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Mitchell Stadium

A sign placed at Mitchell Stadium two weeks ago alerts the public that the football and track stadium in Anaconda was closed due to buried contamination found by workers. 

With plans to dig in Mitchell Stadium to replace the irrigation system, Anaconda’s school board wants the Environmental Protection Agency to take a second look at possible contamination beneath the field.

Anaconda School District 10 closed Mitchell Stadium two weeks ago due to a potentially contaminated rail line found buried underneath the football field.

Residents who remembered a railroad track going through where the stadium is now located in the 1100 block of West Fifth Street told school board members that a rail line was likely still there. The school board reportedly told EPA what residents remembered during previous discussions about Mitchell Stadium, but EPA produced a map that appeared to refute that claim.

The school district found the rail line in late October because of a low spot causing concern about the field. Believing it might be due to a water pipe issue, the district dug a hole to check. Workers stumbled on the rail line. Barnes previously said there are other low spots on the field and one concern is that there may be more rail lines under the stadium.

Most rail beds in the area were laid on top of slag and other mining and smelting waste. Rail lines in both Anaconda and Butte required cleanup action for high levels of arsenic.

The dirt where workers dug the hole in October shows the discoloration that usually indicates an abundance of heavy metals.

Now the school board wants the field retested for contamination. Calling the irrigation system “deferred maintenance,” Barnes said it needs to be replaced.

The school board wants the soil to be clean up to 24 inches deep, not the 12 inches that EPA says is sufficient where there are high levels of "dirty dirt," Barnes said.

“We don’t want people digging into a surface that might have contaminants,” Barnes said by phone Tuesday.  

EPA gave the county permission to retest the field where the railroad tracks have been found, said Chas Ariss, Anaconda's Public Works and Planning director.

Ariss said the county can only test the soil in the hole and he believes, based on photos of the hole he has seen, the sampling will go 24 to 30 inches deep.

Ariss said sampling and lab testing could take up to a couple of months “to see what’s going on,” but he added that if the testing and sampling are prioritized, “we can get a two-week turnaround time.”

While the Anaconda Copperheads football team is no longer using the field this fall, local residents exercise at the stadium. In addition, track meets are scheduled for next year and the track team is expected to hit the track next spring.

The stadium remains shut down until the situation is resolved.

“We need to make sure nothing’s hot out there,” Barnes said.

The School Board’s Building and Grounds Subcommittee met Monday morning and tasked Barnes to research environmental lawyers to give guidance to the board.

“We want someone on retainer so we’re guided in the right direction,” Barnes said.

The subcommittee met this week in advance of the upcoming School Board meeting Wednesday (see information box). Charlie Coleman, EPA Anaconda project manager, is expected to attend that meeting.

EPA said by email that the agency “has been aware for some time of the possibility of a historic rail line buried beneath ground surface at the stadium.”

EPA called the rail lines indicated on the map spur lines and said the lines could have extended further than the map indicated. EPA said the lines “sometimes extended beyond these areas to create more room for switching purposes.”

EPA said the school board did not have a permit to dig in the stadium but should have had one under the county’s system designed to protect the public. The program is necessary because of EPA’s “waste left in place” policy in the Smelter City.

This isn’t the first time a crack in that system has led to unintended results. A resident of Anaconda dug a well in 2010 and built a house in 2015 but fell through the cracks on ensuring that drinking water wells are tested for metals. The couple found out late last year they’d been drinking water contaminated with 700 parts per billion of arsenic, a known carcinogen, for three years.  

Of the potential for workers to be exposed in Mitchell Stadium, EPA wrote that the system in place "ensures that workers performing excavations are protected if they encounter contaminated material at depth. The system also provides that any contaminated material found is managed appropriately to avoid spreading the material at the surface where the public can be exposed. The county can test soils dug up and assist (those who have permits to dig) with proper management of contaminated materials and protection of workers.”

Ariss said that if the EPA refuses to sample the entire field and the school board chooses to have the entire field tested on its own, that “gets spendy for sure.”

A message for comment was left with Atlantic Richfield Company. 

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Nat'l Resources / General Reporter

Environmental and natural resources reporter for the Montana Standard.

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