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Fears on Arsenic : Smelter Hill--A Legacy of Dangers

Times Staff Writer

As a little girl, Michelle Smith endured burning eyes and the bitter taste of sulfur when the wind brought clouds of dust down from the Anaconda Copper Co.'s nearby hilltop smelter. On particularly bad days, some families would pack up the children and escape into the town of Anaconda, only five miles away but out of the wind’s path.

The smelter closed in 1980, leaving behind long lines of unemployed, but also a gradual improvement in the environment. Insects and birds slowly began to return to Mill Creek. A family of foxes was spotted. And grass, although still scarce, began to shove its way up through the metal-laced soil.

Now, at 25, Smith has three daughters of her own and still lives in Mill Creek. But the decades of soot and dust left a legacy that may threaten her children and future Mill Creek generations. Recent tests found that the young children of Mill Creek have six times more arsenic in their urine than children about 100 miles away.

No One Cared

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“When the hill was running and everything was dying around here, no one seemed to care,” said Smith, who lived here from the age of 7. “That’s when they should have been down here to see if anything was wrong.”

Long-term, low-level exposure to arsenic, a residue of copper smelting, is believed to cause skin and lung cancer. At more acutely toxic levels, which have not been documented here, arsenic causes nervous system and gastrointestinal disorders.

The Environmental Protection Agency announced last month that residents may be relocated pending a cleanup planned for the spring thaw. With a decision expected later this month, the residents of Mill Creek have been thrust into the turmoil of uncertainty and frustration that beset a community after contamination is found. Since 1980, 16 communities have been temporarily moved under the Superfund toxic-waste cleanup program, and two more received permanent replacement housing elsewhere.

‘I Want Something Done’

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“I wouldn’t want to leave this house if I didn’t have to,” said Joseph (Kenny) Smith, Michelle’s husband, who was born and still lives in the three-bedroom, yellow-trimmed house built by his father, a smelter worker who died of emphysema. “But whether they clean up or relocate, I just want something done.”

Mill Creek, a tiny rural community of horse pastures, log cabins and trailer homes that is incorporated as a part of Anaconda, is nestled in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains on land dotted with cottonwood and willows now naked in the snow. On one side, the community looks out at peaks of the Continental Divide. On the other is smelter hill, the border marked by a barbed-wire fence and a danger sign.

Hardly anyone recognized the danger when the Anaconda smelter was still providing many of the local residents with their livelihood. But now that Anaconda Copper has pulled up stakes and left its poison behind, every ailment suddenly seems ominous. Previous cancer deaths are recalled with suspicion.

The most frightened of Mill Creek’s 90 residents want the company to buy their contaminated property so that they can move as soon as possible. Others, certain they will never be reimbursed for their homes and too poor to move, express more bitterness at the company for taking away their jobs than for poisoning their land.

Little Alarm at Company

The company, which was bought in 1977 by Los Angeles-based Atlantic Richfield Co., reflects little of the residents’ alarm. James C. Windorski, manager of Montana Minerals Properties, Arco’s Anaconda subsidiary, said the form of cancer most commonly associated with arsenic is skin cancer.

“Obviously, no one wants to have cancer,” he said, “but if you have to have cancer,” the mortality rate of skin cancer is “extremely low.” Besides, he said, higher levels of arsenic have been found elsewhere. “That isn’t to say that just because someplace else it’s acceptable, it should be acceptable here,” he added.

Anaconda Copper, which opened for business in this region in 1884, gave the town its name and the region a reason for existence. It was a benevolent operation that planted flowers in town center, established a park for the residents and put up the city’s Christmas tree every year.

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It also helped introduce pollution to the Wild West countryside. Former workers recall times when the dust was so thick that they could not see the Mill Creek houses below. Town residents remember days when a house 160 feet away was invisible. Alex LaTray Jr., 33, said his young children would get burn-like sores on their skin after playing in puddles following a rain. Even today, a residue of dust on smelter hill swirls around in the wind.

