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Anaconda Hears Details On Proposed Superfund Cleanup Plan

Anaconda smelter stack in 2007.
Anaconda smelter stack in 2007.

Anaconda residents are coming to grips with an agreement recently released to the public that will revamp the Superfund cleanup in the area. The public had their first chance to weigh-in on the proposed deal at  meeting this week.

Nearly 20 people gathered in the county courtroom as officials laid out the contents of the agreement between Anaconda Deer-Lodge County and the Atlantic Richfield Company.

Mike Grayson, an independent attorney from Anaconda who worked on the agreement says the deal came about due to pressure from the Trump Administration’s EPA to find some consensus after decades of inaction.

“The devil is truly in the details,” Grayson says.

For more than a century, a brick chimney taller than the Washington Monument has loomed over the city of Anaconda. There, the Anaconda Company smelted copper ore, hauled over from nearby Butte.

The Washoe Smelter brought a booming economy to the area until 1980, when the industry went bust - and left the area and its residents saddled with a toxic footprint the size of New York City. It became a Superfund site in 1983, and ever since the state, county, EPA, and the Atlantic Richfield Company have been trying to agree on the terms of cleaning it up.

That’s where the deal released last week comes in. It’s a step on the road to a final cleanup decision and it’s one part of a massive Superfund complex that sprawls 120 miles down the Clark Fork River.

[Related: Richest Hill - Exploring the past, present and future of one of America's most notorious Superfund sites]

Bill Everett, CEO of Anaconda Deer-Lodge County, says the bulk of the agreement focuses on public health.

“That was our primary concern, that's the number one thing we went after,” Everett says.

Toxic metals spewed from the smelter settled in soil and in attics, so those are the main targets of the agreement.

Among the provisions are huge changes in how to clean up yards. Instead of looking at the average of contamination levels across a yard, with emphasis on where people congregate, the new agreement will clean up yards with even one so-called “hotspot” with high levels of arsenic or lead.

The plan also lowers action levels for parks and schools across the community so they don’t need to test any higher than residential property.

The attic cleanup program will also be expanded, and the county will hire seven new, full-time employees to make it happen.

Everett says, “I think of all the things we got in this agreement, that’s my favorite.” He says these efforts will begin this spring, as soon as the agreement is signed.

The draft deal says ARCO will provide about $30 million for economic development over the next 25 years. That money will pay off county debt on its wastewater treatment plant and fund a $10 million hotel complex, among other initiatives.

“The community’s gotta start looking towards the future, and once we get this agreement signed, that’ll be the direction we’re headed,” Everett says.

From 1970 to 2010, the population of the county shrunk by about 40 percent. Everett says the hotel will help the city get past the stigma of Superfund as it reconciles its toxic past with its future. It will boost traffic to the city for high school sports events, skiing, and the local golf course, which was built with bunkers made of smelting slag as part of the cleanup.

Anaconda local Paul Beausoleil and his wife, Michelle, say they’re happy with the agreement, but they’re still trying to absorb all the information. “I wanna see something and leave something so that I know that this community which I grew up in will thrive,” Paul Beausoleil, says.

They’re attending as many meetings as possible. Their main concern is making sure their property is still on the list to get cleaned up.

Rose Nyman, another local, says the agreement is a much-needed step in the cleanup, as long as community members have ample time to learn more and to chime in; though she continues to worry about the health of the community.

“Lot of my school chums have died of cancer, and I can’t help but making the connection,” Nyman said.

Other attendees voiced concerns about the court-mandated secrecy of the negotiations, and the cost of the programs.

No definite timeline has been set for a vote, but officials say the county commission is likely to decide whether or not to authorize the agreement by the spring. Four more public meetings are scheduled over the next two weeks, and county officials welcome public input.

This deal is separate but related to a forthcoming consent decree, which will decide the fate of the rest of the Anaconda cleanup, including a partial cap on the massive slag pile that sits near the smelter. County officials estimate that document will be released within the next year.

Copyright 2020 Montana Public Radio. To see more, visit Montana Public Radio.

Nick Mott is an reporter who also works on the Threshold podcast.