Benevento's EPA Promotion Raises Concerns In Butte, Anaconda

Mar 4, 2019

An administrator with the Environmental Protection Agency who’s been praised by leaders in Butte and Anaconda has been promoted to become a senior advisor to the newly-confirmed head of the EPA.

Doug Benevento has been a frequent visitor to Montana, and helped negotiate final cleanup agreements for Butte and Anaconda. He’ll remain based in Denver, but with a broader portfolio than just the six states he’s overseen since 2017.

The editor of the Montana Standard, David McCumber says Benevento’s new job sounds like good news for local cleanup efforts.

"If he’s not the number two in the department, his number isn’t very much bigger than that. He’s clearly going to have a lot of pull. He’s got a great relationship with Andrew Wheeler, the new [EPA] administrator, they’ve been friends for many, many years. So I guess my thinking is, when was the last time somebody who was so engaged with Butte and Anaconda, and who demonstrably cares about the outcomes here held a position of that kind of authority within the EPA? And I probably think it was never."

A story in the Montana Standard quotes several people involved in Superfund issues in Butte and Anaconda expressing concern about Benevento leaving, and that it might affect the timeline for cleanups. Speaking from an airport on his way to Washington, D.C. Monday, Benevento said it won’t.

"I will continue to be in Butte and Anaconda and Libby and other places in Montana to ensure that the work we’ve started gets done in the timeframe that we committed that it would get done," Benevento says.

McCumber says he understands why locals are concerned that Benevento is leaving.

"Just because, I mean, the record speaks for itself. After 11-plus years of pretty futile negotiation on the Butte Hill cleanup, Doug Benevento very quickly moved things toward a resolution. And his immediate engagement as soon as he was named regional administrator, and his obvious interest in Butte has really paid dividends," McCumber says.

Benevento says he’s already been talking to candidates to succeed him in his old job as regional administrator, and has this advice for them in helping communities get delisted from Superfund cleanups.

"Talk to the community. There is a wealth of knowledge in places like Butte, Anaconda, Libby, and other Superfund sites — and frankly in other communities that have issues that EPA's engaged with. You know, what I've learned from folks like Sister Mary Jo in Butte, from Bill Everett up in Anaconda, and others, it was immeasurably helpful in moving these sites forward. Because just delisting a site isn't a success. You've got to make sure you do it in a manner that the community understands what happened, what you're doing, had a role and significant input into the decision you made, and constantly felt engaged. So we often talk about delisting, and that being a big goal. It is, but that's not the sole goal, and that's not a complete goal. The complete goal is delisting and having the community say we had input, we understand what happened here, we're in a good place with what EPA is doing."

I asked Montana Standard Editor David McCumber what Superfund watchers in Butte and Anaconda will be keeping an eye on to make sure timelines to finish cleanups and remove the towns from the Superfund list in 2024 and 2025 don’t slip.

"My understanding is that EPA is preparing to send what’s known as a 135 day notice to the federal court, saying that as of April 1 — that would be when the clock would start ticking — That within 135 days there will be either a consent decree signed or there will be a unilateral administrative order signed. So that really does — that's gonna be the test. If that 135 day notice goes out as planned on April 1, then we'll know that, one way or the other, we’re gonna move to the next phase of this."

In September Benevento joined then-acting EPA administrator Scott Wheeler at meetings in Butte and Anaconda, in which the pair said Superfund cleanups in the two cities would be completed in 2024 and 2025 respectively. On Thursday Wheeler was confirmed as EPA administrator by the Senate.

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