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Robert Fox and Sandy Stash rode together in a golf cart under the summer sun in Big Sky country. Yet neither even knew how to play the game. The pair was there to thrash out an ecological work plan for the Environmental Protection Agency’s Superfund office. It was an incongruous scene: Fox, the slim regulator from the EPA, chatting amicably with his statuesque counterpart Stash, a corporate executive with ARCO. Despite their golf-free backgrounds, the bureaucrat and the businesswoman had built this course — with the help of none other than the great Jack Nicklaus — on behalf of the people of Anaconda, Mont. And now they could take pride in the strangeness of a landscape that could leave the weekend duffer flailing away in a sand trap made of pitch-black mining slag. Fox and Stash couldn’t have imagined such pleasant terrain when they first laid eyes on it — not Fox, who arrived in 1972 to find a stream of mining waste flowing through the center of nearby Butte, nor Stash, who arrived in 1989 on the day when the townsfolk awoke to a river brimming with dead fish. The Old Works Golf Course is built atop a Superfund site, and not just any Superfund site, but the Anaconda Smelter Superfund site. When combined with the three other nearby sites linked to the former Anaconda Copper Mining Company in western Montana’s Clark Fork Drainage Basin, it is the largest Superfund area in the country — and, so far, the costliest. The successor to the Anaconda Co., the Atlantic Richfield Co. (now part of BP Amoco), has bled $600 million in cleanup costs. And the blood’s still flowing. Congress hastily created the Superfund program 20 years ago, at the dusk of the Carter administration, to clean up the nation’s abandoned toxic waste. The program was inherited by an antagonistic Reagan administration’s EPA chief, Anne Gorsuch. That administration’s hostility — combined with the statute’s imprecision — sullied the program’s reputation, which has never fully recovered. A generation of legal observers know it as an infamous policy failure, costly and ineffective. In the words of one federal judge, the law “achieve[d] a certain quirky notoriety precisely because [it was] so badly drafted as to be virtually incomprehensible.” Today, the EPA says it has cleaned up its act and cites Anaconda, the core of this gargantuan industrial-environmental complex, as a model of the new Superfund. In some ways, the EPA is right. The cleanup at Anaconda traces the evolution of Superfund from a reactive, combative, overreaching program to a consensual program of more modest goals. Critics agree: Beginning in 1993, the EPA quietly set out to reinvent Superfund, and in significant measure it has succeeded. Although Superfund had started as badly at Anaconda as it had anywhere else, the site eventually became a testing ground for two central concepts of the new Superfund: brownfields and remedy reform. “Brownfields” is a term for tainted land that has been reclaimed, often under relaxed cleanup standards (e.g., the mining slag golf course). “Remedy reform” describes a pragmatic approach to cleanup. Among other steps, the EPA in 1995 established a body called the National Remedy Review Board, one goal of which was to review certain high-cost proposed remedies. The board claims to have knocked at least $20 million off the bill at Anaconda alone. Even so, Anaconda illustrates the limits of administrative reform. After Stash and Fox helped engineer the much-celebrated golf course deal, other seemingly viable brownfields projects succumbed to potent mixtures of politics and economics. Remedy reform has led to savings that make industry happy, but at Anaconda the debate over cleanup has uncovered rifts within the EPA and between industry and the community. And although ARCO may have emerged with some cleanup savings, Stash and company now find themselves locked in the fight of their lives with Montana about the very same land because of a newly evolving theory of liability called natural resource damages (NRD). Under an oft-forgotten clause in the Superfund law, the trustees of natural resources — states, Indian tribes, and federal agencies — can sue for “restoration” damages. Restoration — as opposed to remediation — essentially means the cost of restoring the environment to its original baseline state. Standard Superfund cleanup, or remediation, aims only to protect human health and the environment. This distinction has enabled the state of Montana to assert a staggering claim of $765 million in natural resource damages at the Clark Fork sites. That figure stands apart from the $600 million that ARCO claims to have already spent on the Clark Fork cleanup supervised by the EPA. The amount also does not include the untold tens of millions that ARCO will spend on future EPA cleanup, or the roughly $75 million in costs that the EPA is seeking to recover in an enforcement suit, which is currently on hold. Some