Land Design’s fresh approach to a Superfund site brings the prospect of a better future for the residents of Butte, Montana.
By Sarah Chase Shaw
In November 2018, Stacey Robinson, ASLA, stood up in front of a group of roughly 100 people at the Butte Brewing Company and unveiled a master plan for 160 acres along the upper Silver Bow Creek in Butte, Montana. The Silver Bow Creek Conservation Area Master Plan, designed by the Billings, Montana-based Land Design, Inc., where he is a principal, envisioned a lush greenway corridor through the middle of Butte, its interconnecting trails linking to other trail networks in Butte and beyond, as well as reconstructed creeks flowing into naturalized wetlands and parks, and playgrounds providing ample community gathering spaces. The land on which all this will be built is a designated Superfund site.
Boom and Bust
A town built on a mineral-rich hill in central Montana, Butte was once the largest metropolis between Chicago and San Francisco and the largest global producer of copper at the turn of the 20th century. Multistory brick buildings, elegant mansions, vintage Victorian homes, boarding houses and hotels, and miner’s cottages scattered across “the Hill,” as it is known locally, once housed an estimated 100,000 people, most of them immigrants who came from all over the world to seek their fortune. The wealth generated by mining and refining earned Butte the title of the “Richest Hill on Earth” and also set it apart from the rest of the ranching West.
Dotted across the urban landscape, too, are a dozen gallows frames whose iron elevators lowered generations of miners thousands of feet underground. Any sense of historic romanticism abruptly ends at the eastern edge of town, where one of the highest earth-filled dams in the country holds back more than 6.5 trillion gallons of toxic sludge from an active open-pit mine, and the infamous Berkeley Pit (a one-mile-long by half-a-mile-wide former open-pit copper mine where you can pay to see toxic waste) sits dormant, a living reminder of Butte’s boom and bust. Miles of chain-link fencing demarcate areas where mining waste and abandoned mines have been capped and revegetated.
Since the late 1800s, mining waste has been dumped in areas around Butte, the heavy metals leaching into the soils, streams, and wetlands near mining operations. And, while contaminated soils have largely been contained, surface water management continues to be an issue. In 1982, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) proposed that Silver Bow Creek, a major watershed that feeds into the Clark Fork of the Columbia River and includes 26 miles of stream and streamside habitat downstream from Butte, be added to the National Priority List. It was listed as a Superfund site in 1983.
Forty years of closed-door legal and financial wrangling followed, isolating the community from a negotiating team that included the company (Atlantic Richfield Company, or ARCO) and federal and state agencies to determine future land-use opportunities and, more important, who would pay for them. In 2006, a Record of Decision was handed down, defining an initial remedy for groundwater management and soil remediation. What wasn’t resolved, however, was a method to manage stormwater and surface water flowing into the creek. That’s when a citizen-led group called Restore Our Creek Coalition (ROCC) got involved. Their mission, according to ROCC member and retired U.S. Forest Service recreation forester Jocelyn Dodge, is to ensure that the mine tailings and contaminants are removed rather than covered up. “Our civic center and Chamber of Commerce are adjacent to this site. Cleanup is key to our economic future,” she says.
In 2016, Land Design was hired by ARCO to work with representatives from the company, the City-County of Butte-Silver Bow, and the EPA to conduct design workshops and visioning sessions. “When ARCO hired us to find a better solution for the end land use of this volatile creek corridor, I was very hesitant,” Robinson admits. “Relationships in this community are tricky. Government agencies dictate what, when, and how cleanup happens, and the company is footing the bill for everything. The community has been caught in the middle for so long that it’s now holding out for what it deserves.” Robinson is a native Montanan, and his firm’s work runs the gamut from custom residential landscape architecture at the Yellowstone Club to public parks and other stormwater remediation work. Thoughtful and low-key, he prefers to stay out of the limelight and focus his attention instead on solving problems.
“The community was ready to fight because they’ve been fighting for 35 years,” Robinson explains. “Ultimately, they went from pissed off to applause. No one from the government or the company had ever asked them to think beyond general cleanup or ask them what they wanted.” And in the end, he says, it turns out that the vision proposed by ROCC and the company were relatively compatible. “Every town in the West is striving for a community greenway. ROCC’s initial effort led to the generation of an end land-use solution that I would argue offers more of a community benefit than just a creek running through a series of tailing sites.”
Josh Bryson is the local liability manager for ARCO. An engineer by training, he came to Butte to work for Pioneer Technical Services, one of two engineering firms hired by the company to find solutions for managing (and ultimately remediating) the stormwater and surface water that flow into the creek corridor. Butte averages about 13 inches of precipitation annually, and rain, when it comes, moves quickly down the mineral-rich “hill” and surrounding mountainous landscape, washing heavy metals such as lead, cadmium, zinc, and copper into Silver Bow Creek. Meeting Montana Department of Environmental Quality surface water standards during stormwater events has proved difficult simply because of Butte’s fluctuating high desert climate conditions, so the EPA proposed, as part of a 2020 revision to the Record of Decision, to waive the state’s standards and replace them with more lenient federal standards. This is a move that EPA Remedial Project Manager Nikia Greene says many other states are gravitating toward because it analyzes dissolved rather than total recoverable metals. For many in the community, however, it was a loophole for avoiding cleanup, says Butte native Julia Crain, the assistant director of reclamation and environmental services for the City-County of Butte-Silver Bow. “Thirty-five years of Superfund followed by a Record of Decision in 2006, and then another decade of on-and-off negotiations. When you see a lack of progress, you have to ask yourself why. That’s when the community started to assume they weren’t being told the truth.”
