Butte badly needs more health studies to determine how effective the cleanup of mining waste has been.
On that point, the federal Environmental Protection Agency, Atlantic-Richfield Co. (ARCO), Butte-Silver Bow County and Stacie Barry agree.
But Barry, a Butte native whose doctoral dissertation studies the mortality of Butte residents, said she’s fed up with federal officials and ARCO trying to discredit her work.
Her study, which has received a lot of attention in recent months, used a statistical analysis of Centers for Disease Control data and found that Butte has higher-than-average death rates from cancer and a host of other diseases.
“It didn’t set out to be the be-all and end-all epidemiology study in Butte,” Barry said this week in her office at the National Center for Appropriate Technology, where she works as director of energy services.
Barry, 39, said nothing in her dissertation claimed a direct cause from the pollution caused by decades of mining. And she conceded that the study has shortcomings, mainly its lack of age adjusting to further break it down.
But she stands behind the work and said it’s been frustrating to see that EPA and ARCO have sharply criticized her work as scientifically unsound through opinion pieces and statements in the newspaper.
She said if anything, her dissertation will serve to get Butte talking about environmental health in the largest Superfund cleanup site in the country, something she feels is long overdue. That’s been witnessed by numerous emails and telephone calls that Barry said she’s received from people throughout town thanking her for raising the issue.
“It’s this giant elephant in the room that somebody is finally talking about,” Barry said.
Barry’s mortality study has drawn attention, but in fact it was only part of her dissertation. She also looked at the environmental history of the Butte Superfund site, as well as cultural factors that could affect death rates in the Mining City. But it’s been her mortality study portion of the dissertation that has drawn tremendous attention.
ARCO has criticized Barry’s methodology, calling it “fundamentally flawed.” And this week, ARCO issued a 41-page paper critiquing Barry’s work that pointed out what it saw as shortcomings.
Cord Harris, ARCO spokesman, said Barry’s report was broad in scope.
“It was an overall look at health in Butte,” he said. “Usually you look at one disease, but in Butte it was all of them.”
Environ International Corp., a Seattle firm hired by ARCO, conducted the critique. Among other things, it criticized Barry for not adjusting the mortality records to consider age. And it said she didn’t adjust for gender as well, which Barry said she in fact did.
In addition, the critique said a health study in Butte should look at disease incidence and not mortality to try to measure the effect of toxins on health. And it questioned numerous other portions of Barry’s study.
Julie DalSoglio, Montana EPA director, said the agency found problems with Barry’s report as well. EPA is drafting a written review that will be released soon.
But she said EPA is supportive of more extensive studies to gauge health issues in Butte.
“It is important for the county to do a health study and to look at cancer incidences and other health incidences throughout the county,” she said. “From EPA’s perspective, it is important to design the studies in a way that can address some of the issues in terms of how to look at the data and we hope to work with the county to do that.”
Barry said the EPA and ARCO are right.
“I agree that we need many, many studies and I think this is just the tip of the iceberg,” she said. “And I do think the age adjusting is a good idea; it would shed more light on what’s going on here.”
But she said that doesn’t justify the way both EPA and ARCO have responded to her study. She said the EPA worked to have a response to her study ready when it was released.
“It was definitely expressed to me that EPA did not like what I was doing,” she said.
And she defends her work. The lack of age adjusting was purposeful because Barry said had she done that, the sample size for each age category would have been too small to be statistically sound.
She also adjusted her study for gender, despite claims that she didn’t. And she took into account other factors that affect health, such as alcohol abuse. At the same time, Barry stresses she never stated the toxins found in Butte were causing disease because that’s not scientifically sound.
Barry added a health incidence study is badly needed, but those records are difficult to look at because of federal privacy laws. Her study used death records that were readily available because it was feasible.
Despite the attention, Barry, who holds a doctorate in interdisciplinary studies from the University of Montana, said she is a private person who was not seeking to be in the limelight. Nor does she enjoy it.
But as a Butte native with numerous relatives here, she takes pride in opening the discussion about environmental health issues in Butte. She said if the public speaks out, it can make more money available to conduct sound, scientific studies of the health issues.
“It’s a conversation in Butte that people have wanted to have, but they didn’t necessarily have an avenue to express it,” she said. “I’m glad that I at least opened the dialogue.”
— Reporter Nick Gevock may be reached at email@example.com
Read it yourself
To read Stacie Barry’s dissertation abstract, see this story at www.mt
standard.com, and click on the dissertation link.