industry advocates project that NRD restoration claims will ultimately surpass remedial claims. Anaconda, in other words, typifies both Superfund’s past and its future. And if the site’s history is any guide to the dynamics of litigation and negotiation in the face of statutory murkiness, it will be the bureaucrats and corporate officers — not the regulatory lawyers or the corporate counsel — who continue making the big legal decisions there. Anaconda was once the company town of the Anaconda Mining Company, founded in 1883 by copper king Marcus Daly to smelt the ore he tore out of Butte’s side. The smelter was the world’s biggest — as befit a receptacle for the so-called richest hill on earth — and the surviving smokestack, at 585 feet, is still the world’s tallest. In 1906 neighboring farmers, derided in the local press as “smoke farmers,” complained of dead livestock. Their lawsuit, with 25,000 pages of recorded testimony, was said to be at that time the biggest civil injunctive action in American history. After it failed, President Theodore Roosevelt brought cases against Anaconda over smoke damage to the national forests in Montana. Those suits would culminate in a series of land exchanges around 1930, with the company accepting damaged forest in exchange for pristine. Environmental awareness advanced little between that time and 1970, when the EPA was founded — and Bob Fox arrived on the scene. Fox, the head of Superfund in Montana, got a master’s degree in environmental engineering, and has been with the agency almost since its inception. In 1973, when he was stationed in Denver, the EPA sent him to collect samples from Silver Bow Creek in Butte. He was astounded to find a dark brown cascade of liquid mine waste flowing through the center of town and emptying into the creek. To collect a soil sample from the creek bed, he had to break through a crust. “This is not the last the EPA has seen of Anaconda,” he recalls thinking. In 1977 ARCO bought Anaconda, in a goof of historic proportions. A year later, an oily sludge invaded the basements of Love Canal in upstate New York, making toxic waste a national obsession and Anaconda a prime target for a new army of environmentalists. The Anaconda stack, which had become uneconomical, belched its last on September 29, 1980, 10 weeks before Congress passed the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act — aka Superfund. The smelter site was listed two years later on Superfund’s cleanup list. In 1986 ARCO won the race to demolish its smelter before the EPA could subject the demolition to Superfund supervision. The EPA — incensed by this act of defiance, and heeding rumors of hastily buried waste — ordered ARCO to take soil samples every 50 feet on Smelter Hill, at extraordinary expense. Meanwhile, a study found alarmingly high arsenic levels in the urine of children living in rural Mill Creek, less than a mile downwind from the big stack. The EPA evacuated the 30 families living there — a practice resulting in such extreme communal trauma that the agency rarely resorts to it anymore. Between 1988 and 1991, various oversight reports savaged Superfund. One, by the General Accounting Office, singled out the agency’s efforts at the Clark Fork sites for particular opprobrium. After eight years and $24 million spent on studies in Montana, the GAO found, virtually no cleanup had been done. The darkest day may have arrived on July 12, 1989, when hundreds of fish were found floating belly-up in the Upper Clark Fork river. But that was also the day Sandy Stash came to town, as ARCO’s new environmental project manager. Stash is a 6-footer, and unafraid to wear boots that make her even taller. Bob Fox pictures her with a mobile phone in one hand and a hamburger in the other. “Sandy’s always in a hurry,” says environmentalist John Ray. “She used to keep $5 on the passenger-side seat driving from Butte to Anaconda because she got pulled over for speeding so often” — she wanted to pay her tickets on the spot. This in a state where one has to drive 85 miles per hour to get a ticket. Stash, trained as an engineer, was part of an environmentally minded crew. The team represented a new level of commitment on the part of ARCO, which began ratcheting up its regional cleanup budget to the present level of $50 million a year. But note that ARCO did not send in a lawyer to take charge. Anaconda had spawned less litigation than most big sites because only one polluter was responsible. The lawyers receded further as Superfund entered a new collaborative phase. In the decade ahead, legal costs declined from 15 percent to 7 percent of ARCO’s cleanup budget. That said, all the engineers’ tussles occurred in the shadow of the law. “I may be able to pass the bar,” jokes Stash. “I know the rule against perpetuities. One of my in-house counsel didn’t know it.” The EPA, prodded to show results by Bush administrator William Reilly, also reshuffled its staff in the Clark Fork area that