Anaconda's Health Assesment

Anaconda may be outside the reach of our low-power broadcasting range, but their mining legacy and environmental cleanup are certainly intertwined with Butte’s.  While there has been a lot of attention on the negotiations around the Butte Priority Soils, there is an operable unit in Anaconda that has many parallels. The Community Soils OU encompasses the residential areas around Anaconda impacted by lead and arsenic contamination. They have a program similar to our Residential Metals Abatement Program that will test for and remove soil and interior dust that exceed an action level. Like Butte Priority Soils, Anaconda’s Community Soils is inching toward a Consent Decree, which is an agreement between the regulatory agencies and the responsible parties on how the cleanup will proceed.

In the push to finalize the remediation plan, the EPA has been reaching out to the communities for input. Anaconda citizens voiced concerns about health impacts from lead and arsenic exposure. Recent events had led to the discovery of high levels of contaminants in a playground, and the community has demanded testing of their schools. Other residents have expressed concern over the prevalence of MS, ALS, and cancer.

The EPA responded by ordering cleanup of the park and testing of the schools, and they initiated a health study. In May they held a listening session to hear the concerns of the community, to help guide and design the study. Last Wednesday, the ATSDR held a public meeting in Anaconda to summarize the concerns that were raised and to inform the community about the exposure investigation they had planned.

DD: “My name is David Dorian, I’m with an agency called the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, known as ATSDR. And tonight, I am working in partnership with the Montana Department of Health and Human Services and the Anaconda-Deer Lodge Health Department.”

He went on to introduce the state epidemiologist, Laura Williamson, and the county Health Department Director, Kitty Basirico. They talked about all of the concerns that were raised by the community. They talked about the exposure pathways, the ways people thought they may be being exposed. People were worried about dust from the slag piles and their attics, and people were confused about the residential soils cleanup.  And they talked about the health concerns, including cancer and neurodegenerative diseases like MS. 

Then they went on to talk about how they would address these questions. David Dorian spoke to their plan to perform an Exposures investigation.

DD: “ATSDR conducts approximately four exposure investigations nationally per year.  An exposure investigation is biomonitoring. It’s where we sample some part of people, really, to determine what the level of a contaminant is in their body. So in the case of lead, that’s blood-lead, and in the case of arsenic, it’s urine-arsenic. We are committed to doing that here in Anaconda. They are wonderful tools for informing public health. They have some limitations. They are a snapshot in time. They don’t necessarily tell us about the far past.”

The investigation could take place as soon as the end of this year or the beginning of 2019.

He talked about attic dust, and how there is an existing remediation program. There seemed to be some confusion about the specifics of this program, perhaps this has some bearing:

DD: “As we understand it, and I’m in no way privy to the consent decree negotiations, it’s not my role, but, we understand that this topic is part of that consent decree negotiation, and trying to reach some kind of resolution. So at this point, we’re going to follow up when the consent decree negotiations reach completion, or at least this issue has reached some kind of end-game, in the negotiations, we intend to follow up with Anaconda-Deer Lodge County about how we can assist the community in reducing exposures from contamination.”  

Apparently consent decree negotiations in Anaconda are still closed-door meetings, leaving the public wondering what kind of cleanup they will get.

Laura Williamson addressed the community concerns with cancer. There is a wealth of data related to cancer, including statistics for Anaconda-Deer Lodge, so this was an area where presenters could offer some answers. For the most part, her analysis showed the county does not see an increased incident rate. But charts comparing specific cancers, like lung cancer, which has been associated with arsenic exposure, appeared to show elevated rates in Anaconda. Laura assured the audience that, statistically speaking, the rate was the same. Citizens expressed concern the situation was not being accurately reflected, such as residents who had moved away and been diagnosed elsewhere, and Laura conceded that the study has limitations.

David and Laura went on to discuss the perceived prevalence of multiple-sclerosis in the community. They noted there is no known cause for MS and that there is no official registry of diagnosis. Without a link to the contaminants of concern, or data to show increased incidence, they felt there was not a way to proceed with a study.

And many of the other concerns from the community fell into this category: without a direct link to the contaminants and Superfund, they were out of the prevue of ATSDR. Ailments ranging from autoimmune to mental health and suicide had been brought up, as well as overall health of the community. It seemed clear to the respondents and those in attendance that there was a link, but without ATSDR, a community health assessment would have to be conducted at the county level. Presumably, this assessment will not examine the possible connection to contaminants and will face the same limitations of lack of data and a statistically insignificant population.

These answers fell flat with the citizens in attendance. Many expressed dissatisfaction, that they felt studies were warranted, even if only to be informative to the next community facing these issues. They understood their examples were anecdotal, but it seemed everyone had friends or family who had been affected. The exposure assessment and community health assessment are a step in the right direction, but it will take a lot more to reassure this community that they are being protected.

I’m Dave Hutchins reporting for KBMF.