Anaconda imagines a future beyond smelting and Superfund
A final cleanup deal for a century of toxic smelting waste in the community of Anaconda goes into effect this week. Residents spoke about what a post-cleanup future might look like.
Near the entrance to Anaconda, at the base of the Pintler Mountains, looms a 585-foot-tall brick tower and a glassy black dune of toxic waste -- relics of southwest Montana’s mining boom and bust.
[Archival tape] “Butte, Montana, copper capital of the world. Built on what has long been known as the richest hill on earth. Below the surface, the men of the Anaconda Copper Mining Company answer their country’s need for more and more copper.”
For roughly a century, the smelter tower in Anaconda refined thousands of tons of copper ore a day, separating out the pure copper and creating the black sand, called slag.
“The smelter was very polluting. The air would be bad, you could walk outside your house and you’d get that sulfur taste, as if you lit a match too close to your face,” Dave McKernan, lifelong resident of Anaconda, said.
The only years he spent away from Anaconda was for college, and he worked a summer job shoveling slag at the smelter after graduating highschool in 1974.
The slag dune wasn’t the only part of the smelting waste. Toxins wafted out of the top of the massive stack, polluting the air, soil, water, and vegetation for 300 square miles.
When operations shut down in 1980 amid waning regional mining production and growing environmental standards an estimated 78 percent of jobs in Anaconda were tied to the smelter.
“The very first evacuee in town was Kentucky Fried Chicken. But people were pretty freaked out, I mean, this was a one-horse town. The saying was ‘will the last person to leave town turn the lights off,’” McKernan said.
Last fall, the Atlantic Richfield Company (AR), agreed to finish cleanup of the Anaconda Smelter Superfund Site. The estimated cost of the work totals over $120 million, all of which is paid for by AR. After approval from a federal judge, the deal became final this week.
Under the cleanup settlement, called a consent decree, the company will, over the next five years, finish remediation of residential yards in Anaconda and the nearby community of Opportunity, clean the land in the mountains above the smelter, and cap and seed the slag piles under a foot of new soil and grass.
“So we’re bringing cover soil from up at the borrow area, which is up on Smelter Hill. And then we’re putting a foot of soil over the top of that and then we’ll revegetate that this spring,” Shannon Dunlap, ARCO liability manager, said.
AR will also pay for a free blood lead monitoring program for residents. In recent years, community testing found that Anaconda residents had lead and arsenic levels that were not abnormally high, and comparable to the rest of the country.
All of this is part of the final stage of a cleanup that has dragged on for 40 years, since the area joined one of the largest Superfund complexes in America: the Upper Clark Fork Mega Site, in 1983.
After remediation is complete, EPA will need to monitor the remedies for at least 5-10 years before they may begin the process of delisting the area. So Superfund isn’t going away immediately, but there is the first bit of light visible at the end of that tunnel.
And, in some ways, the economic pendulum has begun to swing back the other way. Anaconda is reinventing itself beyond smelting and Superfund. When the final clean-up deal was announced by U.S. Attorney Jesse Laslovich, who was born in Anaconda, said the smokestack standing over the town represents its past and the consent decree represents the future. The question is, what kind of future does Anaconda imagine?
When Luke Carlsen set out to open up a new brewery in Anaconda in 2017, he was making a big bet on a community near to his heart:
“My mom is from Butte, my dad is from Anaconda. I spent every summer of my life growing up here,” Carlsen said.
He named the business Smelter City Brewing.
“Both my dad and my grandpa worked at the Smelter. My grandfather in Butte and all my uncles worked at the mine. Anaconda has always felt like home, which is a big reason why I ended up moving here and opening a business,” he said.
As soon as they opened their doors, people flooded in. Anaconda had been waiting decades for this kind of investment in town, and they wanted to keep the momentum going.
On top of private investment like Carlsen’s, the community is newly flush with cash; after agreeing a separate settlement with AR for $28 million for economic redevelopment. When the smelter originally shut down in the '80s, the company offered the town significantly less — about a third as much by today’s dollars.
The town is also seeing an increase in new residents and tourists since the pandemic, with about 150 new people moving to town between 2020 and 2021.
Bill Everett is the Chief Executive of Anaconda-Deer Lodge County.
“I don’t like to hear the terms arsenic, lead, Superfund. That’s not what we are anymore. We are a recreational destination. We are a great spot to move your business to. To raise your family,” Everett said.
Everett, and many around Anaconda, are looking to make bigger inroads into Montana's multi million dollar outdoor recreation industry.
That’s been a dream of the community for a long time, and they even got AR to pay for a world class golf course as part of the Superfund clean-up, designed by professional golfer Jack Nicklaus and complete with sand traps filled with black slag.
[Archival Tape] “If you play this golf course, I think your golf game will improve, only thing is you’ll probably have to figure out how to play white sand after this,” Nicklaus said.
With the new development money and the consent decree, Anaconda is ready to fully make the pivot.
“If you like to ski, we’ve got a ski hill that’s phenomenal. We got a golf course that’ll knock your socks off. We got the Big Hole valley, we got the Pinlters. Guys, we got it,” Everett said.
But, that pivot is not without its challenges. There’s concern about housing supply in this small community hemmed in by mountains, public land, and reclamation areas without much room to expand.
Anaconda also continues to lag behind much of the rest of Montana economically, with the latest Census data showing a lower median income and a poverty rate almost double that of the state as a whole.
Even before the pandemic, Montana was seeing the biggestincrease in income inequality in the nation, and housing prices that were already on the rise have spiked as droves of high earners and remote workers have moved to the state in search of wide open spaces and recreational access places like Anaconda provide.
To longtime residents like Dave McKernan and his wife Robin, that space and access has been the reason they stayed in town through the decades of decline after the smelter closed and Superfund listing. And it’s a crucial part of life they and other longtime residents, hope they can hold onto as the community moves into the future.
"It’s just such a great location to get out and do what you want to do, I can walk a block and be fishing Warm Springs crick, not that I should be advertising that. I can walk out, too, and be up on that ridge in less than 5 minutes. So, Superfund or not, that’s why we live here," Robin McKernan said.
The cleanup deal for the Anaconda Smelter Superfund Site went into effect Tuesday, February, 14th, and creates a roadmap to finish active remediation by 2027.
- Anaconda Smelter deal paves the way for final cleanup of the Superfund site
- EPA updates on Anaconda Superfund cleanup set for Nov 3. meeting
- Public comment on the Anaconda Smelter clean-up is open until Nov. 4
- New proposal could move the Anaconda cleanup forward
- U.S. Minerals fined for exposing Anaconda employees to arsenic
- Partial Superfund Deal For Anaconda Smelter Site Heads To Federal Court