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ARCO Offer Strains Relationship With Anaconda

Anaconda copper smelter.
Keith Ewing (CC-BY-NC-2)
A smelter in Anaconda, Montana.

Homeowners in Anaconda recently got a letter from ARCO offering them $1,000 if they promised not to sue over lead cleanup on their property. It did not go over well. David McCumber, the editor of the Montana Standard has the details.

Nora Saks: David McCumber it's great to have you back on Montana Public Radio.

David McCumber: It's good to be back Nora, thank you.

NS: Last week resident of Anaconda, which is down the road from Butte, received a letter from the Atlantic Richfield Company, otherwise known as ARCO, offering them $1,000 in exchange for giving up their right to sue the company over the cleanup of toxic, heavy-metal contaminated soils in their community. And before we get to the letter, can you give us a little bit of background on the situation?

DM: Obviously this pollution stems from the operation of the Washoe Smelter, the large smelter at the edge of Anaconda that basically operated smelting copper from Butte for 80 years, and in the process emitted a lot of arsenic and lead and cadmium and so forth.

There's been a cleanup. But sort of confoundingly, apparently EPA did not focus on lead when they were cleaning up, or when they were monitoring ARCO's cleanup of Anaconda. They focused on arsenic, but lead is a huge concern as well, obviously. Lead causes developmental delays and disability and can result in reduced IQ in children; very serious. Because the cleanup focused on arsenic and not lead, they've come to determine that they need to go back into Anaconda and clean up basically 1,000 residential lots in Anaconda, which is  a lot. So residents in Anaconda have been receiving letters from ARCO offering them $1,000 to sign something that says they will not sue ARCO if they're not happy with the eventual cleanup of their property.

NS: So what was the response by local residents to receiving this letter, and did a lot of them agree to the conditions in it?

DM: We understand that about 250 letters have been received so far, and we understand that about 100 people have signed the agreement and taken the payment. But what may not have been clear at the time is that this agreement not to sue stays with the house. If you have a house in Anaconda and you get this letter and you sign it and take the $1,000 and then you move away, whoever buys the house is then prevented from suing ARCO in the future. So what that does is potentially actually reduce the property value, or at least complicate the property situation.

Because of all that, and because people may not have fully understood what they signed, it was announced at a community meeting last week by Anaconda Chief Executive Bill Everett that ARCO had agreed to cancel any of those agreements if people had second thoughts. So people are going to get a second chance to reconsider those agreements.

NS: It sounds like part of the confusion stemmed from the fact that officials like Bill Everett were not informed ahead of time by ARCO about the distribution of the letter. How did officials react?

DM: Everett at this community meeting last week said that he felt their trust relationship with ARCO had been damaged. They're talking with ARCO fairly frequently on Superfund business, and he was not happy that the subject of these agreements had not come up before people started getting them in the mail.

NS: So besides residents having the option to void out the agreement once the situation was clarified, are there any other next steps for this situation?

DM: It's not clear what will happen, first of all; how many people will decide to reconsider. Also it's not clear how many more letters are going to go out and how many more people will sign them or decide not to sign them. So there's a lot to be determined regarding that offer. But also this a part of a process of letting these people in approximately 1,000 households in Anaconda know that ARCO is going to come back and clean up lead contamination on their property. And of course the corollary to that is that people may have been exposed to excessive amounts of lead for years before ARCO and EPA realized that the initial cleanup really didn't deal with the lead issue.

NS: Now there's a parallel between this action taken by ARCO and a lawsuit that the town of Opportunity which is close by, has filed against the company. Can you tell us about that?

DM: This lawsuit, actually it's not filed by the town, but it's filed by some of the residents of the town. It may be 60 or 70, I can't remember the number, but this litigation has been in the courts for 9 years already. And it's a potentially groundbreaking lawsuit because what it does is ... These residents are claiming that the cleanup they got which was as specified by the EPA, as agreed to by ARCO, was inadequate, that there's still contamination at an unacceptable level for them on their property. So if they were to prevail in this, it could have a significant effect on other Superfund agreements around the country. This case is now winded it's way back to the Montana Supreme in Missoula, actually, on Friday. So there's a lot at stake beyond the boundaries of tiny Opportunity Montana, but it certainly is an important hearing for the residents there.

What they're concerned about; a couple things. One is that the background level that was somewhat arbitrarily chosen as the cutoff point for the cleanup of arsenic was 250 parts per million. That is as opposed to an estimated background in the area of 25 parts per million. And that level, 250 ppm, seems very high to some people in Opportunity. They feel that it's not protective of human health as EPA has claimed it is. The other part is the way some of those lots were cleaned. They chose a midpoint in the houses, and then went out to a certain distance, and cleaned to that distance. That leaves a lot of uncleaned area. Some residents say that they have areas on their land where nothing will grow because of the contamination. There's a lot at stake in a lot of different directions with this lawsuit.

NS: We'll be keeping a close eye on what happens at that Montana Supreme Court hearing in Missoula this Friday. David McCumber, thanks so much for joining us today.

DM: Nora, it's my pleasure as always.

Nora Saks is a reporter and producer based in Butte, MT.
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