This article originally appeared on KHN.
BUTTE, Mont. -Steve McGrath stood in a vacant lot one block from his home looking for dust.
This southwestern Montana town is known as "The Richest Hill on Earth" because of the more than 100 years of mining that left behind soil and water pollution that took decades to clean.
McGrath was concerned about the air at that moment as he looked across the road towards Butte's final open-pit mine. McGrath pointed out a hillside that McGrath said was the site of a huge dump truck, which had just unloaded the ore to the mine's crusher. The air was filled with a brown cloud. "And there's dust."
McGrath resides in the Greeley neighborhood. Many people struggle to believe that the air they breathe can be safe. The Continental mine is Montana Resources' open-pit copper-molybdenum mine. It is separated from 700 homes by a two-lane road.
Although residents have been assured that their area is safe from particulate matter, some question whether those standards are effective in protecting human health. Particles are everywhere, but their size, quantity, and chemical makeup will determine if they are dangerous. The Environmental Protection Agency is currently evaluating whether it should lower its threshold for harmful particulate matter density.
McGrath, now 73, is a Butte native who has been asking the neighborhood for years whether the dust on his car and roof contains toxic metals. McGrath asked, "Is it a health concern?" "We have never received a satisfactory answer."
The company and the state Department of Environmental Quality collected samples of air in the area for years. These results are consistent: There is no need to be alarm about pollution levels.
Montana Resources set up a monitor to detect metals in the air surrounding Greeley. An independent review concluded that there were no health risks to the public. The state health department supported the report. Additional studies that government and mine officials often ignore have shown potential problems, such as elevated levels, including copper and aluminum, in the area, and ground traces of arsenic or lead. They have called for further testing.
The nonprofit advocacy group Montana Environmental Information Center requested a contractor to review data collected by Montana Resources and DEQ. Ron Sahu was the mechanical engineer responsible for the review. He said that not enough research had been done to establish whether the mine is causing harm to Butte residents. Sahu stated that the data contained multiple flaws, including time gaps. Sahu also stated that only one station of air monitoring could be able to detect areas that are more difficult to reach and that residents still have to take precautions against prolonged dust exposure.
Sahu presented his findings on a recent night to Butte mine officials, state representatives, a local advisory committee for health, and a few Greeley residents. The state health and environmental quality staff repeated the same thing that was said before: All recorded emissions meet federal standards.
Sahu stated that the pollution levels are still higher than the World Health Organization's public safety recommendations for last year. The EPA's annual maximum for fine particles is 12 micrograms per square meter. The WHO's limit is 5. According to Sahu's review, Greeley's air-monitoring station has recorded an annual average of more than 7, to almost 10, for the years 2018 to 2020.
The EPA is currently examining whether to lower its 12-microgram limit and will release any changes in the summer.
Larry Winstel, a resident of the area, stated that he did not care about the data. He held up a piece of plexiglass that was covered in dust. He said, "This is what's at my picnic table." This is three weeks worth. What percentage of this amount is being deposited over the course of a year?
Mark Thompson, Montana Resources' manager of environmental affairs, stated that the company does more than is necessary to reduce dust. Thompson stated that the company uses trucks weighing 240 tons to water the mine's gravel roads, and air filters to trap particulate matter.
Thompson stated that he agreed with Thompson that more needs to be done in order to determine if Greeley's air quality is unsafe, and if so, why. Thompson stated, "If there's a problem in the community, I want it to be known." "My son, my daughter in-law and my two baby grandchildren live one block away from the main gate to the mine," Thompson said.
In the 1860s, Butte was a mining camp for gold and silver. People traveled from all over the globe to work in the city. Copper Kings fought for control of the area in 1890s, as miners raced to extract the metal needed to fuel the country's expanding electrical infrastructure.
People who grew-up in Butte or nearby did not often think about the implications of mining and smelters on their health. Good jobs were available in the extractive industries. Many proudly claim that their city was instrumental in electrifying the country and provided as much as a third world's copper supply during its golden age.
Atlantic Richfield Co. bought Anaconda Co. in 1982 and shut down the Butte mining operations. In 1983, Butte and a section of the Clark Fork River where mining waste was washed downstream were designated federal Superfund sites. Montana Resources was established in 1983 and helped stabilize the town's population of around 30,000. Today, the cleanup of lead, arsenic and other contaminants is ongoing.
The Greeley neighborhood is to the west and the Continental mine to the northeast. Residents are concerned that the operations of the mine will cause more harm.
Bob Brasher said that he knows about the station's air-monitoring system down here, but they claim it doesn’t pick up any dangerous substances. He has a view from his front yard of the Continental mine. "But it wouldn't, when you have those days. You can see the dust blowing here and settling."
Haley Rehm, a neighbor, said that she hadn't thought about the dust until an analysis of her 2-year old son's blood revealed elevated levels of lead. It's not clear what caused it. Toxic metals can be ingested in many ways. Rehm was attracted to the mine's close proximity and decided to test her home for lead. She was still waiting for the results, which she received in May.
Many people speculate that the local mining history and present are responsible for some of the cancers.
Jeanette Cooksey (70) can't recall a time when she didn't worry about dust. Since being diagnosed with stage 4 uterine carcinoma two years ago, it has been a constant concern. Cooksey stated, "I have to wonder whether living in this area my entire life has anything to do with it."
An analysis by the state health department found that the rate of cancer in Silver Bow County was not higher than the rest of the state from 1981 to 2010.
However, not everyone is concerned. Some people have an anti-mine mentality when it comes to discussing potential health effects.
Al Shields looked at the dust and rolled his eyes when he was asked if he was concerned. He nodded towards his clean trucks and said that they hadn't been washed in days. He said, "What people don’t understand is that if the mine goes away, Butte has finished." "If it isn't for you, get out."
Montana Resources employs around 380 people, and it is a major source of tax revenue. People who want to do more research on the mine's impacts and what can be done to reduce dust pollution have stated that they don't plan to close it. Ed Banderob, Greeley Neighborhood Community Development Corporation Inc. said that they want a healthy and clean environment.
The state will share data from its air-sampling program with Butte's health advisory board in the fall in hopes of answering any questions. Montana Resources plans to install more equipment for air monitoring in the area by the end the year.
KHN (Kaiser Health News), a national newsroom, produces in-depth journalism on health issues. KHN, along with Policy Analysis and Polling are the three main operating programs of KFF (Kaiser Family Foundation). KFF is an endowed non-profit organization that provides information to the nation on health issues.