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Butte-Anaconda Superfund Cleanup A 'Top Priority' New EPA Region Chief Says

EPA Region 8's Betsy Smidinger and Greg Sopkin met with community stakeholders at Archives on Tuesday,  June 11, 2019.
Nora Saks
EPA Region 8's Betsy Smidinger and Greg Sopkin met with community stakeholders at Archives on Tuesday, June 11, 2019.

The national office that audits the EPA is in Anaconda this week holding a listening session about the Superfund cleanup there.

Superfund is a priority for the EPA, according to the new chief of EPA Region 8. Montana Public Radio's Nora Saks sat down with him during his first visit to Butte last month to find out more about his priorities.

EPA Region 8's Betsy Smidinger and Greg Sopkin met with community stakeholders at Archives on Tuesday,  June 11, 2019.
Credit Nora Saks
EPA Region 8's Betsy Smidinger and Greg Sopkin met with community stakeholders at Archives on Tuesday, June 11, 2019.

Nora Saks: Greg Sopkin comes to his new role as regional administrator with experience as the former chairman of the Colorado Public Utilities Commission, and almost three decades as an attorney. He replaces Doug Benevento, who in April was promoted to a higher ranking senior position at the EPA.

Greg Sopkin: One of the first things he said to me was, "You're going to be spending a lot of time in Montana,” that both Butte and Anaconda are both very complicated Superfund sites — they're both decades long — and that the administration has made it a high priority to make sure that these consent decrees go into effect and get approved, and that the cleanup continue, and that we begin delisting in 2024 for Butte-Silver Bow Creek, and 2025 for Anaconda.

That is certainly at or near the top of my list and my priorities.

Saks: With your predecessor Doug Benvento, his sense of urgency to close Butte and Anaconda, as well as his, sort of, approachability and the trust folks built here with him, are seen in the community as critical factors to getting close, being on the verge of a consent decree after many years. How do you see your role in these communities, and in helping these cleanups along?

Sopkin: I think we need to continue to be accessible. I mean, the meetings such as this and being available, you know, by email, by phone, those things. I am going to continue doing that. And we have discussions at our offices in Denver on a daily or weekly basis to discuss issues that are happening in Montana.

Saks: So I'm hearing approachability and trust. What about the sense of urgency, is that something you're going to continue?

Sopkin: It is a high priority of this administration to continue the urgency with cleaning up these Superfund sites.

Saks: You know you're stepping into Doug Benevento's shoes. What are your priorities for Region 8 as a whole, and how are they similar or different to his?

Sopkin: I don't think they're going to be a lot different than Doug's, but in addition to Superfund cleanup we're really taking a hard look at drinking water. I also want to make sure that we are a responsive agency. And what that means is, we have certain systems in place to measure how quickly we are responding to our customers. And that would include people seeking permits. That includes enforcement activities. When we find violations, we need to follow through on that. But that's just two examples of a number of metrics we're looking at to be the most responsive agency we can. And we have already seen substantial improvements with those things.

Saks: Given cuts at EPA, do you have the staff and resources you need to achieve those priorities you just laid out?

Sopkin: Well, that's a question that I like to ask the program managers all the time, and usually the answer I hear is, "Yes, we have adequate staff, but we may have some vacancies coming soon because of the retirements." So we're always on top of that. For those areas where there is an acute need, then, you know, by all means we are proceeding in due haste to address that.

Saks: I guess I'm really curious about Superfund. You know, I know that's a priority of President Trump's EPA administration in general. Can you just expand on why it's a priority for this region?

Sopkin: I think it's pretty evident that, in particular, Butte and Anaconda are 30 and 40-year-old sites. It seems to me at least, that a lot of what needs to be done is the basic blocking and tackling of the day-to-day business to figure out what needs to be done, and to get to decisions on that. And I don't pretend to know everything that's happened over those decades, but it seems to us that with the proper attention paid and urgency, that things can happen quicker than they've happened in the past. That's our goal. These communities deserve a clean environment, and we are going to do everything we can to get there as soon as possible.

Saks: When I think about Superfund, it's more about cleaning up historic messes. And I know drinking water tackles current issues, but I guess I'm just wondering, why does this rise above all the other possible work the EPA could be doing in the region?

Sopkin: Well, I don't know that it rises above those issues.

For example, as I said with drinking water, to me that seems like the most urgent issue at any given time because things happen. Right now, we have emerging contaminant issues with PFAS and manganese and ethylene oxide and those things.

And we are also devoted, as you know, we have different programs and we are also expending substantial resources on figuring out the science of that, and where there are problems and who's vulnerable and how does it affect the various populations.

So, if what you took from what my priorities are, that [they] are sort of the priorities of the entire EPA, I wouldn't say that. I would just say that Region 8 has its own specific issues, and one of those issues are Superfund sites that have been around a long  time.  

Saks: I know you're just new in the job. Maybe it's too soon to ask this, but what kind of legacy do you want to leave in EPA Region 8?

Sopkin: Well, I firmly believe in the EPA's mission, which is to protect the human health and environment. And there are national issues that are being handled by headquarters in D.C., and then there are regional issues, and my job is to concentrate on those regional issues.

What I want to do is devote my time to focus on those acute issues in Region 8 that need addressing. It's Superfund. It's drinking water. It's being more responsive as an agency. And so I'm hoping that in all three of those, I could succeed in moving that process forward, and hopefully finding solutions to what have been intractable problems over the years.

Copyright 2020 Montana Public Radio. To see more, visit Montana Public Radio.

Nora Saks is a freelance radio and print journalist investigating themes of environmental justice in the Crown of the Continent and beyond.