Cigarettes Tasted Like Sugar

Everyone in town seemed to know of the spewing arsenic, but few considered it a problem. Men who worked on the hill nonchalantly recall that their cigarettes tasted like sugar when they smoked amid the white arsenic powder.

Three years after Anaconda’s merger with Arco, the company announced it would close the smelter. It blamed costly environmental regulations for the shutdown. Ironically, the contaminants dumped on the land during the years of no regulation have cost the company millions of dollars to contain since the smelter closed.

Many residents blamed Arco, rather than the company they had grown up with, for the closing, which cost the region more than 2,000 jobs. A group of citizens calling themselves the “Save Our Stack Committee” lobbied to keep the company’s huge black-and-gray brick smokestack as a historical monument. They succeeded, and the tower atop smelter hill looms over the region for miles and miles. Once the source of their livelihood, it has become a symbol of what may be their doom.

Jobs Are Scarce

Jobs have been scarce since the company closed, and the region has tried to fill the void with tourism. But its effort to lure visitors with promises of fishing, hiking, skiing, hunting and Rocky Mountain splendor has hit a snag.

The EPA discovered that 6,000 acres used by the company were contaminated not only by arsenic but by lead, cadmium, copper, beryllium, zinc and other heavy metals. The poisons had seeped into the soil and ground and surface waters on company property. In 1983, the site was placed on Superfund’s list of the most hazardous dumps in the nation--one of 23 former mining or ore-processing sites targeted for Superfund cleanup.

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Now, residents ask themselves, who will want to take a vacation near a hazardous waste dump?

Greg Seitz, the son and grandson of Montana cattle ranchers, moved to an area just behind Mill Creek about five years ago, shortly after the smelter closed. With 50,000 acres, he was able to expand his herd from 300 cattle to 950.

Cows Began Dying

He planted oats and barley. But in some spots the grain just would not grow. Where it would, he had to work the crop much harder than he had on his former ranch for an even smaller yield. And his cows began dying mysteriously.

The first year he lost several calves. By now, more than 60 have died. The deaths were slow and agonizing. Seitz discovered the shaking animals lying on the ground near pools of water that he suspects were contaminated with arsenic. Unable to swallow, they were choking on their vomit.

“It’s kind of a terrible thing to watch,” he said.

A local veterinarian, who saved some of the cows by treating them for poison with activated charcoal, said he had never seen such deaths before. But the veterinary pathologist who performed autopsies on some of the cows said he does not believe heavy-metal contamination killed them. He suspects a “peculiar nutritional imbalance” whose cause he could not determine.

Wells Contained Arsenic

Last year, as part of a general monitoring of the land near the smelter, the EPA found elevated levels of arsenic and other metals in Mill Creek soil. Two wells residents use for drinking water also contained arsenic, but at levels that do not exceed drinking water standards.

The EPA asked the federal Centers for Disease Control last March to test the urine of Mill Creek children who, because they play in the dirt, would be most at risk of arsenic contamination. The tests revealed that the Mill Creek youngsters had an average arsenic level of 66 micrograms per liter. The average level of children in a “control community” about 100 miles away was 11 micrograms per liter.

A second set of tests was planned for the summer, but Michelle Smith refused to permit her daughters to complete them. Her husband was working for a contractor for Anaconda Copper that had been cited by the EPA for improperly disposing of contaminated equipment.

Sought to Learn Risks

Smith said she went to an EPA meeting to learn of the risks her daughters might face. But she decided not to attend any more EPA meetings.

“I’m sitting on this side of the room and on the other side are the guys he works for,” she said. “I just didn’t want to take the chance of maybe him losing his job over it.”

Other families agreed to participate in an experiment. At the EPA’s request, they allowed their homes to be cleaned by professionals last summer to determine whether household dust might have contributed to the arsenic in the children. The tests showed that the levels of arsenic in their urine actually went up after the cleaning.

Some think the cleaning only stirred up the dust. Others suspect the increase reflected the children’s tendency to be outdoors more often in the summer. But nobody, not even the CDC, is certain.

