Editor's note: This story has been modified to remove incorrect information regarding the EPA Administrator's position. Andrew Wheeler is Acting Administrator and there are no immediate plans to nominate Wheeler or anyone else as permanent administrator, or to have a Senate confirmation hearing.
Andrew Wheeler, acting administrator for the Environmental Protection Agency, made a historic visit to the Mining City and the Smelter City Friday.
Wheeler broke a 28-year streak Friday when he, in the top position at EPA, visited both Butte and Anaconda. Before Friday, William Reilly was the last EPA administrator to visit both the Mining City and the Smelter City. Reilly came in 1990 at the behest of then-Sen. Max Baucus.
Butte and Anaconda and the Clark Fork River Superfund cleanup make up the largest Superfund complex in the nation. Many in Butte and Anaconda said Friday during Wheeler's visit that it was about time the towns got this level of attention and it's time to "get 'er done" and get Butte and Anaconda cleaned up and delisted.
Republican Sen. Steve Daines originally asked former EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt to make a site tour of both towns a priority when Pruitt was originally confirmed by the Senate in 2017.
Pruitt was planning to make the trip, but he left his position amid a swirl of controversy over a cornucopia of alleged ethical violations in early July.
Wheeler, who was deputy administrator under Pruitt, took over when Pruitt resigned in July.
Wheeler began his career working for the EPA, but he has also been a lobbyist for energy companies.
Wheeler began his day with a press conference in Butte standing on the pedestrian bridge at the confluence of Silver Bow and Blacktail creeks. The site is an important spot in the Butte Hill cleanup. Many of the EPA's critics in Butte are frustrated that the agreement in principle, reached earlier this year, does not include a meandering, free-flowing upper Silver Bow Creek. What is currently upper Silver Bow Creek acts as a storm drain for toxic rain and snow melt that travels off the Butte Hill.
Wheeler said that one of his priorities while leading the agency is to have the EPA do a better job of communicating risk to people who live in Superfund sites or who are exposed to toxins due to a catastrophic event, such as the terrorist attacks in New York City on Sept. 11, 2001.
After that attack, the EPA did not relay to New Yorkers the risks involved in breathing the toxic air around the city. Some New York City officials at the time encouraged New Yorkers to go shopping after the attacks.
"I felt that EPA dropped the ball on Ground Zero," Wheeler said Friday.
Many in both Butte and Anaconda gave positive feedback to the acting administrator, saying that they were in high school or college 35 years ago when Butte and Anaconda were originally put on the National Priorities List.
Kevin Hart, an Anaconda-Deer Lodge County commissioner, said Friday that he could remember skull-and-crossbones signs posted along Montana Highway 1 and Montana Highway 48 in 1980 when the Washoe Smelter shut down.
"It's like the community died," Hart said.
The focus in Butte during a meeting with community and business leaders and county- and state-level officials was largely about upper Silver Bow Creek. Fritz Daily, long-time Superfund watchdog, called the current agreement "inferior." But if Butte doesn't accept it, the town will get a worse "inferior" plan, he said.
When Daily mentioned that Butte had provided the copper vital to the United States in World Wars I and II, Wheeler responded, "Butte didn't turn its back on America, and America will not turn its back on Butte."
Butte-Silver Bow County commissioners will vote on the cleanup agreement sometime this fall, which means they get the final say. But if the commissioners vote down the plan, the EPA will force the cleanup on Atlantic Richfield Company, the company responsible for more than 100 years of historic mining and smelting waste.
In that case, the EPA's enforcement will be more limited than what the current agreement — which was negotiated with Atlantic Richfield — provides.
Wheeler and Daines, along with an entourage of EPA, state, and Anconda-Deer Lodge County officials, then held a second press conference in the middle of a grass field near Highway 1 with the long defunct Washoe Smelter stack in the background.
During a meeting with a handful of concerned citizens in Anaconda, Wheeler got an earful about worries over cancer rates and other disease.
Long-time government watchdog Rose Nyman told Wheeler cancer "is there."
"I just cannot believe it's not killing us," she said.
The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry is conducting a study Sept. 14 through 17 to provide free arsenic and lead testing to Anaconda residents as part of a limited look at the health of locals. Neither arsenic nor lead remain in the urine or blood for very long.
Wheeler said the EPA is evaluating Professor Suzanne McDermott's epidemiological study that came out late last month and is considering asking ATSDR to expand their study to include Butte residents. According to McDermott's study, Butte and Anaconda residents have considerably higher mortality rates from stroke and heart disease, kidney and liver failure, and cancer.
McDermott is an independent researcher and a professor of epidemiology at the Arnold School of Public Health at University of South Carolina-Columbia.