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EPA Rethinks Responses to Toxic Towns Asking: Is My Home Safe?

Oct. 3, 2019, 10:01 AM

In Anaconda, Mont., back when the copper smelter was operating, the air smelled and tasted like sulfur.

“It created a lot of phlegm in your throat, and none of us had any idea how deadly it was,” said Rose Nyman, who moved to Anaconda in 1943, when she was 5 years old.

The smelter, run by the Anaconda Copper Co. and later Atlantic Richfield Co., shut down in the 1980s, after decades of spewing lead and arsenic that poisoned the soil. A few years later, the entire town and much of the county—about 300 square miles of Montana’s Deer Lodge Valley—was declared part of the nation’s largest Superfund site complex.

Like many Anacondans, Nyman stayed put. After 36 years of Environmental Protection Agency cleanup and communication efforts, she still asks: Is it safe to live here? If there’s one thing EPA officials and town residents agree on, it’s that the agency hasn’t provided a good answer.

“We’ve got to get better about our explanations about what’s happening,” Steven Cook, deputy assistant administrator of EPA’s Office of Land and Emergency Management, said at a recent environmental conference.

“The agency does a really good job of communicating, or at least telling, technically accurate information to a community,” Cook said. But when communities don’t understand that information, he said, “that’s where we fall down.”

The same disconnect is resonating with communities that work with the EPA on other issues, including environmental justice and childrens’ health. Guided by Administrator Andrew Wheeler, who told the Senate at his confirmation hearing that better risk communications is one of his three highest priorities, the agency is re-examining how it does just about everything in that area.

That self-assessment is taking place as the Anaconda cleanup heads to the fall docket of the U.S. Supreme Court, where residents will argue they should be allowed to take control of cleanup on their properties, and do it to standards much more stringent than the EPA’s. While all sides say communications misfires aren’t a factor in the court case, in which nearly 100 landowners are suing Atlantic Richfield, concerned Anaconda residents say the EPA hasn’t helped much, either.

Arsenic in Anaconda

The smoke generated by the Anaconda smelter deposited heavy metals, especially lead and arsenic, across a wide swath of the valley. Smelting operations also generated slag and tailings, or ore waste. At Anaconda’s eastern end, a 41-million-ton slag pile sits to one side of the main highway, less than a mile from the town’s welcome sign.

The former Anaconda smelter smokestack still stands in Anaconda, Mont.
Photographer: Sylvia Carignan

The pollution was bad enough that in the late 1980s, the EPA evacuated a community of 37 residents immediately south of the smelter. A 1991 agency document noted the public’s reaction.

“Public meetings and citizen committee gatherings often became highly emotional encounters between concerned residents and public officials,” the agency stated.

Residents question the sampling results that drive cleanup, as well as why some areas became the EPA’s focus instead of others, said Jill Trynosky, a project manager in the office of audit and evaluation at the EPA inspector general’s office. The office has spent time in Anaconda as part of its review of the EPA’s communications with Superfund communities.

Health Concerns

Why are arsenic cleanup standards set at 250 parts per million and lead cleanup standards set at 400 parts per million for the Anaconda smelter site? Nyman asked. Is it possible to get everything cleaned up? she and other residents ask. Shouldn’t the agency be considering residents’ health?

“Here’s a community that needed the educational support of the EPA, and it didn’t happen,” said Donna Shewey, who grew up in the bucolic bedroom community of Opportunity, Mont., adjacent to Anaconda. Opportunity is also part of the Superfund site.

Shewey is concerned about her own and her family’s health, especially since her sister passed away last year in Oregon from cancer. Some illnesses that may be related to the lead and arsenic in the town’s soil aren’t being counted because some people are moving, or being diagnosed, or dying, out-of-state, she said.

Nyman said she didn’t start connecting the dots between local residents’ deaths and the smelter until five or six years ago.

“It’s like smoking,” she said. “When I was a teenager, no one had any idea what it could do to you. Now we know.”

The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry and the state’s health department have taken blood and urine samples from current residents to determine their exposure to lead and arsenic. The agency plans to publish a report this year.

According to the agency, lead exposure can cause learning and behavioral problems in children. Long-term exposure to lead and arsenic can lead to circulatory, nervous system, and skin problems. Arsenic exposure over the course of years may increase the risk of certain types of cancer, including skin, bladder, lung, and liver cancer.

Heavy Metal Headaches

All over Anaconda, work crews in fluorescent orange or yellow shirts, retained by the EPA and Atlantic Richfield, haul away dirt in yards with high concentrations of arsenic and lead, and replace it with cleaner dirt and turf, or a layer of gravel.

One of those crews replaced soil at a chiropractor’s clinic run by Lori and John DuChene in a small two-story building dating to the early 1900s.

The DuChenes lived above the clinic for a few months after they bought the property—until John’s hair started falling out. They suspect heavy metals in the clinic’s attic and eaves are contributing to the asphalt-colored dust that accumulates on their windowsills.

