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US Minerals in Anaconda

The entrance to U.S. Minerals in Anaconda is seen here. 

U.S. Minerals, which operates a plant in Anaconda’s slag pile, is under an ongoing criminal investigation connected to the worker safety and health hazards allegedly found in the Anaconda plant in 2015.

A Montana Standard Freedom of Information Act request made a few months ago with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) revealed Monday that after OSHA began a civil inquiry arising from alleged employee exposure to hazardous substances in 2015, the Department of Justice began a criminal investigation.

The documents received from the FOIA brought to light that the civil inquiry was stayed by a federal judge at the request of the DOJ in 2016 because of DOJ's criminal investigation into the Anaconda plant.

Wyn Hornbuckle, deputy director for the Office of Public Affairs for the DOJ, said by email Tuesday that the DOJ will neither confirm nor deny the existence of ongoing investigations. But documents filed with the court make clear that the investigation continues, more than three years later.

The Department of Labor did not respond to additional questions Tuesday.

Status reports filed every six months with Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission since the original stay show the criminal investigation ongoing.

OSHA fined the company $106,800 for 19 separate violations in 2016. One of those violations alleged that workers did not have proper changing rooms or showering facilities, which meant workers could potentially spread arsenic-laden dust from their clothes to their families. Another allegation was that arsenic was found in the workers’ microwave.

The Standard has written about the ongoing civil penalties since 2016, but not until the Standard filed a Freedom of Information Act request for communication between OSHA and U.S. Minerals regarding the plant was the criminal investigation revealed.

U.S. Minerals has six manufacturing facilities in six states, including Montana. The company employs six workers at the Anaconda plant and 70 nationwide, according to the legal documents.

Returns from another public information request, this one from The Montana Standard to Montana's Department of Labor and Industry, revealed that 13 Anaconda-based workers filed worker’s compensation claims between Jan. 1, 2013 and September 2019. The company first began to manufacturer industrial abrasives and roofing materials from the black slag pile along Montana Highway 1 in 2013.

The slag pile, which is about 130 acres in size, is smelter waste from around 100 years of copper smelting. According to the Department of Labor brief, the dust produced during the processing of the slag contains a variety of toxic substances, including inorganic arsenic.

Inorganic arsenic — or smelted arsenic — is a known carcinogen, according to the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry.

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A preliminary study conducted by the Environmental Protection Agency last year found the slag to be more easily absorbed into the body than previously thought. That report has never been released to the public.

U.S. Minerals, based in Illinois, 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. U.S. Minerals also has a long history of getting the fines reduced. Over the same 10-year period, U.S. Minerals paid OSHA $1.1 million in fines for violations.

U.S. Minerals sued the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services last spring after DPHHS issued a cease-and-desist order because tests indicated that at least two workers were poisoned with arsenic at the Anaconda plant in 2018.

The cease-and-desist order was lifted this spring after the company met certain conditions. DPHHS continues to conduct onsite visits to monitor conditions at the facility, said Jon Ebelt, DPHHS spokesperson. U.S. Minerals suit against DPHHS was dismissed in June.

According to a 2016 report created by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), five of six employees tested for arsenic at the Anaconda plant had elevated levels of arsenic in July of 2015.

That report says respiratory protection was provided but the use of the respiratory protection was not required.

There was also no running water or hand-washing stations at the slag plant in 2015, according to the report.

U.S. Minerals President Mike Johnston retired last spring to become co-chairman of the board of directors. Fred Vukas, who was the president of the company up to 2015, appears to have resumed the position in place of Johnston, according to his LinkedIn account. But the company’s website says Vukas is co-chairman of the board of directors, alongside Johnston and refers to Vukas as former president.

U.S. Minerals’ Atlanta-based lawyer E. Foulke with the law firm Fisher Phillips, did not respond to a request for comment.

A voice message left with the company’s operator was not returned.

U.S. Minerals’ roofing abrasives are called Black Diamond. According to a website fact page, the company says the abrasive material is safer than sand.

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