Some people in this Montana mining town are worried about the dust on the side

BUTTE, MONT. – Steve McGraw was standing in an empty space on one block of his house watching the dust.

The northeastern city of Montana is nicknamed “the richest mountain in the world”, with more than a century of excavation containing contaminated soil and water that took decades to clear.

But at that moment, McGraw was worried about the wind, looking across the street at Butt’s last operating open-pit mine. “Here comes another truck,” McGraw said, pointing to a hill across the road from a huge dump truck unloading ore for a miner. A brown cloud flew through the air. “And there’s dust.”

In the Greilly neighborhood, where McGraw lives, many find it hard to believe that the air they breathe is safe. A two-lane road separates roughly 700 homes from the continental mine, an open-pit copper and molybdenum mine operated by Montana Resources.

A landscape photograph of the Montana Resources Open-pit Mine.  Behind the mine are tall, sepia-colored hills and a cloudy gray sky.
When Montana Resources opened in 1985, it helped stabilize a growing population of around 30,000, at least half of what was in the city of Montana’s main mining days in the 1920s. Montana Resources operates the city’s last-ditch open-pit mine, a source of pride and concern for those living nearby. (Katherine Houghton / KHN)

Residents are reassured that the particle layer around them is not dangerous, but some suspect that these standards protect human health. People always breathe in particles, but size, abundance and chemical makeup determine whether they are dangerous. Now, the Environmental Protection Agency is evaluating whether it should lower its threshold for the concentration of harmful particles, saying it may not be high enough.

McGrath, 73, has grown up in the boot and has long been a voice in the neighborhood about whether the dust that accumulates on his roof and in his car contains a dangerous mixture of toxic metals. “Is this a health concern?” McGrath says. “We didn’t get a really satisfactory answer.”

Over the years, the agency and the state’s environmental quality department have been collecting air samples in the vicinity. The results have been consistent: the level of contamination does not guarantee alarm.

Montana has set up a monitor to track metals in the air around the resource grille, and an independent review found no threats to human health, which the state health department has endorsed. However, additional studies, often cited by government and mining officials, have indicated potential problems – such as high levels of metals, including aluminum and copper, in areas and arsenic and lead markings – and called for further testing.

This year, the nonprofit advocacy group Montana Environmental Information Center asked a contractor to review data collected by Montana Resources and DEQ. Ron Sahu, a mechanical engineer who conducted the review, said not enough research had been done to determine whether the mine was harming butt residents. According to Sahu, there were multiple errors in the data, such as time interval. He added that an air-monitoring station could miss hard-to-reach areas and the risk to residents of prolonged exposure to dust is still unknown.

On a recent night in Butte, Sahu presented his findings to mining officials, state representatives, a local health advisory committee, and several residents of Greeley. State health and environmental standards workers have reiterated what has been said before: all recorded emissions meet federal standards.

Nevertheless, Sahu said pollution levels exceeded the World Health Organization’s public health protection recommendations last year. For example, the maximum annual average EPA for optimal particles is 12 micrograms per cubic meter, whereas the WHO limit is 5. From 2018 to 2020, the Greeley wind-monitoring station recorded an annual average of about 10, according to more than 7 Sahu reviews.

During a recent meeting to review air-quality sampling data collected at Butt’s Grille neighborhood, resident Larry Winstel grabbed a square sheet of Plexiglas covered in dust that he said was on his picnic table. “It’s worth three weeks,” Winstel said. “How much is being deposited in a year?” (Katherine Houghton / KHN)

The EPA is studying whether to lower its 12-microgram standard and hopes to announce any proposed changes this summer.

At the meeting, resident Larry Winstel said he did not care about the data. He was holding a square sheet of Plexiglas covered in dust. “That’s what’s on my picnic table,” he said. “It simply came to our notice then. How much is being deposited in a year? “

Mark Thompson, environmental manager at Montana Resources, said the company goes beyond what it needs to do to reduce dust. He said it uses a 240-ton truck to supply water to the mining gravel road and the air filtration system to trap particles.

