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BUTTE — The number 5,410 has special meaning to Butte.

It’s the critical water level – 5,410 feet above sea level – of the Berkeley Pit. The water in the pit must be kept below that elevation or risk contaminating Silver Bow Creek.

At the rate the pit’s water is rising, scientists predict the level will reach the critical mark in 2023.

Four years before that, in 2019, Montana Resources and Atlantic Richfield Co. must begin preparing to treat the water, which will be discharged into Silver Bow Creek at a rate of 7 million gallons a day.

That day is less than five years away.

Community members are beginning to ask: Should we really wait that long?

“The pit is a giant bathtub,” said Nikia Greene, Environmental Protection Agency project manager for mine flooding and Rocker operable units. “There’s a hydraulic gradient into the pit. We will never let the water reach the critical level.”

Despite assurances from EPA and Montana Resources that the Horseshoe Bend Water Treatment Plant is up to the task, locals have their doubts.

For one thing, the treatment plant has completed only two 72-hour tests of its capabilities in the 11 years it has been operating.

“It has been tested at less than one tenth of one percent of the time it’s been open,” said John McKee, of the Butte Natural Resource Damage Restoration Program who toured the Berkeley Pit in mid-October with Butte-Silver Bow County commissioners. “It’s never been run at a level and for a period of time that suggests it’s going to work.”

He said when he worked in building refineries, his company would do a substantial completion test to make sure it ran the way his company said it would. He likens the two 72-hour tests as an extremely abbreviated substantial completion test.

“There is no client I’ve ever built a refinery for who would have signed off on one tenth of one percent and (EPA is) asking our community to sign off on that. MR is not the culprit here. They’re the drivers of the system EPA said would work.

“But they’re cutting it too damn close. If this thing breaks loose it goes all the way to the Columbia River.”

The water treatment plant could not discharge water into Silver Bow Creek tomorrow in the case of a catastrophic event, like an earthquake, because lines into the pit to pull water to the plant are not connected. Half of the plant is down for maintenance, a process that takes about six weeks per side.

And the process the plant uses to treat water – adding lime to raise the pH of the acidic water and using polymers to pull metals into a sludge to be put back into the pit – must be reevaluated before the plant comes online forever because a new technology may have been invented by then.

“It’s a good safety net to know we have a technology that can treat water for safety of health,” said Matt Vincent, Butte-Silver Bow chief executive. “But we shouldn’t give up the search for better technology.”

Companies have come forward in the past with technology that could supposedly treat the water in the Pit to drinking water standards and at the same time mine the metals out of the water. But none has demonstrated a capability to treat the water at the sheer volume required.

And not only does Horseshoe Bend have to treat 7 million gallons a day, it must do so forever.

“In perpetuity is hard to fathom,” said Chris Brick, science director of the Clark Fork Coalition, the group largely involved in the removal of the Milltown Dam in Missoula. “If BP went bankrupt, things could really go south. Are the taxpayers of the U.S. willing to take it on? Butte gave an awful lot to the nation when the nation needed copper for two world wars and electrification. Is the nation willing to clean up part of the mess that was made as a result?”

The Berkeley Pit is part of the Superfund mine flooding operable unit. Atlantic Richfield is required to send a letter of credit to EPA annually to prove it has $60 million set aside for operation of the water treatment plant. It costs $3 million to run the plant annually.

Should Atlantic Richfield’s parent company, BP, ever fail, EPA will take the $60 million – enough money at that amount for just 20 years of operating the treatment plant – and invest it to grow the amount.

With the BNRC set to put $33 million into Butte Area One for cleanup and restoration – an area EPA has said is clean enough – distrust of the agency continues to run deep.

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“The people who are responsible for making this right are the people working for us, the EPA,” McKee said. “If they’re unwilling to put effort into making it right, who is? This is the largest Superfund ever, running the longest time ever, in history of EPA and only one person from EPA actually lives in Butte. That’s telling.

“Once EPA has given up on us, we need to get a group of people to clean it up who care because obviously EPA doesn’t.”

But Greene disputes the claim that EPA is only creating a treatment plan that’s “good enough.”

“As the remedial project manager for the site, I’m going to make sure there’s a strong factor of safety,” he said. “I don’t want the plant designed for the max water balance that needs to be treated. I want the plant above and beyond that.”

Greene said EPA is always looking for and is open to new, innovative treatment technologies. He added that the agency is evaluating whether the Horseshoe Bend Water Treatment facility needs another one to two clarifiers and reactors to build redundancy into the system, and to account for down time for cleaning and maintenance of the system.

“We have to make decisions off of data and those decisions are for protectiveness,” he said. “None of the decisions are just ‘good enough.’ They’re protective. They’re protective of human health and the environment.”

But when it comes down to it, the reason Horseshoe Bend isn’t revved up at full capacity already is a money issue – why spend the money when it isn’t yet required?

“We’re probably the most educated community in the world on environmental remediation,” McKee said. “And here we are begging, just begging EPA to look at this better and in more detail and certainly well before (2019) hits. If you say you’ve run something for one tenth of one percent at full speed – you might want to give yourself a bigger buffer.”

McKee and others continue to question the treatment method and the timeline. They hope their efforts will force EPA’s hand into reacting sooner.

“Our future in this town is how this community accepts what clean means in this basin,” he said. “If you go to Love Canal right now, it’s a lot cleaner than what we’ve got. Why has this community accepted EPA’s not really clean solution?

“I grew up on a hill where I was playing in mine dumps. Those aren’t there anymore, but that’s lipstick on a pig compared to what we’ve got. If you ask community of Butte, America, to trust the EPA when (Horseshoe Bend has) been tested at one tenth of one percent, you’ve got to be kidding.”

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