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EPA must address Butte health problems

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The opinion letter written by Julie DalSoglio of the Environmental Protection Agency in The Montana Standard was inaccurate, misleading and overly self-promoting.

A student spent five years of her life researching the environment, health and culture of Butte as part of the arduous, academic requirements to earn a doctorate degree. Instead of thanking the student for uncovering health-related data they did not have, and using that information to justify a more effective cleanup plan for Butte, the EPA has chosen to publicly denounce the student and her work, simply because they did not like her “findings.”

Contrary to DalSoglio’s speculation, Stacie Barry does not work for the College of Technology. Barry is the operations director of energy services at the National Center for Appropriate Technology. She earned degrees in environmental engineering from Montana Tech and recently completed her Ph.D. from the University of Montana. In addition, she was born in Butte, spent most of her adult life here, and is a role model for the Butte community.

If DalSoglio had read the doctoral dissertation, she would have learned that Barry’s manuscript is a unique, fascinating, interdisciplinary account of Butte’s culture and history. Because environment and public health are intertwined with culture and history, one portion of Barry’s research was to search for public health data for Silver Bow County and to compare the statistics to the rest of Montana and the country.

She obtained information from a publically available database on the website of the Center of Disease Control and she employed a simple yet scientifically-accepted, method of investigating standardized mortality ratios. Her findings indicated statistically significant, higher-than-normal, mortality rates in Butte for multiple sclerosis, congestive heart failure, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, lung cancer, bladder cancer, colon cancer, among others.

As acknowledged by DalSoglio, the EPA has been driving Superfund activities in Butte for 30 years. They deserve credit for making Butte a better place to live, but they completely ignore the need to characterize, document, and/or address the incidence of human health problems. In contrast to DalSoglio’s claims, the five-year review did not include any type of health study and to report that it validated “protection of human health” is misleading.

Furthermore, DalSoglio stated that wide-spread urinary arsenic monitoring is ongoing in Butte. If this data is available and shows a steady decrease in arsenic uptake, why is it not published in the review or elsewhere?

Rather than discrediting anyone who voices sincere concerns about health problems and action levels, perhaps the EPA needs to review the reason Butte is on the Superfund National Priorities List (NPL) in the first place.

We are on the NPL because of mining and smelting related pollutants in our community. The scientific and medical literature contains undisputed evidence that chronic exposures to arsenic, lead, mercury, and other mining-related contaminants can lead to adverse health effects, including cancer and many non-cancer diseases.

These pollutants are in the soil, water, air and house dust in Butte. It only makes sense that the people residing in this area have been affected by chronic exposure.

In her letter, DalSoglio boasted that 400 yards have been cleaned under EPA’s guidance over the 30 year period. Four hundred yards are better than none, but at a rate of 13 yards per year, or even 100 yards per year, how many children and adults in Butte will continue to be exposed for years while waiting for a team to remediate their yard and remove contaminated dust from their homes? Also, if more protective action levels were in place, how many yards would be eligible for remediation? Finally, if economics have been taken into consideration, has the EPA considered the cost of rapid cleanup compared to costs for long-term treatment of diseases such as cancer?

Thanks to Barry’s independent research, we now have a baseline of human health data to be used as the starting point for further study and for judging effectiveness of current and future remediation efforts.

The EPA should stop harassing Barry and start focusing more energy and resources on revising the action levels for Butte, and accelerating the timetable for removal of contaminants from the residential yards and houses. The legacy of the EPA in Butte should be a cleaner environment with fewer health problems for future generations, not a legacy of attacking the public.

— Holly Peterson is a professor in the Environmental Engineering Department at Montana Tech.


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