winter, reinforcing the feeling of a fresh start. The new Anaconda project manager reporting to Fox was a frank, young, burly man by the name of Charlie Coleman. Soon after they began working together, in summer 1990, Stash and Coleman were strolling by a creek in Anaconda, and noticed some piles of by-product waste lying around. “We should take care of this,” Coleman said. “Yeah, why not?” agreed Stash. “Let’s not mess around.” The mandate was to get dirt moving, not defer to the lawyers. The waste was moved. The EPA identified the worst waste, like the arsenic-heavy dust clogging the giant ductlike flues that once fed the smokestack. The agency performed five major cleanup projects at Anaconda from 1991 to 1993. One of the key legal tricks during this phase, says D. Henry Elsen, the attorney who heads the Clark Fork Superfund site enforcement team, was authorizing cleanup orders under the shelter of Superfund’s emergency removal initiative, thus allowing action without interminable study. Such measures addressed the most basic complaint about Superfund — that nothing ever got cleaned up — but they did nothing to satisfy the community; and they prompted the question, “At what cost?” More radical reform was brewing in the community and, soon, in the halls of the Clinton EPA. When the smelter had been shut down in 1980, it cost the town of Anaconda one-third of its jobs and two-thirds of its tax base. For Gene Vuckovich, an ex-iron worker and math teacher who was town manager in the late’80s, the biggest fear was that Anaconda would become a ghost town. “When you get down to the individual,” he says, “concerns like property values and ‘Are people willing to move in?’ become paramount.” In the early ’90s, Vuckovich and other civic leaders hatched a crazy plan to build a golf course atop the ruins of the original nineteenth-century copper smelter. Crazier yet, the town fathers decided the golf course should be world-class. But their timing was perfect. In 1995 the Republicans in Congress trained their guns on Superfund, and, partly to stave them off, the EPA devoted itself to administrative reform. Anaconda became a testing ground for new environmental approaches, including redevelopment. ARCO was willing to go along with the community’s golf course initiative for its own reasons. Stash knew that her company and Anaconda would have to live with each other for a long time. ARCO wanted to be a good corporate citizen. Many think that Stash also wanted to buy the community’s goodwill in the much larger cleanup battles that were looming ahead. The EPA’s Elsen stresses that aggressive enforcement was the necessary backdrop to the golf course success. In 1994 the EPA ordered ARCO to do the cleanup work at the golf course site. Community leaders created a golf course authority, and ARCO gave it the property. Then the EPA drew up an innovative document called a prospective purchaser agreement. Under the agreement, the EPA and the state, in return for specified environmental precautions, promised not to sue the county or the course authority. ARCO spent $40 million: about half to clean up the site and its surrounding area and about half to build the golf course. Meanwhile, the civic leaders brought in golf great Jack Nicklaus to tour the site with the regulators, and Nicklaus exulted when he saw the heaping piles of slag, a jet-black mining waste that is safe for industrial uses. “This black slag pile is great — let’s not change it,” Charlie Coleman remembers Nicklaus saying. The Golden Bear prevailed, and the Old Works golf course today is a black-and-green-striped robe, with slag filling the bunkers. When Nicklaus dedicated the course in 1997, with traces of rusty flues visible on the hillside and the big stack looming across the vale, he announced with satisfaction, “You can always do something with land.” The course debuted to rave reviews in the press, and the golf course authority, largely unburdened by debt, broke even from day one. Empty lots abutting the course that previously sold for $200 in back taxes now commanded $50,000. The only sour note was sounded by environmental purists, who complained that the thin layer of dirt atop the waste was mere “litterbox” technology. “It was a cover-up, not a cleanup,” says John Ray, who is president of the Montana Environmental Information Center. “It’s pretty, not permanent.” Plenty pleased with pretty, civic leaders tried to replicate the feat in 1998-99 but failed miserably. Even as the EPA and ARCO basked in publicity over the golf course triumph, two other redevelopments at the Anaconda Superfund site — a senior housing project and a regional prison — quietly fell through. County attorney Michael Grayson blames the failure of the senior housing project on ARCO. The company converted a simple two-page deed into a 38-pager that scared away mortgage bankers. (In the case of the golf course, there had been no banker to scare away because ARCO donated the land.) Sandy Stash