Steve McGrath stood in a vacant lot a block from his house, watching for dust.
In this southwestern Montana town dubbed “the richest hill in the world,” more than a century of mining has polluted soil and water that took decades to clean up.
But by then, looking across the road to Butte’s last strip mine, McGrath was worried about the air. “Here’s another truck,” McGrath said, pointing to a hill across the street as a huge dump truck unloaded ore for the mine’s crusher. A brown cloud rose in the air. “And there is dust.”
In the neighborhood of Greeley, where McGrath lives, many people find it hard to believe that the air they breathe is safe. A two-lane road separates the approximately 700 homes of the Continental Mine, an open-pit copper mine and molybdenum mine operated by Montana Resources.
Residents have been assured that the level of particulate matter in their neighborhood is not dangerous, but some doubt that these standards protect human health. People breathe in particles all the time, but the size, abundance, and chemical makeup determine whether they’re dangerous. Now the Environmental Protection Agency is assessing whether its harmful particle density threshold should be lowered, saying it may not go far enough.
McGrath, 73, grew up in Butte and has long been one of the neighborhood voices asking if the dust that settles on his roof and car contains a dangerous mix of toxic metals. “Is it a health problem? McGrath said. “We never got a really satisfying answer.”
For years, the company and the state Department of Environmental Quality collected air samples from the neighborhood. The results were consistent: the pollution levels do not justify the alarm.
Montana Resources set up a monitor to track metals in the air around Greeley, and an independent review found no threat to human health, which the state health department backed. However, additional studies, which government and mining officials have often resisted, have pointed to potential problems – such as high levels of metalsincluding aluminum and copper, in the area and traces of arsenic and lead in the soil – and called for more testing.
This year, the nonprofit advocacy group Montana Environmental Information Center asked a contractor to review data collected by Montana Resources and DEQ. Ron Sahu, the mechanical engineer who carried out the review, said there was not enough research to conclusively determine whether the mine is harming Butte residents. According to Sahu, the data had multiple gaps, such as time discrepancies. He also said an air monitoring station could miss harder-hit areas and the risk to residents from prolonged dust exposure is still unknown.
On a recent night in Butte, Sahu presented his findings to mine officials, state officials, a local health advisory committee and a handful of Greeley residents. State health and environmental quality officials reiterated what has already been said: All recorded emissions meet federal standards.
Even so, Sahu said, pollution levels exceed public health safety recommendations issued last year by the World Health Organization. For example, the EPA’s maximum annual average for the finest particles is a concentration of 12 micrograms per cubic meterwhile the The WHO limit is 5. From 2018 to 2020, the Greeley Air Monitoring Station recorded annual averages ranging from over 7 to nearly 10, according to Sahu’s review.
The EPA is considering whether to lower its standard from 12 micrograms and plans to publish any proposed changes this summer.
At the meeting, resident Larry Winstel said he didn’t care about the data. He held up a square sheet of dust-covered Plexiglas. “That’s what’s on my picnic table,” he said. “It’s the equivalent of three weeks. How much of this is deposited over a year? »
Montana Resources environmental affairs manager Mark Thompson said the company is going above and beyond to mitigate the dust. He said he uses 240-ton trucks to hose down the mine’s gravel roads and air filtration systems to trap the particles.
Thompson said he agrees more needs to be done to determine if the air in Greeley is dangerous and, if so, why. “If there’s a problem in this community, I want to know about it,” Thompson said. “My son, daughter-in-law and two granddaughters live one block from the main mine gate.”
Butte became a gold and silver mining camp in the 1860s, and people traveled from all over the world to work in the town. The region was the battleground of copper kings in the 1890s as mine owners raced to extract the metal used to power the country’s growing electrical infrastructure and manufacturing industry.
People who grew up in and around Butte didn’t often wonder what the presence of mines or smelters meant to their health. Extractive industries offered good jobs. Many are proud that their city helped electrify the nation and produced up to a third of the world’s copper supply at its peak.
Atlantic Richfield Co., which purchased Anaconda Co., closed the Butte mines in 1982. Butte and a section of the Clark Fork River, where mine wastes flowed downstream, were designated a Federal Superfund site in 1983. A few years later Montana Resources began operating, and its jobs helped stabilize the town’s population at around 30,000. Cleanup of historic lead, arsenic, and other contaminants continues today.
The boundary of these works borders the Greeley neighborhood to the west, while the Continental mine cuts through the neighborhood to the northeast. Some residents fear that the mine operations will add another level of harm.
“I know the air monitoring station here and they say it’s not picking up anything dangerous,” said Bob Brasher, who has a view of the Continental mine from his front yard. “But I don’t see how that couldn’t be the case when we have those days and you look here and you can see the dust blowing in that direction and settling.”
Just down the street, Haley Rehm said she didn’t think about dust until a recent blood test of her 2-year-old son showed high lead levels. The cause is unclear – toxic metals can be ingested in several ways. But the proximity of the mine prompted Rehm to test his house for lead; she was still awaiting the results in May.
People often speculate that local cancer cases are linked to the area’s mining past and present.
Jeanette Cooksey, 70, can’t remember a time when she didn’t worry about dust. She’s been thinking about it especially since she was diagnosed with stage 4 uterine cancer two years ago. “I have to wonder if living in this neighborhood my whole life has anything to do with it,” Cooksey said.
A state health service analysis found the cancer incidence rate from 1981 to 2010 was not high in Silver Bow County compared to the rest of the state.
Not everyone is worried. For some people, even talking about the potential health effects is tantamount to an anti-mine mentality.
Al Shields rolled his eyes when asked if the dust concerned him and nodded to his clean trucks, saying they hadn’t been washed in days. “What people don’t understand is that if the mine is gone, Butte is finished,” he said. “If you don’t like it, leave.
Montana Resources employs 380 people and is a major source of tax revenue. Those pushing for more research into the effects of the mine and what can be done about the dust said they were not trying to shut down the operation. “We want a clean and healthy environment,” said Ed Banderob of the Greeley Neighborhood Community Development Corporation Inc.
When Butte’s health advisory committee meets again in the fall, the state will share the air sampling data it gathered in the hope that staff members can answer lingering questions. Meanwhile, Montana Resources hopes to have more air monitoring equipment in place in the neighborhood by the end of the year.
Katheryn Houghton is KHN Montana correspondent, covering all things health care across the state. Previously, she worked at Bozeman’s Daily Chronicle and the Daily Inter Lake.
KHN (Kaiser Health News) is a national newsroom that produces in-depth journalism on health issues. With policy analysis and polls, KHN is one of the three major operating programs of KFF (Kaiser Family Foundation). KFF is an endowed non-profit organization providing information on health issues to the nation.
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