Dusting With Wet Cloth

Five days before Christmas, the EPA sent residents a letter advising them to dust furniture and household surfaces regularly with a wet cloth, keep windows and doors closed, restrict pets from going in and out of the house and bathe them once a week.

One mother said she has told her twin daughters “not to eat the snow.”

A husband and wife said they wipe their dog’s paws after it goes outside. But some residents, like the Smiths, point to their experience under much worse conditions and scoff at the scare. “I was born and raised here and I ain’t dying,” Kenny Smith said.

No one, however, wants to take a chance. On a recent afternoon, a friend arrived at the Smiths’ house with her infant son and placed him on the kitchen floor. Michelle Smith repeatedly admonished the woman that the floor was dirty. Finally, with a clipped, abrupt laugh, Smith told the unconcerned woman that there could be arsenic on the floor. The other woman laughed too. But, several minutes later, she put a blanket under her son.

Man Has Little to Lose

Ed Noll’s children are grown and, at 66, Noll figures he has little to lose by staying in Mill Creek. But he noted some disturbing signs: the native trees on his land whose growth is stunted, and the electrician working at his place last summer who complained bitterly that he felt as though he was being eaten by mosquitoes when the dust got on his skin.

“If I was a young fellow ready to raise a family, I’d sure never stop in a place like this,” Noll said.

But his concern is that the EPA may ultimately force residents to leave without compensating them. “We’re just a bunch of old, dumb working people and they know it,” he said.

Dr. Sue Binder, a medical epidemiologist with the Atlanta-based CDC, said there is no standard for an acceptable level of arsenic. “We don’t know what the effects are of long-term, low-level exposure to anything,” she said. “We just know we can associate this substance with cancer.”

Residents Skeptical

Binder, although declining to offer an opinion on whether Mill Creek residents should be relocated, noted: “I think we’re agreed we don’t want these kids to be exposed to arsenic for the rest of their lives.”

Residents are skeptical that the land can be cleaned by the measures under consideration. Those measures include paving the dirt roads and replacing the top layers of soil with fresh dirt.

Ron Beausoleil, a retired smelter worker, and his wife, Arlene, said they hauled in fresh soil for a vegetable garden three years ago and, by the third year, their potatoes grew no larger than eggs. Arlene Beausoleil said of the contamination: “It just comes up out of the ground.”

Mike Bishop, the EPA project officer for the site, said he believes a relocation, if approved, would be temporary rather than permanent because the agency is “not really interested in acquiring property.” But the size and methods of cleanup have not yet been decided, he added.

Long-Term Risks

The risks are long-term, not immediate, he noted, and several steps have already been taken to minimize exposure. For example, Anaconda Copper has agreed to cover the flue dust on smelter hill. Last year, Bishop said, the swirling dust was so thick on a nearby highway that he had to turn on his headlights during the day.

Arco’s Windorski estimated that the company has spent $6 million since 1982 to contain the contamination. Last year, the firm deep-tilled a plot of land in Mill Creek and covered it with lime rock, gravel and clean topsoil for a children’s park. But, he said: “I’m not sure that will satisfy them.”

Windorski, arguing that the arsenic in Mill Creek’s soil is not “dangerous at all,” called the EPA’s work at the site a “political response.”

“It just seems like kind of an overreaction,” he said. “You always want to exercise caution, but I think we should keep things in perspective.”

‘Can’t Stop the Wind’

That is no consolation to William Anderson, who moved here five years ago from Butte, 25 miles away, because “we thought it would be a better environment to raise the kids.” A creek flows behind the house, and there are meadows where the Andersons’ three children can play.

Now the Andersons say they will never feel safe here again. “They can’t stop the wind from blowing,” Myra Anderson said. The couple will not permit their three children to ride their bicycles when the ground thaws and the dust kicks up.

“It’s sort of scary, especially when a government doctor can’t tell you what’s going to happen,” William Anderson said. “It’s dangerous but it ain’t dangerous. That’s the way she put it. This is what tears you up.”


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