Thompson said he agrees that more needs to be done to determine if the air on the grill is unsafe and if so why. “If there’s a problem in that community, I’d like to know,” Thompson said. “My son, my daughter-in-law and my two grandchildren live in a block of the main gate of the mine.”

Butt became a gold and silver mining camp in the 1860s, and people from all over the world traveled to work in the city. The area was a battleground for the Copper kings in the 1890s as mine owners rushed to extract the metal used to feed the country’s growing electrical infrastructure and manufacturing industry.

Those who grew up in and around Butte often did not question what the presence of mine or odor meant for their health. The lifting industries offer good jobs. Many are proud that their city has helped electrify the nation and produce one-third of the world’s copper supply in its heyday.

Atlantic Richfield Co., which bought the Anaconda Company, closed its butt mines in 1982. A federal superfund site was designated in 1983 as a stretch of the Butt and Clark Fork River, where mining waste is washed into the stream. A few years later, Montana Resources began operations, and its operations helped stabilize the city’s population of about 30,000. Cleaning of historic lead, arsenic and other contaminants continues today.

The boundary of that work is the boundary of the Grille neighborhood to the west, while the Continental Mine cups the neighborhood to the north-east. Some residents are concerned that mining activities add another layer of damage.

“I know about the air-monitoring station here and they say it doesn’t take anything dangerous,” said Bob Brasher, who watched the continental mining scene from his front yard. “But I can’t see when we had those days and you look here and you can see the dust flying and settling like this.”

Just down the street, Haley Rehm said she didn’t think of dust until her 2-year-old son’s blood tests showed higher lead levels. The reason is not clear – toxic metals can be taken in multiple ways. But the proximity of the mine persuaded Reham to test the lead at his home; He was still waiting for the May results.

Haley Reham holds her 2-month-old baby just outside her home across the street from the Continental Mine in Montana.
Haley Reham holds her 2-month-old baby in the doorway of her house across the street from the Continental Mine in Montana. Reham did not often think of dust until his 2-year-old son’s blood tests showed he had high levels of lead.(Katherine Houghton / KHN)

People often assume that local cancer cases are related to the past and present of mining in the area.

Janet Kuksi, 70, can’t remember a time when she wasn’t worried about dust. This is especially true of her head since she was diagnosed with stage 4 uterine cancer two years ago. “I have to wonder if living in this neighborhood has anything to do with my whole life,” Kuksi said.

An analysis by the state health department found that from 1981 to 2010, the incidence rate of cancer did not increase in Silver Bow County compared to the rest of the state.

Not everyone is worried. For some people, even talking about the potential health effects is tantamount to an anti-mining mentality.

Asked if the dust bothered him, Al Shields rolled his eyes and nodded toward his clean truck, saying they hadn’t been washed in a few days. “What people don’t understand is that if a mine goes, it becomes a butt,” he said. “If you don’t like it, leave.”

Montana Resources employs 380 people and is a significant source of tax revenue. Those who are pushing for more research into the effects of mining and what can be done about dust say they are not trying to stop the operation. “We want a clean and healthy environment,” said Ed Banderobe of Grille Neighborhood Community Development Corporation Inc.

When Butt’s health advisory committee meets again in the fall, the state will share air-sampling data in the hope that staff can answer lengthy questions. Meanwhile, Montana Resources expects to install more air-monitoring equipment in the vicinity by the end of the year.

Al Shields stands in the middle of the photograph behind a chain-link fence, on which he placed his hand.  Behind him are two vintage trucks, one soft red and the other pale blue.

Al Shields nodded if he was worried about dust from nearby mines. “What people don’t understand is if the mine goes, the butt goes,” says Shields. (Katherine Houghton / KHN)

Ed Banderab points to the mound of mine dust behind him.  It’s a sunny day, and the blue sky stands out against the beige landscape.

Ed Banderob walks along the Continental Mine with Grille Neighborhood Community Development Corporation Inc. Dust from polluted mines is polluting the air in Bandarb and some residents around the roadside. (Katherine Houghton / KHN)

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