Judge keeps Superfund cleanup talks in Montana secret

Matt Volz
Associated Press

Helena, Mont. — A federal judge in Montana has decided not to make public the long-running secret negotiations on the cleanup of the nation’s largest Superfund site between the U.S. government and the company responsible for the mining waste.

U.S. District Judge Sam Haddon on Wednesday denied a request by The Montana Standard and Silver Bow Creek Headwaters Coalition to intervene in the case between the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Atlantic Richfield Co.

The case has lasted 27 years after the government sued Arco in 1989 over the cleanup of a century’s worth of mine waste from the soil and water of copper-rich Butte Hill.

The case comprises just one part of the nation’s largest Superfund site that also includes Berkeley Pit, a former open pit mine filled with toxic, acidic water where thousands of geese recently died after landing during a snowstorm.

Haddon, who made the settlement talks confidential with orders in 2002 and 2003, said in Wednesday’s ruling that the request from the newspaper and advocacy group came 13 years too late. The public will be able to read and comment on the final settlement once it is reached, the judge said.

“It will have ample opportunity to be publicly heard,” Haddon wrote in the order.

Montana Standard editor David McCumber did not immediately return a call for comment Thursday.

In a story published on the newspaper’s website, McCumber said the losers in the case are the people of Butte. He was unsure whether The Montana Standard will appeal.

An attorney for the newspaper argued last month that nothing is more important to the citizens of Butte than the environmental cleanup. They once had faith that the EPA would do right by them, but they have lost that faith as negotiations dragged on, attorney James Goetz said.

Attorneys for the government and Arco argued that complex environmental cleanup negotiations are typically conducted out of the public eye. They said other units of the Butte Superfund cleanup site have been the subject of settlements.

Making the Butte Hill talks public now, and releasing 13 years’ worth of documents that already have been exchanged on the settlement, would likely cause the collapse of the negotiations, Arco attorney Kyle Gray and Justice Department attorney Jim Freeman said.

Haddon agreed, ruling that The Montana Standard’s request was untimely and would prejudice the parties involved in the talks. The newspaper knew about and reported on the original confidentiality orders but did nothing to challenge them then, the judge wrote.

Haddon also rejected claims that the EPA was not protecting the interest of Butte’s residents.

“Nothing before the court supports the conclusion that the United States has betrayed the public’s interest in environmental remediation,” Haddon wrote.

Longtime Butte environmental advocate Fritz Daily called it ironic that Haddon’s order to keep the cleanup talks secret came the same day as news spread of the snow goose deaths at Berkeley Pit.

“The EPA has totally failed the community of Butte for the past 30 years in not providing the quality cleanup and restoration the community deserves and they once again have failed the community of Butte by hiding behind the cloak of confidentiality,” Daily said.