Butte’s Acid Trip

By Beacon Staff

On April 24, Nick Gevock of the Montana Standard reported the city of Butte is pumping water out of Basin Creek Reservoir to make up a shortfall from its main filtration plant on the Big Hole River. As the Big Hole mucks up with runoff, the main plant can filter less water per day.

Big deal, right? Yep. Doing so violates federal Environmental Protection Agency regulations. Gevock reported the Basin Creek water contains carcinogenic acids, and quoted Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) point man John Jose that “a lot of the organics are probably coming from all the pine beetle kill and it’s probably going to get worse in the future.”

Well, I called Mr. Jose for clarification. He patiently explained the “acids” were something a bit more specific, a group of five “haloacetic acids.”

EPA has a stack of regulations regarding these acids, one “stage” promulgated in 1998, with a second stage in 2006, covering “disinfection byproducts” or DBPs.

Basically, when organics-rich water is chlorinated (to kill goodies like E Coli and giardia bugs), chlorine atoms replace the hydrogen atoms in the organics, creating five main kinds of toxic haloacetic acids.

EPA set standards to regulate these acids. The most “interesting” are trichloroacetic acid (TCA) and, if bromides (a toxic salt) are present, dibromoacetic acid (DBA).

Natural bromides on land (our oceans and seafood are full of them) come from sulfide silver-containing deposits, in other words, the very highly mineralized rock that made Butte possible.

How toxic are these acids?

EPA says bladder and liver cancers are possible. A 2008 National Institutes of Health paper on the carcinogenicity of DBA (the first study) in rats found DBA was a “multiple organ carcinogen” in rats. Fine, but what about carcinogenity in humans? No hard data seems to be available.

With an all-systems compliance deadline of July 10, 2010, in August that year Montana DEQ notified Butte that pumping the chlorinated water violated federal DBP regulations.

OK, I know you are wondering how Butte got caught with its pants down on complying with this rule 12 years after implementation. A followup Standard story about where Butte hopes to find money for a water treatment plant gives a hint:

“Not long ago, Basin Creek water was so pristine the state granted the city a filtration waiver. But with the steady deterioration of that watershed – which has been linked to a pine beetle infestation – the state has revoked the filtration exemption.”

Hmmm. Pine beetles again. Hmmm. Wasn’t there a proposal to log in Basin Creek recently? Oh, yeah, that proposal, in 2003.

In 2004, three Green groups appealed and sued (first commenter to guess right wins five bucks from me) to block a Forest Service project removing “beetle-infested trees” on 2,600 acres in the watershed. One of their claims, besides their usual guff about goshawks and frogs, was the logging would harm “water quality in the Basin Creek Reservoir” – oh, the irony.

Judge Donald Molloy turned them down, the Greens appealed. Then Molloy slapped them with an unprecedented $100,000 bond, which they couldn’t raise before deadline, releasing the project in April 2007. A third of the wood finally removed four years late was worthless and the beetles had spread beyond the project area.

Why didn’t the Forest Service propose another go? See above.

So, today Butte plans to ask for $81 million from the Natural Resource Damage Program (NRDP), the ARCO post-Anaconda Superfund settlement, for a filtration plant. That’s real money taken away from fixing Butte’s very real Superfund mess, millions diverted to prevent an unknown cancer risk at an unknown cost per case avoided, life saved – or not.

For what? The environment?

When the Greens sued in 2004, Butte-Silver Bow Commissioner Charlie O’Leary griped to the Standard “These out-of-town, so-called environmental groups got a whole lot of gall to pull this kind of crap on the citizens of Butte-Silver Bow,” he declared, finishing with “This is potentially catastrophic.”

Scratch potentially – Basin Creek is a catastrophe for Butte. Those responsible deserve our heartiest congratulations.

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