22 March 2007

An Opportunity for Arsenic Reduction

[adapted from KUFM/Montana Public Radio commentary aired 22.March.2007, see http://www.mtpr.net/commentaries.html]

In the Superfund process (as in life itself), the naming of things is tremendously important. Some might argue that naming is an arbitrary matter. Take cats, for instance. What’s the difference if I name my cat Gumbie, Rumpelteazer, or Gus? Well, as T.S. Eliot taught us, “The Naming of Cats is a difficult matter…” After all, like Adam in Genesis, we construct our world through the act of naming. Names create the roadmap for reality.

I think it was Joseph Kinsey Howard who first referred to the Anaconda Copper Mining Company as Montana’s Cheshire Cat: long after the cat was gone, it’s malevolent grin lingered in the Montana Power Company, the Plum Creek Timber Company, and of course ARCO and now British Petroleum-ARCO.

The little town of Opportunity between Anaconda and the Clark Fork River is inscribed with the Cheshire Cat’s grin; Opportunity residents are especially sensitive to the act of naming. For many years an area near their town was a toxic waste dump for the Anaconda Company. After the Company merged with ARCO and ARCO began Superfund clean up, this area became the toxic waste repository for other Operable Units—including Silver Bow Creek and Milltown Dam. Unfortunately for Opportunity residents, the ACM’s big cat box was named after their town.

Opportunity residents now ask that this waste repository be renamed the British Petroleum Ponds. The county’s chief executive Rebecca Guay says, “We’re just asking that whoever owns the ponds take ownership of them.” As Opportunity resident George Niland explains, “When people type in ‘Opportunity’ on Google we’d rather have them go to Opportunity, Montana, than the Opportunity Ponds.” [See the Montana Standard article, http://www.mtstandard.com/articles/2007/03/20/anaconda/hjjcjghjjijjgg.txt]

Renaming the ponds is a reasonable request. British Petroleum should take ownership of its own toxic waste—both through the Superfund process and through the name of its repository. We hope that British Petroleum-ARCO and the Environmental Protection Agency listen.

As another act of naming, consider the safe human exposure limit for arsenic. In Anaconda and Opportunity, the so-called “safe” residential arsenic level is 250 parts per million.

Recently, epidemiologists have proven arsenic far more harmful to human health than previously thought. In the well-known Dartmouth study that helped reduce arsenic limits for drinking water, scientists called arsenic a vitamin that promoted cancer growth. Recently, Anaconda-Deer Lodge County government has hired technical advisor Jim Kuipers. We hope that local residents can use this sound technical advice and pressure the Environmental Protection Agency to be more protective of human health. Since Opportunity residents rely on well water, it is especially important that they take advantage of the ground water testing program recently implemented for their town.

Anaconda’s residential arsenic levels were set in a study performed nearly two decades ago. Some environmental toxicology classes use Anaconda as an example of a poor human health study. According to environmental engineer Stacie Barry, who also worked on an EPA-funded study of arsenic in family pets, the Anaconda study routinely underestimated the bioavailability of arsenic through the gastrointestinal tract, skin, and inhalation. Arsenic in attic dust was ignored. Long-term residential exposure was based on a two-week study of six newborn piglets eating yard soil. The piglet study neglected the long-term accumulation of arsenic in the bones and livers of real, human children.

When one compares Anaconda with the nation, the situation looks far, far worse. Nationally, Anaconda’s arsenic levels are an order of magnitude – ten times higher – than other sites. A review of state-by-state cleanup levels for soil arsenic in residential areas shows that many are in the 10 to 20 parts per million range. This makes sense, given the Environmental Protection Agency’s recent reduction of the arsenic limit in drinking water from 50 to 10 parts per billion.

Most all of the arsenic in the Clark Fork Superfund Megasite came from Anaconda Company smelting operations. One would think that with this common source – and with the same agency now cleaning up the sites – arsenic exposure limits would be the same throughout the Megasite.

Not so: along the Clark Fork River, the safe limit for soil arsenic levels is 150 parts per million; at Milltown, sediments are considered “highly contaminated” and will be removed when arsenic levels exceed 100 parts per million; however, in Anaconda and Opportunity, soil arsenic levels are set far higher—at 250 parts per million.

What the heck is going on here? Why are Anaconda residential arsenic levels set twice as high as those at other Clark Fork sites? Far more people are exposed to arsenic in Anaconda than along the river or at Milltown.

This appears to be a serious case of social injustice. Is it OK to increase the cancer risk for Anaconda kids in comparison with Milltown kids? Or for Montana kids vs. New York kids?

For more news about the British Petroleum Ponds, Opportunity, and other Superfund issues, please check out CFRTAC’s website at hyperlink www.cfrtac.org.


Anonymous said...

Have there been any current studies of the health of folks who lived in Anaconda while the smelter was in operation? (I am 48, lived at Warm Springs and have poor health). I believe I (and my sisters) are the product of arsenic contamination. I am looking for any studies on this. Also how can I reach Stacy Barry?

Pat Munday said...

One of the problems is that we do not have the kind of current health study that you ask about--in hindsight, the combined communities of Butte, Anaconda, and Warm Springs/Opportunity should have INSISTED that Arco-British Petroleum perform such a study.

You should be able to have your property tested for arsenic by asking EPA or Arco-BP to do the testing. Please check with Jim Kuipers about this, at JKuipers@kuipersassoc.com.

Stacy Barry's email is SLBarry@mtech.edu. Please note that she recently completed her Environmental Engineering masters degree and is currently engaged in a "Postmining Cultural Restoration" PhD.

Good luck to you and your family, - Pat Munday

George Niland said...

Anonymous, please give us a call at 797-3334. We are Opportunity Citizens Protection Association. I don't know if we can help, but a phone call never hurt.