Butte has the dubious distinction of being at the upper end of the largest complex of federal Superfund sites in the U.S. This Superfund complex extends from Butte and Anaconda 120 miles down the Clark Fork River to Missoula.
The word “Superfund” is tossed around a lot by local and state officials working in the Clark Fork Basin, but, to the average citizen of western Montana, the term might not mean very much. Nevertheless, Superfund is changing the landscape of western Montana, from the Berkeley Pit to the Anaconda Smelter all the way downstream to the former Milltown Dam.
In simple terms, Superfund refers to the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA) of 1980. This federal law, passed in the wake of environmental disasters like Love Canal, was designed to clean up abandoned hazardous waste sites that may endanger public health or the environment.
The law authorizes the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to identify parties responsible for contamination of sites and compel the parties to clean up the sites. Where responsible parties cannot be found, EPA is authorized to clean up sites itself using federal funding.
The Superfund cleanup process is very complex. It involves the steps taken to assess sites, place them on the National Priorities List, and establish and implement appropriate cleanup plans. This is the long-term cleanup process. EPA also has the authority to remove hazardous wastes where immediate action needs to be taken; to enforce against potentially responsible parties; to ensure community involvement; to involve states; and ensure long-term protection.
According to the EPA, as of August 5, 2013 there are 1,320 sites listed on the National Priority List, an additional 365 have been delisted, and 54 new sites have been proposed. There are currently 17 National Priority List sites in Montana, and two Superfund sites that are not part of the National Priority List.