silver Bow Creek portion of the cleanup, emphasizing the improvement over the polluted, sterile stream it once was.  The event aimed to educate the public about progress that's been made thus far in the cleanup of the Silver Bow Creek/Butte Area Superfund site.  The event included hands-on activities for kids, including local cub scout troops, talks from technical advisors from upstream and downstream Technical Assistance Grant (TAG) groups and more.
                     Rally Round The Creek Celebration

The technical advisors from the Citizens’ Technical Advisory Committee in Butte (The Rally’s principle planners) cautioned that with each storm comes more contaminated runoff from the Butte Hill.  They urged a quick completion of stormwater controls, sedimentation basins, and other methods of controlling runoff to Silver Bow Creek. An advisor for the downstream Clark Fork River Technical Assistance Committee out of Missoula, said the ultimate goal is a healthy fishery for the entire watershed, from Butte to Missoula.  He also emphasized the need to prevent recontamination of the portion of the Creek that has already been cleaned up.  

Only a few stretches of Silver Bow Creek downstream from Butte still need cleanup, work that's scheduled to be done by 2012.  Citizens who have become involved in the effort, however, don't want to rest. They stressed that pressure needs to be kept on federal and state officials to finish the job upstream.  Everyone acknowledges that the necessary steps toward cleanup are underway, but time is of the essence.

It has taken more than ten years to remove most of 22 miles of streambed between Butte and Warm Springs and replace it with cleaner soils. Grasses, forbs and streamside shrubs have been planted, and in much of the creek, the sure signs of a healthy waterway — aquatic insects — have come back.  

"There's never really been a restoration project like it in terms of scale," said Justin Ringsak, director of the Clark Fork Watershed Education Program. "They're totally rebuilding the floodplain from scratch." Ringsak was among a group of citizen volunteers, scientists and government officials who attended "Rally ‘Round the Creek" at the Butte Chamber of Commerce.  

Community groups and individuals contributing to this event planned it to appeal to all the senses.  A local musician was playing guitar and singing outside the display area where people gathered to look at aquatic displays and dip their hands.  Cub scouts were doing charcoal drawings.  “The charcoal, appropriately enough, was made from willows gathered from along the creek,” a community member observed. There was food, drink and a lot of good company.   Neighbors talked. People who hadn’t seen each other in a long time came together around the river.  The communities did a great job coordinating the event and were rewarded with a great turnout on a magnificent sunny Montana spring day.


              Rally Round The Creek Celebration


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