The EPA will take a closer look at public health in Anaconda, the agency's regional administrator said Wednesday.
During a meeting with community leaders, Region 8 Administrator Doug Benevento committed on the spot to push for the health study after hearing requests from county officials and Community Hospital of Anaconda CEO Steve McNeece.
Anaconda’s Old Works Smelter shut down in 1980, after close to 100 years of operation, sending tons of heavy metals, primarily arsenic and lead, into the air. EPA put Anaconda on the National Priority List – designating the town and about 300 square miles within the county – as a Superfund site in 1983.
Superfund coordinator Carl Nyman said there is a perceived high level of multiple sclerosis, a neurological disorder, in Anaconda. Symptoms vary, but MS can affect walking, memory and have other negative consequences.
MS is far more prevalent in women than men. Where one lives appears to make a difference. According to the National MS Society, early exposure to an environmental trigger could play a role in the disease.
Heavy metals are neurotoxic, Nicholas LaRocca, PhD and vice president of healthcare delivery and policy research for the National MS Society, told The Montana Standard in a previous interview.
Other health issues county officials raised are Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease, or COPD, and cancer.
After The Montana Standard requested earlier this year that the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry conduct a public-health survey regarding MS, the agency's director, Dr. Patrick Breysse, responded in a letter that because of "the lack of a link between MS and arsenic and lead" as well as a lack of data for comparison purposes, the agency did not plan to do such a study.
McNeece prefaced his remarks before about 20 Anaconda community leaders plus EPA and county officials at the Old Works Golf Course clubhouse by acknowledging he is not a scientist, but a hospital administrator. But, McNeece pointed out that lifespans in Anaconda are, for males, three years less than the statewide average. Women in Anaconda live, on average, one year less than women in the rest of the state.
Cancer rates are higher in Anaconda, for prostate, breast and lung and other cancers, he said.
He also said the suicide rate is one of the highest in both the state and the nation.
“I can’t tell you the effects on poverty and alcohol and domestic violence, but our economy is not developing,” McNeece said.
Anaconda-Deer Lodge Chief Executive Bill Everett talked about a recent funeral he attended for an Anaconda man who had worked in heating and air conditioning in the Smelter City for 40 years and died of cancer. Everett said that 2,600 homes were built in Anaconda-Deer Lodge Co. prior to 1970 and the county believes 99 percent of them have “very elevated” levels of arsenic and lead.
“The discussion (at the funeral) was what effect did it have on him crawling around in these attics,” Everett said during the meeting. “I don’t have an answer for that.”
Another issue that came up repeatedly was the lack of testing in the interiors of Anaconda’s schools for lead. Lead exposure in children affects IQ and causes irreversible developmental delays.
EPA tested the soils on school grounds for arsenic more than a decade ago.
But the agency never tested for lead on school grounds and never tested for either metal inside the schools.
Having consolidated in recent years, Anaconda has three schools – Anaconda High School, Fred Moodry Middle School and Lincoln Elementary.
Lincoln Elementary is located in east Anaconda, the residential neighborhood nearest to the defunct smelter and the area where homes have shown the highest amount of lead and arsenic in attics and soils. Young children are most at risk with lead exposure.
“It’s not acceptable and it’s embarrassing,” Everett said. “It’s embarrassing I’ve been in my position for ten months and it’s still not done. I hope we go in next week and test and can say our schools are safe. We need some of these things answered.”
EPA project manager Charles Coleman told The Montana Standard that EPA didn’t sample dust inside the schools because the agency “didn’t do any interior dust or attic dust when testing for arsenic,” more than a decade ago.
“It wasn’t identified as a risk,” he said.
He also said attics were not something the community was expressing concern about in the 1990s.
“It never really came up,” he said.
When EPA decided, in 2013, to reconfigure how it would address the cleanup in Anaconda – and include lead for the first time in its efforts to protect human health and the environment in the Smelter City – the agency opted to go with a “community-based abatement plan” instead of sampling and cleaning up interiors, according to Coleman.
Benevento made no concrete promises as to when Anaconda’s schools’ interiors would get tested. EPA had been putting off the sampling until next spring because Coleman thought EPA would learn more from what students track in from mud and dirt with their shoes.
But Everett is concerned with attics and air ducts.
Anaconda superintendent Gerry Nolan said, “We’ll work with anybody to get that (testing) done this year.”
The county also wants to see EPA develop a ten-year cleanup plan. With only 15 residential attics cleaned of lead and arsenic in the 34 years of Superfund, Everett repeatedly said "this is not acceptable."
McNeece also said he would like responsible party Atlantic Richfield Company to pay for a senior living facility to be built in Anaconda. The county also wants to be able to remove "dirty dirt" to a waste repository when digging up contaminated dirt for utility work. Currently, the county has to put the "dirty dirt" back into the ground.
County officials also discussed the difficulty of sewer and water lines in the county. Everett said the county can't put in a septic system in a waste management area. That affects development.
"It really limits what we can do. It's a burden on the city to run sewer to long distances," Everett said.
County officials also told stories of developers who have taken a look at Anaconda and left because of fears of Superfund liability and all the unknowns. McNeece said 30 percent of his hospital staff, who are paid good wages, live in Butte-Silver Bow County because of a lack of good housing stock in Anaconda.
Benevento told The Standard he probably wouldn't get back to visit Anaconda with answers to the many questions raised at Wednesday's meeting before next spring or summer. He also stressed to the community members that EPA has to act under Superfund laws and he may not be able to give Anaconda everything it wants. But, he said, he came to Anaconda to help.
Everett took Benevento on a tour of Anaconda after the meeting. He showed Benevento east Anaconda, where the worst of the contamination lies, but also the east yards, where development has been stymied due to various legal decisions made years ago and the “waste in place” solution, making it hard for Anaconda to grow economically.
“All I’m asking for is a level playing field,” Everett said.