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Anaconda Residents Share Health Concerns At Community Meeting

Tom Laughlin of Anaconda, MT says he has an autoimmune disease and he's concerned about the health impacts of the old copper smelter in town.  He met with officials with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention during a public health listening sessi
Corin Cates-Carney

More than 35 years after the Anaconda copper smelter closed, federal health officials are partnering with state and local governments to visit the town and to listen to people’s health concerns possibly related to the toxic waste left behind.

From 1:30 to 7:30 Thursday afternoon at the Anaconda senior center, locals could stop by and talk to government scientists and doctors about their worries.

The event was organized by the branch of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in charge of investigating community health concerns related to potential toxic substances and diseases.

Tom Laughlin showed up t0 the meeting. He says he’s lived in Anaconda all his life and taught at the local school for 39 years. He says he has an autoimmune disease and no one has been able to explain to him how he got it.

“And it’s pretty rare. One out of 30,000 people get it. Between Butte and Anaconda I know seven people that have it. That’s kind of high,” he says.

The Anaconda Company Smelter processed ore from Butte’s Berkeley Pit until the early 1980s. A few years later the smelter site was placed on the Environmental Protection Agencies Superfund Program’s National Priorities List.

According to the EPA, over the century of milling and smelting operations, high concentrations of arsenic, lead, copper, cadmium, and zinc were produced at the smelter and these wastes contaminated the soil, groundwater and surface water.

Laughlin says while there have been efforts to clean up the waste, not enough has been done to compensate the community for what he says could be significant costs to people's health.

“I think that medical care for people that have diseases related to the smelter, medical care ought to be free. I don't think the counties or the states or the U.S. government should pay for it. I think the people that did it -- if you hurt somebody, it's your fault, you gotta pay for it,” Laughlin says.

The Anaconda Copper Mining Company ran the smelter for most its working life but it was bought by the Atlantic Richfield Company in 1977.

“Things just have been moving really slow, but we’re thankful for someone to be looking at it now,” says Marilyn Holm.

Holm also came to talk to government health officials about her concerns Thursday. She says she has a daughter with an autoimmune disorder. She says besides being worried about the potential human health hazards left behind by the smelter, a Superfund site in town also hurts locals' well being.

“And maybe if we can get this Superfund cleaned up maybe our property values won’t be so devastatingly low. We might get more businesses and things like that around.”

Steve McNeece, the president of the Community Hospital of Anaconda, also stopped by the public health meeting and met with federal and state health officials.

“There’s biology and science, right, in terms of arsenic and lead. And those things will be studied, and should be, and will be evaluated. But the concerns I have are broader than that," McNeece said. "Things like what's the impacts of a Superfund site on the community? What's been the societal cost of that? High poverty, domestic violence, drug abuse, chemical dependency, hight suicide rate, etc. So, I am very hopeful we can step back a bit and look more at a broader perspective of health and well-being, and what does that mean in a community and what has the impacts of a Superfund site been on that.”

Heading into a listening session on public health concerns Thursday afternoon at the Anaconda senior center, Kai Elgethun, with the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, said he’s heard a wide range of issues from people in Anaconda area.

“We have heard concerns about cancer, we have heard concerns about neurological diseases and we’ve heard concerns about children's exposure to lead; also exposure to arsenic.”

At this point Elgethun says ATSDR is still working on gathering facts, which is what the listening session was all about. And it’ll be what officials hear from locals, combined with other research, to determine to what extent, if any, there is link between public health issues and the local environment.

“We’re going to take all the information that we gather from the community today and we’re going to go back and analyze the responses and formulate a plan. We'll come back to the community in approximately 6-8 weeks and present that plan, and the move forward with investigations we have to do after that," he says.

Elgethun says the process of looking into a potential  link between the environmental  contamination of the Anaconda smelter site and human health issues could take awhile. He says could take ongoing individual biological monitoring and environmental monitoring to see what exposures might be occurring.

If people were unable to attend the public meeting Thursday, they can send comments and contact the Anaconda-Deer Lodge County Public Health Department.

Contact: Katherine (Kitty) Basirico, BSB, MPH, Director, Anaconda-Deer Lodge County Public Health Department, (406) 563-7863, or by visiting the Anaconda Deer Lodge Public Health Department, 115 West Commercial Avenue, Anaconda, Montana.

Corin Cates-Carney manages MTPR’s daily and long-term news projects. After spending more than five years living and reporting across Western and Central Montana, he became news director in early 2020.
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