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Butte-Silver Bow Health Department

The Butte-Silver Bow Health Department is located at 25 W. Front St.

A quick glance at the agenda for an upcoming meeting of Butte’s Citizens Technical Environmental Committee conveys the environmental engagement of the group. Presentations at the meeting will touch on copper toxicity in Silver Bow Creek and other streams in the upper Clark Fork River basin, the fishery status and cleanup of Silver Bow Creek, macroinvertebrate communities in Silver Bow Creek, and the history of nutrient removal at the county’s Waste Water Treatment Plant.

And oh, by the way, pizza will be served.

CTEC’s mission is to help Butte-Silver Bow residents better understand and respond to the highly technical information related to Superfund cleanups in Butte. Though CTEC has received funding via Technical Assistance Grants from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to hire the occasional expert to help carry out its mission, CTEC is very much a volunteer committee committed to Butte’s complex cleanup and explaining that complexity to the lay public.

So it was not out of the realm for one of CTEC’s members, Bill MacGregor, to recently pursue additional funding through the National Institutes of Health to dig deeper into Butte’s Superfund status and how residents feel that status affects their health.

MacGregor holds professor emeritus status at Montana Tech, which means he’s largely retired. But he’s not one of those kick-back retirees — his CTEC membership and pursuit of the NIH funding are testament to that.

MacGregor partnered with Tech professor Raja Nagisetty on the project, titled “Evaluating Environmental Health Risk Perceptions for Better Community Engagement.” The study’s goal: to evaluate a potential gap between community perceptions and official documentation by responsible agencies at the Butte Superfund site.

The Montana Standard’s Susan Dunlap has previously reported on the study’s outcomes, but I feel gratitude to MacGregor, Nagisetty and CTEC itself — CTEC’s president is Dave Williams, a geologist with the U.S. Department of Interior — and I wanted to expand on Dunlap’s coverage.

The study centered on a survey sent to 550 residents, with 163 returning the survey (MacGregor and Nagisetty were pleased with the volume of response, but admitted one limitation to their study was the relative lack of low-income respondents and respondents ages 18 to 39 – only those ages 18 and older were surveyed). The survey centered on general environmental health perceptions in Butte, specific environmental health perceptions, and perceptions related to Superfund activities. The survey also asked respondents whether they believe resident input into Superfund cleanup decisions and actions has been effective, and whether they believe Superfund activities have been effective in protecting the health of Butte residents.

Most respondents were very familiar or familiar with the removal of the Parrot Tailings from near the Butte Civic Center, the containment of contaminated water at the Berkeley Pit, and the construction of grass-covered caps on various mine dumps. Respondents were less familiar with the containment of mine waste in railroad beds in Uptown Butte, or the existence of the county’s Residential Metals Abatement Program (RMAP), which works to abate lead and other metals from residences and yards on the Butte hill.

As Dunlap reported, the vast majority of respondents believe Butte’s cancer incidence rate is higher than the state’s rate as a whole and the nation’s. The majority of respondents were unsure whether blood lead levels of children living on the Butte hill were higher than children living on Butte’s Flats, but a significant percentage of respondents did believe that blood lead levels of Uptown Butte children were higher than those of children living on the Flat. This, despite the fact that RMAP for years has focused its work on the Butte hill, and a study released five years ago showed that blood lead levels of children living on the Butte hill were not elevated over the levels of children living on the Flat.

The survey asked about the Berkeley Pit’s contaminated water, and whether respondents felt it has an impact on Butte residents’ drinking water. Though Butte’s drinking water is pristine — the city’s drinking water comes from three fully filtered water treatment plants and has nothing to do with the Berkeley Pit water — 45 percent of respondents felt that the protection of drinking water, as it relates to the Berkeley Pit water, was bad or somewhat bad.

A clear majority of respondents also felt that the Berkeley Pit water was having a negative impact on Butte’s environment (drinking water, soil, air) with 68.5 percent of respondents saying that the Berkeley Pit water was having a somewhat bad, bad or very bad impact on Butte’s environment.

Of course, MacGregor and Nagisetty wanted to learn from their study from where respondents were getting their information. Almost 93 percent of respondents said they were getting their information from local news. Fewer are getting their information from family and friends, social media, local community groups, and EPA reports and meetings.

Though these findings could be skewed due to a lack of younger respondents in the study, the finding that almost all of us get our Superfund information from local news — print and broadcast media — underscores the tremendous burden on and obligation of local news resources to report on these environmental issues with the utmost in soberness and fairness.

With the Butte Priority Soils Operable Unit consent decree pending — a consent decree that will guide where millions of dollars will be spent on cleanup — it is more important now than ever that our residents receive information that is unbiased and accurate.

My sincere thanks to MacGregor, Nagisetty and CTEC for doing their part — as volunteers — to determine what Butte residents believe about Superfund and how it might be affecting their health.

There is no more important mission than that.

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Karen Sullivan is Butte-Silver Bow Health Officer and Director of the Health Department. Her column, The Public’s Health, appears weekly on The Montana Standard’s Health page.

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