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Mine dust and heavy metals among worries as Butte aims for health study

Mine dust and heavy metals among worries as Butte aims for health study

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Butte residents want health professionals to look at the effects of dust from the Montana Resources open pit mine, heavy metals and other factors that could cause health problems.

Those are among the comments the county health department fielded in two sessions this week to get ideas into what upcoming studies should include.

Terri Hocking, county health director, said their aim is to apply the ideas to a plan to make Butte healthier. To do that, she said they need sound studies.

“My big concern is that somewhere, in baby steps, we do something to address health concerns in the community,” she said. “We want the studies to be as authentic and verifiable as possible.”

The attention on public health in Butte has been raised in recent months by a report from Stacie Barry, an employee at the National Center for Appropriate Technology. She completed a mortality study of Butte residents as part of her doctorate dissertation from the University of Montana.

Barry found higher mortality rates for cancer and other diseases in Butte over more than two decades of looking at death records. She also was contracted by the county health department to write a report and made recommendations on what future studies should look like.

But her study has been sharply criticized by the Environmental Protection Agency and the Atlantic Richfield Co. ARCO called the study “fundamentally flawed” and offered a lengthy rebuttal. The company has also praised EPA’s cleanup of Butte and said it’s effective at protecting human health.

The health department is moving ahead with a study. Hocking said besides the health effects related to the Superfund site in Butte, they’ll aim for a comprehensive study looking at all factors.

“Some of these issues will be related to Superfund and the past mining, some of these won’t,” she said.

Mary Kay Craig, a Butte resident who attended one of the meetings, stressed the need to hire an autonomous researcher.

“Any studies that are done about the Superfund and Superfund-related activities must be independent of the entities involved so that they cannot change the results,” she said. “The studies they did in the 1990s, I’d say were a joke — they did not give us a health assessment.”

Several people said studies that look at the health effects from mining must branch beyond the three heavy metals of lead, mercury and arsenic. They said Butte has also been contaminated with zinc, copper, cadmium and other metals. And a study must look at the effects of combining different toxins.

Laura Repola, a Butte naturopathic doctor, said the studies need to be carefully tailored to show how the combination of all the metals is affecting people’s health.

“What you get into heavy metal toxicity, the variables are so great it would be hard to show causation,” she said. “Those studies will be difficult to design, but not impossible.”

And John Ray, chair of the Citizens Technical Environmental Committee, said the studies should come up with solutions.

“The goals of the study should have an action emphasis,” he said.

People brought up the problem of dust from the Montana Resources open pit mine drifting into the neighborhood just south of the operation, on Butte’s East Side. They said even after attic clean ups, the dust returns and they’d like to know if it contains toxins.

Among them is Steve McGrath, who brought a small bag showing the dust that’s collected at his house in the neighborhood near the old Greeley School.

“That part of town is continually being inundated by fine particles, day and night,” McGrath said. “Is that a nuisance or a threat to health issue?”

Hocking said they will gather all the comments for use in designing a study. Email comments to

In addition, Dr. Michelle Watters with the federal Centers for Disease Control will be in Butte to address the comments 7 p.m. Thursday, May 31 at the Butte Archives, 17 W. Quartz St.

— Reporter Nick Gevock may be reached at


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