instead blames the stagnant local economy, scoffing at the notion that only ARCO and Superfund hold up development. “The economy is not good in Anaconda,” she says. “There are more basic problems than how long the deeds are.” The prison brownfields project also ran into a number of obstacles. The EPA and ARCO clashed over the proper level of cleanup at the proposed site. At the same time, some members of the community were unhappy with the prospect of becoming a prison town, and they called in the American Civil Liberties Union. The ACLU complained of the risk posed to the health of inmates, who presumably would suffer more long-term exposure than weekend golfers. Stash says that what killed the deal was the threat of negative publicity from a lawsuit by the ACLU, rather than any perceived disagreement over cleanup costs. “We wouldn’t [have] put a prison there with the ACLU on our backs [even] if we’d [have made] money on the deal,” she says. Why did the golf course deal happen when the others did not? As the community at Anaconda learned, the secret ingredient was public relations. Absent PR value, market demand, corporate will, and regulatory flexibility don’t always align. And at sites with serious contamination, a low market value, and little or no subsidy, it doesn’t take much to torpedo a brownfields deal. By 1997, ARCO had dismantled the main smelter on one side of the valley and converted the original smelter on the other side into links. That left the sky-high natural restoration claims, which Montana was pursuing on a parallel track, and some big odds and ends for the feds. The EPA’s biggest challenge was the Anaconda uplands — 18 square miles of empty hillside around the smelter — and the mine tailings ponds that had accumulated 300 million cubic yards of toxic rock. But waste in such a remote area could pose little risk to human health. Because the waste was copious but relatively harmless, it represented in extreme form the trade-offs in remedies that the EPA had to grapple with everywhere. Bob Fox’s regional office of the EPA initially saw two main choices. It could cart away and treat all tainted soil for $3.3 billion. Or it could till the surface with new dirt, plant grass, and treat a few hot spots at a cost of perhaps $180 million. The first option was never seriously considered. In March 1997 the second option was vetted before the EPA’s new National Remedy Review Board. At the review board, Fox was dumbfounded to encounter resistance, which bordered on the antagonistic, to the very idea of a cleanup for purely ecological reasons. “Aren’t you close to Yellowstone?” asked one board member, implying that Montana had nature to spare. By a close vote, the board approved Fox’s basic approach. But it urged him to cut another $15-90 million from the price tag and give ARCO more leeway. Fox was already committed to trimming his remedy costs, so he took the admonition as validation. Stash wanted to cut much more deeply. She tried to sell the community on a minimal cleanup, costing $12.3 million to $24 million — revegetating a few acres and prettying up the roadside. She also proposed tens of millions more in community improvements. ARCO dragged its feet on the study that the EPA had demanded, and for the first time during the Anaconda cleanup, the EPA took over the project. Says the EPA’s Coleman: “Their approach was basically, ‘Do nothing, don’t clean up for ecological reasons. Who cares about the critters?’ “ Stash dug in her heels, likely for fear that cleaning up for purely ecological reasons might set a dangerous precedent in the huge parallel suit over natural resource damages. She also made a strong case for putting health first in a poor community. She asks rhetorically: “Is it better for human health and the environment to spend $150 million planting grass, or $5 million on sewers?” The community didn’t buy it. “ARCO thought the golf course would buy it gratitude,” says county attorney Mike Grayson, who is angry about the failure of the senior housing project. “If it won’t assist us in redevelopment, we might as well clean up to stringent standards so that people will eventually come and develop the land.” Redevelopment clearly was not uppermost in ARCO’s mind. The debate over the final phase of remediation at Anaconda was unfolding from 1997 to 1998, at the very same time that Montana’s NRD claims first went to trial. “Don’t forget,” says Coleman, “ARCO still had a $765 million claim hanging over its head.” Montana had filed its resources claim against ARCO at the Clark Fork sites in 1983. The claim was ignored until 1989, when an overeager ARCO lawyer decided it was time to get the case off the books. The state opposed the motion to revive the case in part because it lacked the funds. The betting among lawyers on both sides was that the Montana legislature would never adequately fund the case. “ARCO attorneys have told me many times that was their biggest mistake,” says Robert Collins, the