A century of mining and refining in and around Butte, Montana has left its mark. Lead levels in the water and surrounding environment have been high enough to cause concern for the Environmental Protection Agency. Recent studies on children growing up in the area, however, as well as on soils and water nearby are showing lower levels of lead contaminants than were found in previous tests. The cleanup effort, called the Superfund, appears to be succeeding in reducing lead levels in Montana.
The study included the testing of 3,000 local children from 2003 to 2008. It found that though these children had higher lead levels in their blood than is the average in the U.S., those levels are decreasing. This finding coincides with the findings of the soil study, phase one of which has concluded that levels of lead in the soils are dropping due to cleanup efforts. This means that as time goes on, the local population will be exposed to less and less lead contamination.
This is good news for Butte residents, and inspiring to a country that has seen children with elevated blood-lead levels in low income areas, and in people whose homes were built before lead paint and other materials were monitored. Most homes built before 1940 have components that include dangerous toxic lead contaminants.
But there is a word of caution in that lead levels in Butte children remained constant in 2009 and 2010. This data means that though blood-lead levels in Butte were dropping faster than the national average, they seem to have stalled in their descent. In effect the Superfund effort appears to be succeeding in cleanup of the environment, but success in reducing lead levels in residents can come in fits and starts.
Mercury and arsenic are also dangerously high in the Butte area due to old mining and refining operations. These materials are part of the cleanup effort, though testing has focused on the lead component because it is easier to detect and monitor in children.
Studies are scheduled to continue for another 30 years in five stages to follow up on continued cleanup efforts. This is unsurprising considering the mining, smelting and refining that took place in the Butte area was an industry from 1893 through the 1970s.
Almost 80 years of contamination take a long time to clean up, especially when much of the material was expelled as particulates from a smokestack that protruded 506 feet into the air. Such a mechanism would have spread contaminants into the wind to be scattered far and wide, and the particles it scattered are tiny enough to have settled into every crevice.
This smokestack was estimated to have thrown out approximately 105 million cubic feet of material every minute. The total amount of contaminated material it seeded into the local environment is staggering to consider. It is no wonder the cleanup estimates are projected to take so long.
Luckily there are multiple programs involved in the effort. Residential Metals Abatement Program workers go around testing for lead in residences and in the yards of Butte citizens. There is no charge for this service, which is run by the county health department. Between local efforts and the Superfund cleanup, measurable success is being documented in the fight to reduce lead contamination in Butte. The battle waged here, though, shows exactly how costly poor environmental practice can be for health, people and property.
By Kat Turner