Nora Saks

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

She's currently a graduate student in the University of Montana's Environmental Science and Natural Resource Journalism Masters Program.

Having lived both north and south of the 49th parallel, she's inclined to use the term "bioregion" a little too frequently when describing her interest in exploring boundaries based on ecology rather than politics.

After more than 30 years, the Environmental Protection Agency, the state of Montana and Butte Silver Bow County are close to signing a final Superfund deal with Atlantic Richfield for the cleanup of the Butte Hill and creek corridors in town. Atlantic Richfield, the former American oil giant, is the company on the hook for most of the pollution caused by historic mining and smelting operations in Butte and across the upper Clark Fork River basin.

Atlantic Richfield is proposing to build a new water treatment plant to further lower the level of the toxic lake inside the Berkeley Pit, in case the tailings dam that sits directly above it ever fails.

I live a mile away from the Berkeley Pit, the mile by mile and a half wide former open-pit mine, which is now filled with a 50 billion gallon toxic lake. Every time I visit, I leave hyper aware of the contradictions and compromises that go hand in glove with industrialization. I find myself wondering: who thought chiseling a colossal hole in the Earth was a good idea, and why? So today, let’s take a dive, figuratively, into open pit mining and some controversial decisions made late last century that changed Butte’s land, people, and environmental legacy forever. This is Episode 4: We Gave it to the Pit.

On Thursday night, Ian Magruder stood up in front of a crowd of about 100 at the Montana Tech Library Auditorium in Butte and addressed a panel of officials from the state and federal environmental protection agencies.

"I stood here in this room 15 years ago and railed against the EPA for their proposed plan at the time. And I thought it was a joke. Today I feel differently."

Thursday night the EPA is taking public comment in Butte for the second time on the agency’s proposed changes to the Superfund cleanup plan for the Butte Hill and Upper Silver Bow Creek.

EPA released its “proposed plan” in April. It recommends some fundamental changes to the 2006 legally binding Superfund cleanup plan. That includes expanding stormwater capture and treatment, replacing some state water quality standards with federal ones in Butte’s creeks, and capping more mine waste.

EPA officials met with some of Butte’s most vocal Superfund cleanup activists Tuesday to update them on the activists’ goal to restore Upper Silver Bow Creek.

For years, members of the local Restore Our Creek Coalition have been saying that Butte’s Superfund cleanup won’t be complete unless Upper Silver Bow Creek is re-constructed as a free-flowing stream where kids can fish and play, after nearly a century of serving as a wastewater ditch.

We're hard at work on episode 4 of Richest Hill, and still covering lots of Superfund news in Butte right now. In the mean time, meet one of the artists who's contributed to this project behind the scenes.

BT Livermore,"maker of things and provider of services," designed the Richest Hill logo, and does lots of other creative work in the Mining City. He explains the thinking behind the logo, and why he feels a sense of hope in Butte.

On the day after the legislative session ended, Gov. Steve Bullock was at the historic Carpenters Union Hall in Uptown Butte on Friday for a somewhat mysterious event with constituents.

I tried to follow the crowd into the back room where a podium and chairs were set up, a big pot of chili was stewing, and Gov. Bullock was chatting with locals. But I was turned away at the door.

On Tuesday night, Butte residents got their first chance to respond to the changes EPA wants to make to the Superfund cleanup plan for the Butte Hill and Silver Bow Creek corridor. 

Martin Hestmark with the EPA’s regional office, explained to the 80 or so people at the public meeting at Montana Tech that the crux of the plan focuses on managing stormwater. It runs off the steep Butte Hill and contaminates Silver Bow and Blacktail Creeks in the valley below.

Potential changes to the Superfund cleanup plan for Butte are on the table this week at the first of two public meetings in the Mining City.

On Tuesday night the EPA will explain and take feedback on proposed changes to the 2006 legal Record of Decision that governs the cleanup of the Butte Hill and Upper Silver Bow Creek corridor in town. The plan includes waiving some state water quality standards in Butte’s creeks and replacing them with federal ones.

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