Acting EPA Administrator Wheeler to visit Butte, Anaconda this week

Acting EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler will visit Butte and Anaconda this week, Sen. Steve Daines’s office announced Monday.

Wheeler, named to the post after the resignation of Administrator Scott Pruitt resigned in July, will be the first head of the agency to visit the Butte-Anaconda Superfund complex since Administrator William Reilly came at the behest of Sen. Max Baucus in 1990.

Katie Schoettler, Daines’s press secretary, said the senator and Wheeler will visit both cities Friday. They will be joined by EPA Region 8 Administrator Doug Benevento; Dave Palmer and Bill Everett, chief executives of Butte-Silver Bow and Anaconda-Deer Lodge counties; and other local and state officials. Butte Superfund activist and former legislator Fritz Daily had accepted an invitation to tour the Butte area with Wheeler.

Daily also accompanied Reilly on a tour in 1990, telling the administrator then, “You have the potential for a very serious disaster” with the Berkeley Pit.

In addition to touring the Superfund sites, Schoettler said, Wheeler will hold meetings with stakeholders in both Butte and Anaconda. The meetings are not open to the public, but they will be open to media.

Wheeler’s presence at the nation’s largest Superfund complex will underscore the increased attention the sites have been accorded by the agency in the Trump administration. Pruitt had placed Butte and Anaconda on an “emphasis list.” And Benevento, formerly the executive director of the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, has been very actively engaged. He has visited both sites several times and has personally taken a lead role in moving forward consent-decree negotiations on the cleanups in Anaconda and on the Butte Hill, making it clear he would issue administrative orders if the negotiations were not wrapped up quickly.

The Butte Hill talks, which had been unproductive over a 12-year period, delivered an agreement in principle late last year, and the Anaconda discussions produced an agreement this summer. Both agreements in principle will need to be expanded into full consent decrees, which are signed agreements outlining the specifics of the cleanups. Benevento has said he expects Butte’s cleanup to be complete by 2024 and Anaconda’s in 2025.

Wheeler has been an industry energy and environment consultant and lawyer. According to his biography on the EPA’s web site, he also served for six years as the majority staff director and chief counsel as well as the minority staff director of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works.

Before his time at the full Senate committee, Wheeler served in a similar capacity for six years for its Subcommittee on Clean Air, Climate Change, Wetlands and Nuclear Safety.

“I know the administrator has been anxious to see the sites, and we’re grateful that Sen. Daines extended the invitation to bring him to both Butte and Anaconda,” Benevento said Monday. “We’ve talked about the sites multiple times. He’s very aware of what’s happening with them, and Sen. Daines has certainly brought the sites to his attention as well.”

Benevento said he was looking forward “to showing (Wheeler) the on-the-ground work that’s being done — the enormity of the sites.” He added that “Sen. Daines’s goal of ensuring we sit down and have a discussion with representatives of both communities” was the most important aspect of the visit.

“This visit is critical,” Daines said Monday. “Montana Superfund sites like Butte and Anaconda cannot be pushed to the back of the line.”

Daines added, “I look forward to bringing together local stakeholders, community leaders, and Administrator Wheeler at the Butte and Anaconda Superfund sites this week to discuss cleanup status, the sites’ impacts to  human health and the environment, and next steps forward.”

Montana Budget Director Dan Villa, assigned by Gov. Steve Bullock to represent the state in the recent negotiating rounds, said Monday, “The governor looks forward to showing Administrator Wheeler and Sen. Daines all the progress we’ve made in Butte, Anaconda, and across Montana’s Superfund sites. Regional Administrator Doug Benevento has been a tremendous partner with the state, and the governor hopes the senator and administrator see what nonpartisan partnerships can accomplish.”