Infrastructure

Can an App Start a Public Dialog About Montana’s Superfund Sites?

The city and county of Butte-Silver Bow wants to develop an interactive mobile app to educate residents about mining Superfund sites.

by Mike Smith, The Montana Standard / October 16, 2017
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(TNS) — Butte-Silver Bow, Mont., hopes to develop a mobile app that gives residents more information about Superfund sites and lets them pose their own questions and comments to government officials and experts in the field.

The goal is to do a better job informing people about the environmental impact a century of mining has had on Butte and what has and is being done to improve things plus get the public engaged in the dialog and solutions.

The hoped-for result: “A more informed public that feels empowered because they have information and they feel they can participate in our environmental story,” said Julia Crain, a special projects planner for the county.

The app — and the best way to facilitate the information flow — is still in its initial idea stage. But the city-county could get $100,000 and perhaps more to help fund the effort through the Bloomberg Mayors Challenge, a national contest in which cities develop innovate ways to tackle pressing problems.

Butte is among more than 550 cities with populations above 30,000 taking part in the 2017 challenge sponsored by Bloomberg Philanthropies, whose founder is former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg.

Because Butte was among the first 300 taking part, the organization sent a representative here in August to conduct a one-day workshop to develop the app idea. The county’s formal contest application is due Oct. 20.

Thirty-five cities will be awarded $100,000 each in January to bring their ideas to life, and by this time next year, Bloomberg Philanthropies will determine the best initiatives and award one city $5 million and four others $1 million each to help causes.

The money would be great, the county’s top official says, but the app idea is worth pursuing regardless.

“Even if we do not make the top 35, we feel we have a project that is going to benefit all of Butte and its citizens and (address) our Superfund issues here,” Chief Executive Dave Palmer said.

As it stands, there are information and trust divides between those working daily on fixing the pollution mess and the general public.

“There is a stigma of Superfund that is really hurting economic development, and it’s pretty much tearing the community apart in trying come up with solutions and who believes what,” Palmer said.

Besides Crain and Palmer, those working on the app initiative include geographic information systems specialist Jeremy Grotbo, IT system administrator Nate Watson, and administrative assistant Kareniesa Kohn.

As envisioned, a person could pull up maps and other data about any Superfund site in Butte-Silver Bow and get information on its makeup, history, and any corrective actions, among other things. They could use the same app to ask questions or relay their own observations at those locations.

For example, a person might notice a weed or other plant along a reclaimed site’s walking trail or spot water runoff somewhere. They could take a picture and send it with any questions via the app, and those questions would be routed to those who could respond appropriately.

That might be a county or state official or someone at Montana Tech’s Biology Department, the Bureau of Mines and Geology, the Clark Fork Watershed Education Program, or any number of other partners in the effort.

They could then get information to the sender or look into someone’s observation or concern, since it might be something new. It would be designed as a two-way street.

Grotbo said those who work closely on pollution issues can communicate in such a way via apps and cellphones, and some of that data “filters down to the public through policies or directives.”

“Various stakeholders such as corporations and public agencies already use these tools but … they are not focused on public use,” Grotbo said. “There is nothing to prevent that from happening. It’s an opportunity to create a dialogue between policy makers, engineers, scientists, and the public at large.”

Crain said the app also could help dispel myths about Butte’s environment and show how much progress has been made in cleaning and restoring it.

The initiative was presented to the Superfund Advisory and Redevelopment Trust Authority this week. County officials should know by late this year or early next year whether they have made the top 35.

©2017 The Montana Standard (Butte, Mont.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.