Dislodged from Deer Lodge 

Powell County health officer quits over public arsenic risks

Everyone in Missoula knows about Milltown Dam, thanks to a public education campaign of billboards and bumper stickers. The dam is, of course, the terminus of the nation’s largest Superfund site, the legacy of a century’s worth of copper and silver mining in Butte and Anaconda. Remove Milltown Dam, restore the river, and carefully dispose of hundreds of thousands of tons of soil contaminated with metals, mercury and arsenic, and 140 miles of the Clark Fork will be on its way to a full recovery. Throw in a quick restoration of the Blackfoot/Clark Fork confluence and a world-class whitewater park, and the river gods will be smiling forever on the Garden City.

Yet 80 miles to the east in Deer Lodge, the battle to establish a less ambitious restoration plan has been fomenting for years, with the latest casualty taking place only a few weeks ago.

Deer Lodge is the seat of Powell County where, until July 31, Dr. Kathleen Evans served as the county health officer. She was good at her job, winning recognition as one of the state’s most effective health officers in 1998. But Dr. Evans has resigned her post over disagreements about Arrow Stone Park, its concentrations of arsenic in old mine tailings, and the health risks that local citizens assume when they use the park.

“I resigned for myriad reasons,” says Dr. Evans. “I think I had lost any ability to be a credible voice. And since it looks like they’re not going to do anything about the park, I didn’t want my name associated with any of the problems they’re going to have in the future. To me it’s not a matter of if, it’s a matter of when.”

Arrow Stone Park is the gift of Atlantic Richfield Company (ARCO) to the City of Deer Lodge. The petroleum giant responsible for the Clark Fork Superfund area built Arrow Stone on top of old mine tailings as a demonstration area for Clark Fork recovery under the supervision of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). What ARCO, Powell County commissioners, and the EPA have demonstrated so far, according to Evans, is an ability to mire the process of recovery of the Clark Fork River and the health of local citizens in the worst sort of small town politics. “People in Missoula should really pay attention to what’s going on in Deer Lodge,” says Evans, “because the precedents that are set for arsenic removal there are going to be the standard for what happens at Milltown.”

If she’s right, Missoulians may have reason to worry. While the EPA says it has determined without a doubt that Arrow Stone is safe for humans, Evans and others contend that this fact has not been established. What’s worse, she says there’s evidence to suggest that ARCO and Powell County commissioners are less concerned with establishing facts than with obfuscating them. As was reported in the Independent in April, Evans had asked county officials to post warnings in the park until further tests can be done. County commissioners had agreed to further testing, but the EPA and the Agency for Toxic Substance Disease Registry (ATSDR) could not come to terms over testing methods, a rift Evans says was made worse by the EPA’s delay in furnishing necessary data. Under the pretense that the two federal agencies weren’t working quickly and clearly together, Powell County commissioners then denied ATSDR permission to test the soil in the park. A few days later, ARCO brought in truck loads of fresh topsoil and literally buried the sites where ATSDR and Evans had planned to sample.

Evans recollects that things had gotten personal even before ARCO covered the proposed test sites. The EPA’s manager for the Upper Clark Fork, Scott Brown, has characterized Evans to other professionals involved in the Arrow Stone testing controversy as grossly misinformed and under-qualified to judge whether or not arsenic in Arrow Stone was a serious public health risk. Evans wrote him a letter asking him to quit, and Brown responded with a letter accusing Evans of crying wolf to a Helena reporter, which Evans says never happened. Evans took her concerns to the EPA’s public affairs director, Pen Hillary, who thought enough of Evans’ concerns that she reported them to her superiors. (Hillary has since been transferred to another position.)

One of Evans’ complaints was that she was left off a group mailing list that included local, state and federal officials involved in the Arrow Stone case. Before Hillary’s departure, she made sure Evans got on that list. After Hillary left, Evans was once again squeezed out of the information loop.

Evans was then informed last spring that her contract with the clinic she works at in Deer Lodge would not be renewed. She got a new job in Missoula, and has since decided to move her family here.

“I really couldn’t be effective as the health officer of Powell County anymore,” reflects Evans. “I used to be able to keep my eye on the park, see who was going there and how the park was being used, which seems like a really important part of my job. Even if I decided to stay living in Deer Lodge, I couldn’t do that anymore.”

Evans says she only wants Arrow Stone Park to be tested to determine the real health risks to the public.

“One of the ways I’ve been chastised is that others have said I want every ounce of arsenic out of Deer Lodge. That’s not true,” she says. “All I want is for the park to be tested and the soils adequately characterized. I don’t even care if they don’t clean it up. But if it’s a health risk, then take the picnic tables and the walking paths out of there, and make the place a non-risk.”

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