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michelle watters

Michelle Watters

A federal health official Monday questioned the findings of a graduate student whose doctoral dissertation found higher mortality rates in Butte from cancer and other diseases.

The academic paper has drawn interest from community members who question the effectiveness of the EPA’s cleanup efforts of the Butte Superfund site to protect public health from a host of toxins. The report was written by Stacie Barry and used Centers for Disease Control data on death records in Butte from 1978 to 2006.

She concluded that Butte has higher mortality rates than Montana and the United States for cancer and some other diseases.

But Dr. Michelle Watters, a federal environmental health officer, said Barry’s report is not conclusive and only a starting point to conduct further public health studies. And Watters, who works for the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, said there are several limitations in the data that Barry used to compile her report.

“There is always a question of looking at your data and appreciating what the shortcomings of your data are,” Watters told more than a dozen people who came to the Butte-Silver Bow Health Department on Monday. “It’s really a mortality ratio that she’s presenting — it’s a crude rate.”

Barry’s report has stirred debate across the board in Butte. Critics of the Butte cleanup plan have said it points to the potential for exposure to toxins and how sufficient the past two decades of EPA remediation has been.

Watters, who also holds a doctorate in environmental engineering, said ATSDR is not a regulatory agency, but rather works with EPA to evaluate toxins associated with cleanup sites. She said the limitations of the Barry study include failing to account for other factors in mortality rates, such as race, age, sex and other health factors. And death records have some other flaws as a data source, because the cause of death could have been attributed to something else.

Yet, Watters said Barry’s work has value and shows the need to conduct a more thorough environmental health analysis in Butte.

But Cord Harris, a representative with Atlantic Richfield Co., the principally responsible party for mining contamination in Butte, was sharply critical of Barry’s report.

“We think it’s inherently flawed in its design,” he said.

ARCO issued a statement that said it would support future health studies in Butte that are science-based. It also defended the Butte cleanup work of the past and in the works.

“We believe the current remedies are protective of human health and the environment and we have confidence in EPA’s work,” the statement read.

Several attendees, however, said federal officials are trying to discredit Barry study because they don’t like what she found. Among them is Fritz Daily, who questioned ARCO’s word, citing the incident years ago when a flock of snow geese died on the water in the Berkeley Pit.

“They wanted us to believe that those snow geese kamikazeed onto the Berkeley Pit and died of a grain fungus they caught in Canada,” he said. “The EPA is trying to destroy the message by destroying the messenger and that’s wrong.”

And John Ray, a Tech professor and member of the Citizens Technical Environmental Committee, said the coordinated message from the EPA and ARCO is troubling.

“Now we have the regulated praising the regulators,” Ray said. “I never recall ARCO being as outspoken in praising EPA as they are now.”

— Reporter Nick Gevock may be reached at nick.gevock@mtstandard.com

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