Over the past several months, oddly hued dust storms have descended on the former Anaconda Copper smelting town of Opportunity. Activists there suspect the meteorological events could be contaminating the air with dangerous levels of arsenic.
Members of the Opportunity Citizens Protection Organization (OCPA) say winds this season have whipped up dried sediment piles transferred to Opportunity by rail from the Milltown Dam Superfund site—sediment removed from Milltown because of its high arsenic content. The latest storm occurred May 20, according to OCPA president Serge Myers.
Longtime Opportunists are familiar with the storms, because similar dust clouds once rolled in from Butte before the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) forced the Atlantic Richfield Co. (ARCO) to dampen a major tailings field near the Berkeley Pit. “Now it’s here getting blown into the community like nothing was ever done,” Myers says.
The repository holding the Milltown pollution—commonly known as Opportunity Ponds—is the resting site for much of the toxic waste produced by the Anaconda Smelter in the first half of the 20th century. Residents immediately downwind from the facility have been relocated since the 1980s due to incredibly high levels of arsenic in the soil. Properties outside of those designated quarantine zones that exhibit arsenic levels above the federal threshold of 250 mg/kg typically get an EPA cleanup, with the waste ending up in Opportunity Ponds.
It’s the large amount of dried sediment coming from Milltown, however, that has local activists ticked off. They believe it’s not being properly monitored and the community, once again, is forced to bear an unfair share of Montana’s toxic burden. Clark Fork Coalition hydrologist Chris Brick says the dust is being exposed because some vegetative caps installed by the EPA are failing.
Montana EPA director John Wardell calls the dust storms “unacceptable” but believes the dirt fueling the windstorms is not the arsenic-rich sediment coming in by trainload from Milltown.
Ninety Opportunity residents are currently pursuing litigation against ARCO—the party responsible for cleaning up Anaconda Copper’s environmental liability—for endangering the public health of their town. Advised by their attorneys not to discuss the case, they would not disclose if the dust storms would become a part of the lawsuit.