state’s top NRD lawyer. In fact, the legislature created a special NRD office and gave the program $5 million to start. Collins took up residence in the statehouse’s “Old Livestock Building,” where they used to slaughter calves, and started toting up damages. Nobody quite knows how to gauge the value of a river basin. Biologists retained by the program calculated the cost of restoring the Clark Fork site by looking at comparable ecosystems. Then economists put a price tag on the reduced value of nature during the 10 years it would take to restore the river basin. This was done by polling residents and vacationers — a controversial method called “contingent valuation.” For instance, the survey asked residents how much each household would be willing to pay each year for 10 years to fund complete cleanup. (The average answer was about $40 per year for 10 years.) When sums like this were multiplied by the number of all resident and vacationer households and added to the biologists’ estimates on ecosystem restoration, the grand total of damages came to $765 million. A contingent valuation has yet to make it through a completed trial in any jurisdiction, so its legitimacy remains untested. Stash fumes: “They gave these questionnaires to five of their best friends. On the phone or by mail, people are willing to pay $20 for anything. They might as well have asked, “What would you pay to have Old Faithful in Butte?” But ARCO lost its pretrial motion to exclude the studies as unscientific. In his opening argument in March 1997, ARCO’s lead trial lawyer, Stephen Foster of Denver-based Holland & Hart, laid out the company’s main theme: that the state had been a full partner with the mining industry for a century. In essence, ARCO argued that the state, ignoring its own deep involvement in mining, was pursuing double or triple recovery. In the arguments over the (ongoing) litigation, ARCO says that when it swapped forests with the U.S. in the years around 1930, in order to settle the suits initiated by President Theodore Roosevelt, the U.S. gave the company full liability releases, and many of these tracts had later been sold back to the government (subject to broad deed restrictions). The state responds that Montana wasn’t a party to the 1910 federal lawsuit, that full releases were never signed, and that Superfund claims are subject only to statutory defenses. Perhaps most fundamentally, ARCO argues that NRD restoration damages overlap with remediation damages already paid under Superfund proper at the Clark Fork sites. As Stash says: “You people want $765 million, and half of it looks exactly like what we’re doing on the remedy side.” That may be hyperbolic, but sometimes the revegetation proposed by the feds and the state is quite similar. Wild basin rye is wild basin rye. Take, for example, the Anaconda uplands, which form just a small piece of the Clark Fork resources at issue in the NRD case. ARCO argued that the $90-165 million revegetation it is undertaking on the uplands will revegetate some of the same land for which Montana seeks restoration damages. The state responded by eliminating areas of geographic overlap with the EPA’s remedial plan. It revised the uplands piece of the NRD claim downward from $42 million to $15 million, effectively conceding some “double-dipping.” Collins insists that, after that adjustment, the claims contain no overlap. Henry Elsen, the lawyer for the EPA in Montana, says, “The distinction between restoration and remediation is still unresolved. I think it’s a question for Congress.” In June 1998, ARCO agreed to pay $135 million to Montana, thus settling most of the state’s NRD claims at the Clark Fork sites. That figure includes all of the claims based on contingent valuation, and six of nine claims based on ecosystem analysis. That leaves three geographic areas in dispute, worth about $200 million. The Anaconda uplands are one of the areas where restoration damages are still in dispute, and that case is expected to go to trial in 2001. Meanwhile, Montanans are debating what to do with the money they have won, with proposals ranging from restoring elk habitat to restoring a turn-of-the-century Coney Island-style amusement park in Butte. Superfund is broken and needs to be fixed,” EPA administrator Carol Browner repeatedly said during President Bill Clinton’s first term. Yet Congress never acted. Industry taxes that fed Superfund expired in late 1995, while the Anaconda golf course was still on the drawing board. As the program ran on fumes (court winnings, general appropriations, principal and interest), the EPA set about tinkering. Today, Timothy Fields, who runs Superfund, declares, “Superfund has been fixed.” The first major independent assessments by the GAO and the National Academy for Public Administration were released in June 2000 without fanfare. The findings largely support Fields’ boast, although the GAO is unsure who deserves the credit. Clearly, Superfund is cleaning