Poison in the Park 

ARCO, arsenic and the stories under the soil at Arrow Stone Park

Officials from several levels of state government made news last week when they publicly addressed the possibility of arsenic contamination in Arrow Stone Park in the town of Deer Lodge, 80 miles east of Missoula. But the story under those headlines was only the latest exchange in a complex and increasingly contentious debate among county, state and federal agencies about arsenic contamination in Montana. County officials are wrestling with the feds. The feds are lining up against each other. And some figures involved in the soil-contamination debate are making accusations of a literal cover-up.

Just one element overlooked by last week’s news stories is the fact that Arrow Stone Park is an ARCO demonstration site. As part of a clean-up effort mandated by the Superfund Act of 1980, the petroleum giant was obliged to create recreation areas near towns that had suffered the ecological effects of a century’s worth of mining. Armed with the blessing of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and employing the latest technology to immobilize toxins in the soil, ARCO began to create Arrow Stone Park for the people of Deer Lodge in the mid-1990s. Yet even before the park was completed, some residents questioned the safety of the site.

“The EPA has never adequately tested the park site, and they’re willing to put children at risk for political gain,” says Powell County medical officer and Deer Lodge physician Kathleen Evans. “I would hate to have even one child get an exposure at a young age and wind up with cancer that could be attributed to the park.”

Evans’ concern about the ARCO park was great enough that in March 1997, she asked for help from the federal government, in the form of the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR), a branch of the Centers for Disease Control charged with helping other agencies handle toxic contaminants in public health matters. By August of that year, at Evans’ request, ATSDR scientists visited Deer Lodge and carried out a risk assessment of the park, the results of which confirmed Evans’ concerns. A site a half-mile from Arrow Stone Park contained unusually high levels of arsenic, the agency’s report said, and the park’s soil would have to be tested. In the meantime, the bureau recommended that the sites it had assessed, along with the park itself, be posted with signs to alert citizens to the potential dangers of arsenic poisoning.

Over the following months, the ATSDR visited Arrow Stone several more times, communicating with local officials and collecting urine and blood samples from nearby residents to measure their exposure to toxins in the area. The bureau even volunteered to pay for the testing of the park out of its own budget. By last September, on the go-ahead from the county commissioners, the ATSDR was identifying sites it would sample with the help of the EPA and a local environmental firm. But in an about-face decision that month, the Powell County Commissioners reversed their stance and pulled the plug on the plan to test Arrow Stone Park.

Neither of the two commissioners the Independent contacted from the three-member board would elaborate on their motives for retracting permission to test the park. But in a letter of explanation to federal health officials, the commissioners listed their reasons, first among them being “arrogance.” “It is sort of like, ‘we will do it our way and you should trust us because we are the experts,’” the letter stated.

But another factor, it explained, was that the commissioners were not confident that one federal agency could cooperate with another. “We readily admit that part of our rationale for severing our … relationship with you has to do with perceived differences between ATSDR and EPA,” the commissioners stated.

And indeed, those differences became apparent enough when the EPA supported the county commissioners’ decision.

Scott Brown, the EPA’s lead man on Upper Clark Fork Basin arsenic, says he sees little purpose in testing the park. His agency, he explains, through thousands of soil samples taken throughout the Upper Clark Fork basin, has “adequately characterized the health risks, which are consistent throughout the flood plain.” Moreover, Brown notes, county officials in his district are worried about how the findings will be used. “We feel more testing at this time is at least premature. There’s no reason to test unless the ATSDR tells the county what they intend to do with the results.”

For its part, the ATSDR concedes that there were difficulties between the two bureaus from the beginning. ATSDR scientist John Crellin characterizes his relationship with the commissioners and the EPA as cordial and professional, but perplexing as well. “I think the commissioners were skeptical of people from Atlanta coming in and telling them what to do, which is entirely understandable,” Crellin says. The biggest letdown for him, he adds, was that the commissioners left the door open for the EPA and his agency to test Arrow Stone, if they came to terms. “Frankly, we never got any feedback from the EPA on this,” Crellin recalls. “We had bought plane tickets and made reservations for meetings in Deer Lodge in December and January, but the EPA cancelled both meetings.”

While Crellin expresses regret over the inter-agency squabbles about standards and techniques, the problem now no longer seems to lie with the EPA or the ATSDR. Even if they are called in to finally test the town park, it turns out, the results may not be conclusive. Because soon after the Powell County Commission denied federal scientists permission to sample the park soil, the soil was literally covered up.

Less than a week after the commission issued its refusal for further testing, ARCO dumped several loads of dirt fill in Arrow Stone, covering some of the areas ATSDR had identified for sampling. Both Brown of the EPA and ARCO spokesman Duff deny any connection between the dirt fill and the possibility of new soil testing. “There was fill dumped in the park,” said Brown, “but it wasn’t in advance of any tests that were to be done. What exactly ARCO was planning with the fill is something that they should probably answer.”

“There was a grade that wasn’t quite what we wanted it to be,” Duff explains. “And we needed soil for vegetative growth, some planting we wanted to get done.”

But several figures in the case, beginning with Evans, question the timing of the action. “To me it looks like they’re covering it up,” she says. “In the boldest sense of the word.” In all of the tours, memos and phone conversations she had with officials about Arrow Stone Park, she says, no one ever mentioned any plans to fix grades or improve landscaping. “The timing is a bit suspicious,” she says.

In addition, Evans expresses concerns about whether the dumping will skew, or even obscure, the results of future tests. “It will be harder to know if what they’re sampling is cover soil or what’s underneath,” she says. “No one really knows how stable this cover soil will be.”

Whether or not the sequence of events was coincidental, Evans became frustrated enough with the controversies over Arrow Stone Park that on April 21, she wrote a letter to the state Department of Environmental Quality, looking to get help from Helena for the testing she still believes to be necessary.

Weeks later, the heads of Montana’s environmental and public health departments responded unanimously to Evans’ letter, urging Powell County commissioners to allow the testing and entreating federal agencies to put their differences aside. While somewhat skeptical, Evans retains the hope that this may, in fact, be the beginning of the end of Arrow Stone Park’s embattled past.

“It’s at the point now where I don’t believe this is simply a matter of two federal agencies disagreeing over methods or jurisdiction,” Evans says. “I believe it’s a case of politics winning out over public health concerns.”

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