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Butte-iful flowers

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A group of Montana Tech biologists wants $848,000 in state Natural Resources Damage (NRD) claim money to plant three acres of native wildflowers on Butte Hill, but some local activists consider the proposal an exercise in pork barrel spending.

The critics include environmental advocates and a few Silver Bow County scientists who question whether the project could even succeed. Montana Tech’s proposal calls for the cloning of native wildflowers on specialized sods, which can prove difficult under normal conditions. Butte soil is highly contaminated with copper mining byproduct, including arsenic and various heavy metal salts.

The funding pot in question came from a massive lawsuit against Atlantic Richfield Corp. (ARCO) by state and federal Departments of Justice.

In a perhaps bizarre allocation of authority, Justice officials can distribute court-awarded money to local groups working on environmental restoration within the four Superfund sites with ARCO liability. The funding, however, is finite and Butte conservationists want to see it count.

“The NRD fund is not a goose that lays golden eggs,” says Pat Munday, a Montana Tech science and technology professor. “When the money is gone, it’s gone forever. You don’t write a high-stakes gambler a blank check.”

Beyond the technical difficulties, critics complain the project hinges on a still-incomplete university greenhouse that’s already more than $100,000 over budget.

Richard Douglass, head of the biology department at Montana Tech and lead researcher on the proposed wildflower project, did not respond to phone and e-mail requests to answer his colleagues’ concerns as of press time. According to his proposal—available through the state government website—the long-term goal of the project is to experiment with native plant communities resistant to weeds that can survive in Butte’s challenging soil.

Justice authorities overseeing dispersal of the NRD claim winnings are currently accepting public comment.

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