Montana Public Radio

Anaconda Meeting Addresses Competing Water Quality Standards

Sep 19, 2019

The Environmental Protection Agency is rolling out an updated plan to protect Anaconda’s creeks from copper smelter waste. But some locals this week said they’re worried the federal government may back away from Montana’s strict water quality standards for heavy metals.

On Tuesday night at the Anaconda senior center, Charlie Coleman with the EPA unveiled the agency’s latest plan for protecting Anaconda’s creeks from historic smelter pollution.

"If some of this sounds familiar, it is. We were here two years ago, we had a similar plan," Coleman said.

Coleman is EPA’s long time project manager for the massive Anaconda Smelter Superfund site. Almost a century of copper smelting here contaminated more than 200 square miles of soil and water with heavy metals and arsenic.

Coleman says creeks, and aquatic life in them, suffer the most during spring snowmelt or heavy storms when runoff picks up toxic sediments and carries them into waterways. Some streams in the area routinely fail to meet state water quality standards, especially for copper.

He said Atlantic Richfield, the company on the hook for the cleanup, has already done a lot of work in the most contaminated lowland areas to control runoff and reduce erosion.

"Even though, based on that trend analysis, we see improvements to water quality, based on the work we’ve done, the work that’s remaining is in the steeper upland areas," Coleman said.

But EPA’s models show that even with all the cleanup work slated for the hills around town, some creeks won’t meet the state’s stringent standards for heavy metals.

So two years ago, EPA proposed changing the legally agreed upon 1998 cleanup plan, and called for replacing Montana’s strict water pollution criteria with less stringent federal ones. That idea didn’t go over well with locals.

"The things we heard loud and clear were that you were uncomfortable providing upfront waivers to the standards until the work was completed," Coleman said.

Now, instead of replacing the state’s water quality standards with less stringent ones right away, EPA will require Atlantic Richfield to first do what’s considered to be the "maximum remedy" on 36,000 acres.

EPA local Superfund project manager Charlie Coleman gave a presentation on the updated plan to protect Anaconda's creeks from historic smelter pollution. September 17, 2019.
Credit Nora Saks / Montana Public Radio

Since EPA determined that removing all of the widespread contamination is not a realistic option, the company will be required to revegetate hillsides, manage stormwater, and install features like check dams to control erosion and keep metal laden sediments out of the creeks.

If, six years after this additional reclamation work is complete, monitoring shows that local creeks are still not meeting state standards, only then will EPA move to federal ones.

"We’re not proposing to waive state standards across the board," Coleman said. "We’re only going to waive them where they’re needed."

But locals pushed back on even the possibility of pulling back Montana’s standards sometime in the future.

Butch Ryan is a retired pipe fitter from nearby Opportunity.

"My complaint is to drop the state standards to go to the federal to me is a big mistake, he says. "The federal standards to me are not adequate."

Related: Richest Hill, a podcast about the past, present and future of one of America's most notorious Superfund sites.

Mike Eldridge from Anaconda worried that federal environmental protections could be subject to political whims, and lowered.

"If we’re going to accept federal standards instead of state standards, what happens if the federal standards change? Which could happen under different administrations."

About 50 people attended Tuesday’s meeting. At least half were agency or Atlantic Richfield employees.

While EPA’s explicit goal was to discuss updates to the surface water cleanup and take public comment, many locals, like Mary Kay Eldridge, had other things on their mind.

"I think that your plan shows what you want to do for the fish, but I think you should be starting out with helping the people!"

Her sentiment was echoed by retired plumber Terry Galle. Last winter he discovered black soot all over his mother-in-law’s attic, which was presumed to have come from the smelter. He wondered how many other residents are still being exposed to historic pollution in their homes.

"Now this whole town is my family," Galle said. "They raised me. They didn’t raise you. And they didn’t raise any of these folks. They all came from somewhere else. But the people here, I’m going to care about. So I’m going to say something at meetings, like it or not, because I only care about what’s going in Anaconda. And if it’s hurting our folks, we need to fix it. And if it’s in our houses, we need to fix it."

The expansion of the residential attic cleanup program is one of many issues that are being addressed under Anaconda’s pending Superfund cleanup deal, or consent decree. The changes EPA is proposing to make to the surface water remedy are also a pillar of that final deal, which lays out who does what and how it will all get paid for.

But since the EPA, the state, county, and Atlantic Richfield are still negotiating the details of that cleanup deal, the parties are limited in what they can reveal.

After the meeting, Anaconda’s chief executive Bill Everett said he empathizes with the community’s frustration at not being able to learn more.

"And as we go through this process, hopefully people will understand that this will be the topic, and we’re just going to try to knock it down to bite size chunks, so people can get a pretty good appreciation of what we’re trying to accomplish."

The public comment period on the EPA’s updated plan to protect the Smelter City’s creeks ends October 4. The agency expects Anaconda’s consent decree to be signed and lodged in a federal court this winter or spring.

Find more info on the EPA's proposed Anaconda Superfund cleanup plan: