With evidence of at least two workers poisoned by arsenic at the U.S. Minerals slag plant outside Anaconda, the state ordered the facility to cease operations Thursday.
The Department of Public Health and Human Services gave U.S. Minerals off Montana Highway 1 a cease and desist letter Thursday.
DPHHS learned in April 2018 that a worker had elevated arsenic levels and showed symptoms of arsenic poisoning. Eight months later, the letter said, two employees were found to have levels of inorganic arsenic above 50 micrograms per liter in urine samples. When inorganic arsenic exceeds 50 micrograms per liter in urine, the Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control considers that to constitute arsenic poisoning.
According to the World Health Organization, inorganic arsenic is “highly toxic.” It is carcinogenic, and long-term exposure can lead to developmental effects, diabetes, pulmonary disease, and cardiovascular disease as well as cancer of skin, bladder, liver, and lungs.
During the December 2018 urine analysis, the state health department tested six workers for arsenic exposure. Of those six, all but one had arsenic levels exceeding 35 micrograms per liter of inorganic arsenic in their urine.
That is above the biological exposure index established by the American Conference of Governmental Industrial Hygienists, a nonprofit Cincinnati-based scientific organization concerned with occupational and environmental health.
According to the cease and desist letter, during on-site visits to the facility in 2018, state health department personnel observed a number of conditions "likely contributing" to employees' elevated arsenic levels. They included no showering or operational hand-washing facilities; no changing room where employees could change out of dirty work clothes; no policies requiring workers to keep contaminated clothing at the site; and a "lack of appropriate respirator usage."
The state health department also noted in its letter that the employee break room did not have air filtration or positive air control. The room also did not appear to be cleaned on a regular basis to keep dust and metals from contaminating workers.
This is not the first time the plant has been in violation of worker safety. Nor is it the first time U.S. Minerals as a company has been in violation.
Federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration inspectors visited the Anaconda plant in October 2015 and found 16 violations of worker safety. OSHA fined U.S. Minerals $106,800 in 2016 because of the violations.
OSHA found during its 2015 visits that workers were exposed to five times the permissible level for arsenic. The agency found arsenic in the air, on clothing, and on the lunchroom microwave. OSHA also cited the fact that workers had no place to shower or change work clothes, which leaves questions of what those workers could be taking home to their families or anyone else who came into contact with them.
In addition, workers were exposed to lead. That case is still open and is pending before the Independent Occupational Safety and Health Commission, an OSHA spokesperson said recently.
OSHA did not respond to questions Thursday. Jon Ebelt, a DPHHS spokesperson, said via email that the state health department worked independently of OSHA in closing the plant.
U.S. Minerals has a long history of health and worker safety violations with OSHA. Within the last 10 years, OSHA has fined U.S. Minerals 15 times for a total of $1.8 million, according to OSHA online records. That includes the still-pending $106,800 in fines for the 16 violations at the Anaconda plant.
U.S. Minerals also has a long history of getting the fines reduced. Over the same ten years, U.S. Minerals has paid OSHA $1.1 million in fines for violations, according to online OSHA records. The violations ranged from workers exposed to metals or silica to being at risk for amputation or falling from heights.
Besides the Anaconda plant, U.S. Minerals has manufacturing operations in Illinois, Louisiana, Texas, Wisconsin, and Kansas. Only the Kansas plant has not received an OSHA violation in the last 10 years, according to OSHA online records.
One example of U.S. Minerals paying a reduced OSHA fine took place in 2013 at the Anaconda plant. OSHA initially fined U.S. Minerals’ Anaconda facility that year for $22,400 for worker safety issues, according to data available on the OSHA website. But U.S. Minerals paid $11,200 in fines for the violations.
Mike Johnston, president of U.S. Minerals, did not return an email or a call, but in 2016, Johnston told The Montana Standard that the company disagreed with the OSHA violations citing arsenic on clothes, on the microwave, and elsewhere.
Johnston said at the time that the Illinois-based company takes its worker health and safety seriously.
Ebelt said U.S. Minerals appealed the OSHA violations from 2015.
The Environmental Protection Agency, which has oversight of the slag mountain because it is a waste byproduct from decades of copper smelting, said the workers’ exposure likely came from the plant’s slag processing, not from the pile of slag itself.
“Slag reprocessing is an extremely dust-intensive operation, and if adequate worker industrial hygiene practices are not followed, worker exposures can occur,” EPA Region 8 in Denver said by email.
EPA says it does not believe the slag pile poses a risk to residents. If undisturbed, the slag, which contains arsenic, lead, and other metals, is inert. Previous air quality monitoring at the black mountain along Highway 1 indicated there was no migration of contaminated dust coming from the pile, EPA said.
Ebelt said in his email that the manner in which U.S. Minerals is crushing and reprocessing the slag is causing the exposure.
When asked why DPHHS waited until February 2019 to take action, Ebelt said that DPHHS has been monitoring the situation, has given U.S. Minerals information on how to reduce exposure, and has tried to work with employees with offers to test their homes and vehicles for arsenic and lead.
Ebelt said DPHHS recently received information the plant was continuing to expose workers, which prompted the closure. Although it was not clear Thursday if the plant complied with the order, Ebelt said DPHHS will continue the closure process through the legal process.
Montana Department of Environmental Quality does not do air monitoring at the site but has inspected the plant three times since 2013, when it opened. DEQ officials look for emissions at the site into the outside air but did not see any exceedances during those site visits, said Karen Ogden, DEQ spokesperson.
Atlantic Richfield Company, a subsidiary of oil giant BP, did not respond to an email inquiry as to whether it would end its contract with U.S. Minerals. That contract allows the Illinois-based company to process the slag. Atlantic Richfield is the responsible party of the old waste.
Once the U.S. Minerals Anaconda plant processes the slag, the product is shipped off nationwide and is used as a roofing material and also as a blasting abrasive for steel, water towers, bridges, and ships.
A spokesperson for the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, which protects consumers from unreasonable risk or injury from consumer products, was not aware of slag or its uses.
Matt Vincent, spokesperson for Rick Tabish, said the U.S. Minerals plant closure won’t impact Tabish, regardless of the outcome. Tabish has long said he will create 700 jobs by opening his own slag processing plant just southeast of the U.S. Minerals plant.
Vincent said that when Tabish’s plant begins processing slag, he will adhere to the highest standards of worker safety.
According to the DPHHS letter, in order to reopen, U.S. Minerals must provide employees with showering and handwashing facilities and a place to store and change clothes, provide laundering of dirty work clothes, give employees a break room that is cleaned on a regular schedule and has filtered air and temperature control, establish a medical surveillance program to monitor for arsenic and lead, and implement a plan to ensure workers use appropriate work clothing and equipment as well as establish a mandatory respiratory protection program in certain locations of the plant.