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Judge to hear arguments on disclosing secret Superfund talks

Posted 3:07 p.m. Monday

— An attorney for a Montana newspaper and an advocacy group will try to persuade a federal judge to strike down a 14-year-old court order that made settlement talks on how to clean up the nation's largest Superfund site confidential.

The Montana Standard petitioned to intervene in the ongoing case between the U.S. Department of Justice and Atlantic Richfield Co. after the newspaper was denied a public record request for information about settlement negotiations related to mining pollution in Butte.

The newspaper, along with the the Silver Bow Creek Headwaters Coalition, say the discussions on how the cleanup is conducted and whether it will ensure full restoration of areas damaged by mining is in the public's interest.

That information should be public under Montana's freedom of information laws, but the 2002 confidentiality order prevents its release, attorney James Goetz wrote in a document filed in U.S. District Court before the hearing set for Tuesday.

"There are few matters more important to the people of Butte and Silver Bow County than the environmental cleanup of the Silver Bow Creek/Butte area Superfund site," Goetz wrote.

Arco and the U.S. Department of Justice oppose intervention in the case by the newspaper and advocacy group. Arco attorney Kyle Gray said the Montana Standard has known for years that the sides have been negotiating privately to settle the complex Superfund lawsuit but decided only now that it's in the public interest for the newspaper to report on negotiations and related documents.

Gray and Justice Department attorney James Freeman said opening the negotiations to public scrutiny could halt them altogether.

"Press intervention ... would bring those negotiations to a swift end without settlement," Gray wrote.

U.S. District Judge Sam Haddon will hear arguments from all the parties.

The Justice Department sued Arco in 1989 over the cost of cleaning up the mining pollution left in southwestern Montana by Anaconda Copper Mining Corp. The company mined copper for decades from what was dubbed "the richest hill on Earth" in Butte. It dumped tailings into Silver Bow Creek and smelted the ore in Anaconda.

Arco bought Anaconda in 1977.

Three Superfund sites were created to regulate the cleanup of the mining pollution, including in the Butte and Silver Bow Creek area, which is the largest Superfund site in the nation. The Anaconda smelter site and the Milltown Reservoir downstream along the Clark Fork River are the other Superfund sites.

Haddon signed the 2002 order in the case that kept the settlement negotiations confidential. The order extends to other state and local government agencies involved in the talks.

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