up, and cleaning up more cheaply. According to EPA figures, about half of the National Priority List sites have already seen construction completed. The average cost of a site cleanup declined by 20 percent from 1987 to 1998. Many savings flow from remedy reform. The EPA claims to have saved $1.3 billion thus far, by going back and changing remedy decisions. The agency now often opts for containment — which basically means leaving the yuck in place, capping it, treating it when feasible, and zoning with care. At both the uplands and the Old Works golf course, the EPA has approved containment, rather than removal or permanent treatment. Containment is now chosen at 20-30 percent of all new cleanups nationwide. Justice Stephen Breyer poked fun at Superfund in his 1993 book, “Breaking the Vicious Circle,” for basing cleanup on “nonexistent dirt-eating children.” Today, Superfund cleans up empty hillsides in the expectation that they will remain empty, with the proviso that if a day-care center decides to truck in dirt-eating kids one day, the standards will rise, and the polluter will have to clean up. Land reuse, or brownfields development, goes a step further and ensures what future use will be. Twenty years on, brownfields has emerged as the one universally popular stepchild of Superfund. The EPA loves to boast about spots like the Superfun Golf Driving Range, built on a landfill in East Baltimore, and the Luminous Processors McDonald’s, in Athens, Ga., which cooks where they used to make radioactive watch dials. Land reuse is in a sense EPA’s capstone reform, because it brings two big ideas together. It at once affords a flexible remedy and pays respect to local communities by addressing their concern that toxic taint will leave land forever abandoned. Some see this as a policy masterstroke: Brownfields provide the political cover for a partial or impermanent cleanup that regulators have come to accept. Greens like John Ray worry about an impermanent cleanup in the long run, especially at a site like Anaconda where the toxins are metals, which won’t biodegrade. He thinks ARCO may be let off the hook by Congress, and that the locals won’t have the resources to monitor the site and control land use. But he offers no programmatic alternative for a place like the uplands, where an old-fashioned remedy would cost $3.3 billion. Industry likes the move toward containment, the selection of pragmatic remedies with end use in mind, and the abandonment of costly failed technology; but it complains that many of the EPA’s reforms are window dressing, and it seeks more drastic change in Congress. The biggest looming battleground is natural resource damages. Is NRD the wave of the future? Rob Collins, for one, is skeptical, even as he confidently gears up for trial on restoration of the Anaconda uplands. “Normally, it makes sense only when the stakes are really big,” he says. “You have to fight large corporations on every point of law and fact to the infinite degree.” Walk in the door of the golf clubhouse in Anaconda, and you’re greeted by the sign “Old Works is a Smoke Free Environment.” That would have been news to the copper kings, and it would surely have tickled the “smoke farmers.” Yet one golfer, stopped at random, has only the vaguest idea what Superfund is; another has never heard of it. The EPA’s Bob Fox and ARCO’s Sandy Stash stride into the clubhouse and ride together in golf carts past the stone furnace remains bordering the third fairway to the fourth hole, named Flue #5, built on the site of one of the original smokestacks. Charlie Coleman is late arriving because he was drafting a new work plan. The EPA hopes that Stash will agree to do the cleanup work as part of an amended administrative order on consent. “Either she signs it, or we bring a unilateral administrative order,” Fox said before she arrived, “and not a friendly one.” The cleanup work goes on — but after more than a decade of clashing and collaborating, the two have earned the right to a little philosophizing. “Superfund is a much better program than 10 years ago,” says Stash. “I’m at peace with Superfund, which I wasn’t 10 years ago. As a society, we’ve decided to clean up this stuff. We could have done that through a general tax, and we could have tagged industry. We opted for the latter. That’s fine. But I’m not at peace with NRD. I think NRD is all about money.” Fox looks around shyly and says simply, “We’ve done a bunch of cleanup.” Instead of playing golf when he retires, Fox says, “I think I’ll stick around here and watch things heal up.” Already, a turtle and brook trout have been spotted in Silver Bow Creek, the same stream he found encrusted when he and the EPA were young. And what about Coleman’s work order? Stash signed it later that week. More work for the engineers; no more work for the lawyers. Michael D. Goldhaber is a staff reporter and columnist at The National Law Journal.

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