At a meeting intended to gather residents's concerns about possible mining and smelting contamination exposure Tuesday evening, there was low public turnout.
About 15 people attended who were not Superfund professionals or elected officials.
The meeting was well attended by federal, state and county employees, Atlantic Richfield Company representatives and others who sit on Superfund-related boards or who are paid to pay attention to Superfund in one way or another. Overall about 50 people packed the Butte-Silver Bow Public Archives' small conference room.
That means that officials of various stripes outnumbered the general public by 3-to-1.
Bill Macgregor, a retired Montana Tech professor who is spearheading the project, said he was not disappointed by the low turnout of the general public, despite the fact that his research goal is to find out what individual residents worry about when it comes to their health.
Macgregor and Raja Nagisetty, who is a current Montana Tech professor, received approximately $60,000 from the National Institutes of Health to study what the Butte public wants to know about its health. For instance, anecdotally, residents say they think there is a high incidence of multiple sclerosis in both Butte and Anaconda. But there is no official data to back up that claim.
MS is a debilitating disease of the brain and spinal cord that disproportionately strikes women. There is no cure.
Others say there are elevated levels of cancer and other diseases, such as ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease) and other neurological disorders.
Despite the poor turnout, Macgregor called the meeting “a really good start.”
“It raised the discussion; it raised the awareness,” Macgregor said by phone Wednesday. “If people don’t like to come out to meetings, we need to find other ways to reach them.”
The next step for the roughly year-long study, Macgregor said, is to send out surveys to 500 randomly selected individuals.
During the meeting, officials with the Butte-Silver Bow County Health Department said that according to a 2017 survey of residents, the top health priorities of the public have nothing to do with exposure to mining and smelting contamination. John Rolich, B-SB environmental health division manager, said the public’s health priorities are nutrition and weight; substance abuse, and mental health, according to the county’s 2017 survey.
Rolich said 57 percent of survey recipients responded to the county’s 2017 health survey.
While the Butte public appeared disinterested in talking about its health and potential metal exposure this week, that is not the case in Anaconda.
Michelle Waters, Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry chief medical officer, said that due to overwhelming interest in the ATSDR’s test of residents’ urine for possible arsenic exposure, ATSDR is returning to sample more Anaconda denizens.
ATSDR has made two visits to Anaconda this year. The agency came once in May to listen to Anaconda residents' concerns privately. The agency returned over the summer to sample for arsenic in Anaconda residents' urine.
Arsenic remains detectable through a person’s urine after exposure for a few days, so the test results will tell the agency if the people sampled have been exposed within a very recent time frame. The urine test will not be able to tell the agencies if Anaconda residents have been exposed in the past or are routinely exposed and just happen not to have been exposed within the week of their test.
Nonetheless, Charlie Partridge, EPA Region 8 toxicologist, said the test will provide “the largest data set for arsenic I’ve seen.”
Waters said ATSDR is returning soon to Anaconda to test more people due to the overwhelming interest.