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Butte Locals Want Superfund Health Study Expanded

Headframe of the Original Mine in Butte, MT.
Nora Saks

The Environmental Protection Agency is about to launch its second study of public health concerns related to Butte’s Superfund sites. But When locals found out the scope of the plan at a public meeting Tuesday, some were disappointed.

“It really leaves a vast amount of issues related to Superfund, and the efficacy of Superfund at protecting public health unanswered," said Montana Tech Professor John Ray.

Ray was among the handful of community members at the meeting, they were outnumbered 3-1 by experts from an alphabet soup of health and regulatory agencies involved in conducting the health study.

Ray and other locals were vocal about a range of health concerns, from non-cancer diseases, to the health of seniors and low-income populations, to exposure to a laundry list of heavy metals, and wanted to find out if this new Superfund health study will address them.

EPA toxicologist Charlie Patridge explained that because of how Superfund law works, the short answer is, no.

“Unfortunately we’re limited to identifying the contaminants of concern," Partridge said. "That’s all we can look at.”

Early on, EPA identified lead, arsenic and mercury as those contaminants of concern. These heavy metals were leftover from historic mining and smelting activities, and pose a risk to human health in Butte.

EPA then required the county and Atlantic Richfield to take action to protect people. In 1992, the county started a program, funded by ARCO, to clean up contaminated residential areas. In 2011, EPA also required the parties to do a health study every five years to evaluate how well that program is working.

Roz Schoof, a toxicologist working as a consultant for Atlantic Richfield, says the thing is - “We have a fairly limited suite of tools to try to link current health conditions to historical or ongoing exposures.”

One of those tools is monitoring levels of lead in the blood. Since lead is the biggest contaminant of concern in Butte, and is especially dangerous to growing kids, the first Superfund health study looked at blood lead levels in young children in Butte, and found they were declining, on average.

The study also looked at rates of cancer in Butte, and found that Butte-Silver Bow County was no different statistically than the rest of the state and the country.

“We are planning in Phase 2 to repeat that analysis and use our most current data," Laura Williamson, an epidemiologist with DPHHS said.

So, Butte’s second Superfund health study will basically be an updated and more refined version of the first one, but retain its narrow focus.

Williamson says one upgrade is that the data for blood lead and cancer can now be “geocoded”. Which means experts will know where people who are getting sick actually live, and - "have the ability to look in finer detail at the City of Butte. Last time we looked at the county, Silver Bow County residents. We can drill down into census tracts and look at rates by census tracts.”

She also said the state is open to using other types of data they collect to explore other health outcomes that might be associated with heavy metal exposure, and helping the county fold them into their next community health assessment.

For the most part, it appears that residents with concerns that fall outside the strict boundaries of the Superfund-mandated medical monitoring will have to find other sources of support and funding.

Local physician Dr. Anna Chacko, who is concerned with genetic diseases and their possible connections to mining - wanted to know exactly what that process looks like.

“What I’m asking you is does it need to be an academic study that starts us on the path of suspecting that something else might be a pollutant which harms the health of the local population?” Chacko asked.

To which EPA toxicologist Charlie Partridge replied, "no, the funding mechanism could come from anywhere- it could be private, it could be state, it could be county. It’s just that it can’t be Superfund.”

Recognizing the limitations of the current EPA-led health study, the local leaders of Butte’s Citizens Technical Environmental Committee have decided to step out on their own.

CTEC is partnering with Montana Tech and starting a pilot project to examine some of the challenges underlying environmental health issues in Butte.

CTEC VP Bill MacGregor says their goal "is to study that gap between the work that’s been done, the improvements in health that are documented...and the data through the toxicological studies and so on - it’s gotten better. And the perceptions and experiences of people in Butte that throw doubt and mistrust throughout the community and cloud the confidence that people have in the whole process.”

The team of researchers from CTEC and Montana Tech were just awarded a $66,000 grant from the National Institutes of Health to begin their research this summer.

Members of CTEC hope their findings will help inform and drive the direction of future Superfund health studies in Butte, which will be conducted until 2039.

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