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Dirty dirt and 36 years of cleanup

Piles of "dirty dirt" fill an empty field between Opportunity and Anaconda as a dump truck halls a load from a yard in downtown Anaconda in late July. 

Nearly half of the vegetable and fruit samples the Environmental Protection Agency took from Anaconda gardens last year exceeded the metal threshold to consume it for at least one metal.

But, EPA says, it's still safe for Anaconda residents to eat their apples and other homegrown treats because the amounts over the threshold were low and pose "no unacceptable risk to consumers," said Charlie Coleman, EPA project manager for Anaconda.

The EPA commissioned a study on fruit and vegetable gardens last year as part of its efforts to respond to residents' ongoing concerns about the health of the community. The EPA issued a report on its findings earlier this year.

The results showed that of the 107 samples taken in the summer of 2018, 56 samples were below the threshold for consumption for all metals.

But 51 of the samples exceeded the threshold for at least one metal. 

In general, concentrations of metals were the highest in root vegetables, leafy greens, and herbs and seeds. Fruits, berries, beans, peas, tomatoes and squash showed less.

Four soil samples taken from three gardens showed concentrations of lead to be higher than what the EPA considers a safe level. One garden soil sample had 1,910 parts per million of lead.

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But the vegetables that came from those gardens “do not appear to be elevated” when considering residents’ amount of consumption of the produce, according to the report.

Aluminum appeared in the lab analysis as well, but the EPA believes the aluminum was in the soil that clung to the vegetables, rather than that the vegetables or fruit absorbed the aluminum into the edible parts.

Coleman says the risk to residents is “acceptable.” That is, in part, based on the assumption that the amount of Anaconda fruits and vegetables eaten only make up about 10% of a resident’s annual diet.

“The big takeaway is it’s in the acceptable risk range,” Coleman said. “It’s safe to eat the vegetables.”

If residents are worried, Coleman said they can take advantage of the county’s garden soil swap program, which provides the material to build raised beds and clean soil to plant vegetables into. Coleman also said it's a good idea for residents to remember to always wash their fruit and vegetables, since some of what the lab detected appeared to come from the outside of the plant.

The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry paid a visit to Anaconda last year, also at EPA’s behest, as part of EPA's attempt to respond to the ongoing health complaints in a town that was built around Copper King Marcus Daly’s smelters. The results of that effort are expected to be released later this year, said the Office of Communications for the Centers for Disease Control's National Center for Environmental Health and ATSDR. 

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