Chad Oakrusch Commentary: “The EPA Should Work With Us, Not Against Us”

In the Summit Valley we mark the onset of spring in many ways. With each passing morning the sunrise edges northward moving from the camelbacks of Homestake Pass slowly toward Saddle Rock along the Continental Divide. Short thick rhizomes of wrinkle-leaved rhubarb emerge as a testament to the resilience of the hearty life forms that have adapted to this often-unforgiving environment. The songbirds and waterfowl return, and with them, the buzzing and blooming energy of April renascence.

The people of the Upper Clark Fork River’s headwaters are also buzzing these days. Yesterday more than 50 concerned citizens packed a conference room–standing room only–in the Butte-Silver Bow Public Archives. They eagerly gathered to hear the Environmental Protection Agency’s response to a recent report commissioned by the county Health Department. The report, authored by Dr. Stacie Barry, is known simply as Report 12. It is remarkable in its findings as well as the public and federal response to them.

Report 12 is a summary of human health studies conducted about Butte-Silver Bow for the years 1978-98, and 1999-2007. It was commissioned by the county to fill an obvious—some might say, appalling, even inexplicable—information gap in the environmental problem solving efforts spearheaded by the EPA in this, the largest complex of Superfund sites in the United States.

Dr. Barry’s findings suggest that in spite of the EPA’s remediation programs, Butte people continue to die of nearly every disease associated with the contaminants of concern present in our environment at a statistically significant and higher-than-normal rate than the rest of the state and the country. These diseases include, but are not limited to: multiple sclerosis, congestive heart failure, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and many forms of cancer including lung, bladder, and colon cancers.

Dr. Barry’s work is exemplary by most accounts, including the informed opinions of her research advisors at Montana Tech and the University of Montana, the Butte-Silver Bow Health Department, and the Butte-Silver Bow Board of Health.

Oddly enough, the only agency who has disputed the validity of the report’s science and findings is the US EPA.

Julie DalSolglio, the Montana Office Director of the US EPA, discussed Dr. Barry’s report in a April 1st op-ed piece in the Montana Standard. In her letter, DalSolglio wrote that the EPA has “initial concerns about the report’s science and findings.” Curiously, no specific concerns have been identified as of yet. Hence, the curious buzz at the Archives.

The conclusion that many folks are making, based on Dr. Barry’s findings, is that the Environmental Protection Agency led remedial actions are not accomplishing the fundamental goal of Superfund, protection of human health and the environment. If, after 30 years of remediation, our elevated mortality rates for diseases associated with the contaminants around us have not dropped, and in some cases, have risen, how can the EPA suggest that their remedies are working?

Unfortunately, Chief Executive Babb, instead of allowing the EPA to present their response to the report, as advertised, chose to postpone the presentation by Julie DalSoglio and the experts she brought to town. In this morning’s paper Babb, evidently ignoring the more than 50 citizens present said, “We need to make sure the public knows about this meeting.” The meeting was over before it started and the stunned group of interested citizens continued to buzz and question both the EPA’s motives and Chief Executive Babb’s judgment.

DalSoglio’s words don’t hold much weight with the community of Butte; the EPA has lost credibility here. Why? Time after time, they fail to walk their talk. In her April Fools Day message to the community, DalSoglio noted, “Our decisions have always been based on the best science and information available, and EPA will continue to value public involvement as we move forward is assessing new information.”

Our experience, however, suggests otherwise. The best science over the years has been ignored or discredited when it didn’t fall into line with the Feds remote control management plans for Butte. As for public involvement, we are included for legal reasons, but most often ignored for reasons of bureaucratic efficiency.

The experts in the EPA fail to recognize that we are the most educated and experienced community in the world with regard to these issues. Their decisions, without our meaningful input, are illegitimate. Without our meaningful participation, environmental justice is an impossibility.

We are organized, informed, and ready to do whatever it takes to ensure that our home is restored to the clean and healthful state we claim as a constitutional right in Montana.

Dr. Holly Peterson, my esteemed colleague at Montana Tech and a member of Dr. Barry’s dissertation committee said it best in her response to DalSoglio’s op-ed piece. “The legacy of the EPA in Butte should be a cleaner environment with fewer health problems for future generations, not a legacy of attacking the public.”

It’s high time the EPA worked with and for us, not against us.

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