John and Lori DuChene took samples of the dust that coated surfaces in their Anaconda, Mont., office’s garage in July 2019.
Photographer: Sylvia Carignan

“When the wind blows, we get a headache,” John DuChene said. “I don’t think that’s normal.”

In 2016, the EPA and Atlantic Richfield sent the DuChenes a letter stating the “concentrations of arsenic and/or lead detected in your yard exceed the current residential soil action level(s) established by the EPA.”

“A lot of the wording of it was a little confusing,” John DuChene said, as were the multiple legal agreements they had to sign to grant Atlantic Richfield access to their property for sampling and cleanup.

Literature sent with the letter included the general health risks of arsenic and lead, the EPA’s cleanup standards for each at that particular Superfund site, and a description of parts per million with a marble analogy: “If you had 20ppm, it would be like having 20 white marbles and 999,980 black marbles in a group of 1,000,000 total marbles.”

‘Can’t Comprehend’

“If you’ve never had a million of something, you can’t comprehend what a million of something is,” John DuChene said. “I think it could’ve been done better, to make it easier for a regular person who doesn’t deal with the EPA.”

Shaun Hoolahan, an Opportunity landowner involved in the lawsuit against Atlantic Richfield, received a similar letter from the EPA about heavy metals in his dirt.

“They do the marbles thing to make it seem like a really small number, but they don’t tell you what those concentration levels mean,” Hoolahan said.

The EPA provides grants to help communities around Superfund sites hire technical advisers to explain its work. The program is intended to help communities “participate in Superfund cleanup decision-making,” according to the agency’s website. As of the end of 2018, there were 42 active technical assistance grants at sites across the U.S.

Full-Page Ads

Jim Davison, an Anaconda resident and former smelter employee, headed the Arrowhead Foundation, an organization that received technical assistance grants from the EPA starting in 1994. Davison retired in July after almost 40 years as executive director of the Anaconda Local Development Corp., which oversees the foundation.

For a time, the foundation ran full-page ads in The Anaconda Standard newspaper about Superfund site developments, and had a newsletter delivered to every household in town—an “unusual” approach for a grant recipient, both the EPA and Davison said. The foundation would also invite local commissioners to breakfast to tell them what was going on, Davison said.

“Or, you’d do the knife and fork circuit, and go to every social organization and give your speeches,” he said.

The foundation continues to receive $50,000 in EPA grant funding almost annually. But the ads and newsletter have stopped.

The Arrowhead Foundation has long-term plans to put together an educational curriculum—with versions for kids, teenagers, and adults—about Anaconda’s history and the contamination that remains. But Adam Vauthier, who now heads the local development group, said those efforts have been restricted by a court order that keeps secret the cleanup negotiations among the county, the EPA, and Atlantic Richfield.

Listening to Communities

The EPA’s existing risk communication guidance addresses topics including earthquake resilience for water utilities, the health risks of wildfire smoke, lead in schools’ drinking water, and watershed planning.

But guidance specifically addressing Superfund issues isn’t on the list, even though Tina Lovingood, director of land cleanup and waste management program evaluations in the inspector general’s office, said risk communication for those communities has “come up time and time again” as a challenge.

The agency has called together an internal working group on the topic, incorporating feedback from some external advisers, while the inspector general has held listening sessions for community members in Anaconda, as well as near the USS Lead Superfund site in East Chicago, Ind., the Coakley Landfill Superfund site in North Hampton, N.H., and the Amphenol Superfund site in Franklin, Ind.

Though each Superfund site has a different history, EPA officials heard the same concerns over and over.

“It’s also something that we haven’t looked at in a broad sense before,” Trynosky, from the EPA inspector general’s office, said.

‘The Heart of EPA’s Mission’

Wheeler acknowledges his agency’s shortcomings.

“Risk communication goes to the heart of EPA’s mission of protecting public health and the environment,” Wheeler stated in testimony to the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee Aug. 1, 2018. “We have fallen short in this area, from our response to September 11th to recent events surrounding the Gold King Mine in Colorado, and most recently in Flint, Michigan. We owe it to the American public to ensure this doesn’t happen again.”

Wheeler’s interest “appears to be wanting to make sure the agency is consistent about the science, and how they’re communicating the science,” said Genna Reed, lead science and policy analyst at the Union of Concerned Scientists.

The question, she says, is whether the EPA can be trusted even as it’s rewriting chemical risk assessments and parsing studies to decide which are valid to make part of rulemaking processes. Wheeler is working to “dismantle the science-based protections” that reduce hazards in air, water, and workplaces, she said.

“This is clearly a messaging endeavor from this administration to claim they are doing their best to help communities fully understand the risks they are facing, and then undermining the very protections to keep those communities safe from those risks,” Reed said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Sylvia Carignan in Washington at scarignan@bloombergenvironment.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Gregory Henderson at ghenderson@bloombergenvironment.com; Bernie Kohn at bkohn@bloomberglaw.com; Anna Yukhananov at ayukhananov@bloombergenvironment.com

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