In 2020, the Federal District Court of Montana approved the Consent Decree, a 1,400-page document with the ultimate goal of delisting Butte as a Superfund site by 2024. The Consent Decree’s remedy, Robinson suggests, is standard and what the community expects. “Grade it, seed it, and fence it off with six-foot fences.”
What they will get instead is a conservation corridor that spans eight sites, ranging from three to 35 acres, that are divided into two classifications: those that are in need of remediation to remove contaminated mine waste, tailings, or soils, and those that have previously been reclaimed or have had no impacts from historic mining activities. Because the sites span an area that makes up the lowest elevational points in the city, some regions within its boundaries remain inundated with water year-round, making drainage a challenge.
Hydric soils and hydrophytic vegetation form the baseline for much of the area, which, despite the issues of contaminated soils and water, is home to a wide variety of birds, mammals, reptiles, and fish. As part of the existing conditions baseline, vegetation was analyzed to determine a percentage of vegetative cover by type, which can be used to show changes on remediated sites as landscape improvements, such as the addition of woody plants, begin to sequester and remove toxic contaminants such as arsenic, lead, iron, and mercury.
A series of large gravity-fed stormwater basins located at the bottom of the hill allows particles to settle out of the water column, and wetland plants—through a process of phytoremediation—further remove or break down harmful chemicals found in the soil, sediment, or surface water. “It’s a solution,” Bryson says, “that doesn’t rely on energy-consuming technology or the modernization of a water-treatment plant. [The basins are] simple and effective and they fit into a larger conservation corridor concept. It can be a long-term community amenity versus a water treatment plant that no one wants to look at.”
Once mine waste and soils are removed, each site will be backfilled, graded, and covered with an impermeable rubber liner located at a ground elevation just below the stormwater basins and channels to prevent infiltration of stormwater to the underlying, contaminated groundwater aquifer. New soil will be spread on top of the liner to replicate a natural landscape marked with rolling berms and contoured slopes. Regionally appropriate plant communities will establish the greenway and park area within a larger context, expanding it from Butte’s arid environment to a palette representative of western Montana. “This is not just a green space for green space reasons,” Robinson says. “There’s so much science behind this as part of the remediation efforts, and so much of it is counterintuitive. We’re trying to create an ecosystem that acts like a 1.5-foot to 25-foot-deep liner isn’t there!”
Matter of Trust
Explaining ARCO’s commitment to the community has been the most difficult part of Crain’s job, she says, as both a government representative and a community member with two small children. She describes a meeting where she verbalized for everyone the need to acknowledge community health and welfare. “If there are going to be chain-link fences around this project, we have to start over. Managing stormwater carries its share of health risks, but it’s equally risky to tell this community that they can’t experience their place in the world because it’s too dangerous. If we do it the right way, we won’t have to build a fence.”
Throughout the planning process, generational issues centered around trust, tried-and-true solutions, health and welfare, and new technology have predominated. Older generations want green lawns and tree canopies, while younger users want access to bike trails and innovative playgrounds for their kids, a fact that isn’t lost on Butte leaders and newcomers to the city who see the potential for a positive economic impact in Montana’s burgeoning recreation industry. Not surprising, too, is the community’s desire for accessible and clean water features and verdant greenery. “Glittering leaves, filtered light, abundant greenery, and clean water are things we want because we’ve never been able to have them,” Crain says.
While his firm was brought in to lead the project, Robinson says that not everyone understood how a landscape architect could contribute more than basic landscape services. “When we started this process, our role relative to the engineering firms that were already on board was negligible,” he explains. “Initially, we were relegated to tree planting, but over time our role evolved.” It’s not just about creating a pretty green space, he says. “It’s about transforming the center of a community—one that has been scarred by more than a century of mining—to one of ecological rebirth and immense social and educational value. The responsibilities are shared now, and we’re the ones leading the search for a solution. We know enough to talk about the big picture.”
Achieving this vision will begin this year, though the exact time frame will be dictated by material availability and skilled labor. Getting the right construction management team on board is the first step, followed by the procurement of clean planting soil and plants in mass quantity. The cost for completing the project plus operating and managing it for an additional 50 years has been estimated at $150 million, to be funded by ARCO. According to Bryson, that number doesn’t include the construction costs for remedying the existing conditions—also funded by ARCO—a monstrous task that includes the removal of approximately 850,000 cubic yards of waste materials including historic mine waste, hydrocarbon-contaminated soils, and municipal trash and debris from all the spaces included within the 176-acre site. To date, $1.8 billion has already been spent on the Upper Clark Fork River Basin Superfund remediation effort.
In response to the repeated community question, “How do we know we’re getting a good deal?” Robinson submitted the plan to the Sustainable SITES Initiative for precertification, something Green Business Certification had never before considered for a Superfund site. Building the SITES application around the project’s larger intent established design parameters and principles that could then be transferred to individual site certification as each of the plans are completed. “We used it to prove to the community that our intent to provide them with the best possible outcome was real,” he explains, because the standards provide the highest level of evidence to create a project that has been judged to be exceptional.
Propelled by the Consent Decree and a SITES Gold precertification, the Silver Bow Creek Conservation Area Master Plan is providing an opportunity for the community of Butte to move beyond its status as a Superfund site. “We created something out of nothing,” Robinson notes, “which is exactly what immigrants to Butte did over a hundred years ago. What this community needs to heal is a place they can relate to, with a story that compels them to believe in the future.”
Sarah Chase Shaw is a landscape architect and freelance writer living in Basalt, Colorado.