Chad Okrusch Commentary: “A Rare Opportunity for Meaningful Participation”

CFRTAC is an independent volunteer citizen organization. It’s mission: to help the people of the Upper Clark Fork River make informed environmental decisions, and to help them become meaningful participants in the ongoing Superfund projects within our watershed.

Another citizen group in the Upper Clark Fork with a similar, but more focused charge, is the the Butte NRD Restoration Council, the BNRC.

Governor Brian Schweitzer created the BNRC to advise him how best to invest the $28.1 million dollars the state of Montana recovered for natural resource damages to a particular area within the Butte city limits, roughly the flood plane of Historic Silver Bow Creek, also known in the administrative language of Superfund as Butte Area One.

Prior to 1864, Historic Silver Bow Creek was part of a healthy Rocky Mountain headwater tributary system situated on the western flank of the Continental Divide. Historic Silver Bow Creek served as a wetland in its upper and lower reaches and was shown on early maps as a network of marshes and ponds with a stream channel meandering through.

After hard rock mining commenced in earnest in the Summit Valley, however, Historic Silver Bow Creek transformed from a living stream into an industrial sewer and conveyor belt for mine waste. For obvious reasons, smelters and reduction works located on Historic Silver Bow Creek. Though the mining works are long gone, their minewaste remains in the form of the much-studied-and-debated Parrot tailings, and the lightly considered waste-in-place remedies known as Diggings East and Northside Tailings.

Governor Schweitzer created the BNRC to ensure that the voice of the community is the lead voice in deciding the community’s fate and future. His actions here are a partial response to a persistently vocal and critical public, arguably the most educated and seasoned community in the country with regard to Superfund. Our community has consistently demanded, by right, to be included as “meaningful” participants in making the environmental decisions that affect us.

Although the public has been provided many opportunities to participate, as required by law, over the last three decades, our participation has rarely if ever influenced or guided decision making. The paternalistic mode of a environmental decision making known as D-A-D (Decide-Announce-Defend) has been the rule in the Upper Clark Fork for too long. Our participation has been, by most accounts, not meaningful, but meaningless. Sadly, many have given up trying, resulting in a harmful community apathy. Our many and serious environmental problems have thus been exacerbated by our democratic problems.

Governor Schweitzer’s creation of the BNRC, then, is an important step toward environmental justice for this hard-used place and people. He has restored the rightful place of citizens in a democracy. He has restored the power to influence and guide decision making to the people who will need to live with those decisions in perpetuity. And, by most accounts, its working.

Today, after two years of in-depth study of the environmental problems in Butte Area One, the BNRC is nearly ready to make its suggestions to the Governor.

Last night, the first of two public scoping meetings was held in Butte. Nearly 50 community members participated in the process of developing viable ideas to restore our injured natural resources along Historic Silver Bow Creek. They sat around tables with maps, spoke with council members, government representatives, local engineers and scientists, and other citizens. From these conversations, several interesting ideas have already emerged.

Environmental decision making works best when those affected are folded into the process in an authentic and meaningful way. When affected citizens are engaged in decision making, our healthy democracy sparks the creation of a healthy environment.

Here, now, as participants of the BNRC’s public processes, we have the rare opportunity to be meaningful participants in the restoration of our community. Lend your voice to the conversation, and join us next Tuesday at the Butte-Silver Bow Public Archives for the next public scoping meeting. We will meet from 6-8pm.

Help us restore the heart of our community, that place where all the waters in the Summit Valley flow. Let us, together, transform it from a dead and sacrificed space to a vital and living place for our children’s grandchildren. You’re voice matters. If you care, we hope you will join us in Butte on Tuesday at the Archives.

For more information on these and other Superfund-related issues in the Upper Clark Fork, please visit CFRTAC.org.

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