Prairie Lights: In Anaconda, sadly, history repeats itself

Stack

The big smokestack at the Anaconda copper smelter, in its prime, pumped out tons of arsenic and heavy metals every day.

The more things change…

My first full-time reporting job was in Anaconda, back in 1980. One of our neighbors, at the first house we lived in, was an ancient Italian woman who filled me in on a lot of local history.

One story of hers I never forgot was about what happened in the old days when a worker died up on the hill, at the smelter owned by the Anaconda Copper Mining Co. Within a day or two, she said, a company lawyer would show up at the widow’s door with money and a piece of paper.

Ed Kemmick

The sum of money changed over the years, but it was always pretty paltry—unless you happened to be a newly widowed woman with a houseful of kids. The piece of paper, which you had to sign to receive the money, contained a binding promise that you would seek no more money from the company, nor file any sort of lawsuit over the death of your spouse.

Most of the women, my neighbor told me, didn’t read the release, or if they had, probably couldn’t have penetrated the legal jargon anyway. All they knew was that they had to sign to get the money.

I would learn a lot more about the ACM over the years—the way it chewed up workers’ lives, caused environmental degradation on an almost unbelievable scale, corrupted the state’s politics for many decades—but that was the story that made me angriest.

And here we are in 2017 and the company that succeeded the ACM is pulling a similar stunt.

As the Montana Standard reported, Anaconda residents whose property was contaminated by heavy metals from the smelter, which was shut down in 1980, have been receiving letters from the Atlantic Richfield Co., offering $1,000 to those who give up the right to sue the company.

Anaconda is a Superfund site and ARCO, a subsidiary of BP, is involved in cleaning up contaminated residential properties. The company initially told the Standard only that it was in the process of securing access agreements in order to conduct cleanup efforts on residents’ land.

A bit later, after a meeting was held in Anaconda to talk about the letters and the continuing cleanup, Bill Everett, chief executive of Anaconda-Deer Lodge County, said ARCO had agreed to allow anyone who had signed the agreement to void it if they chose to do so.

The company still has not publicly mentioned the $1,000 offer, as far as I can tell.

Getting sued by Anaconda property owners is not an abstract threat for ARCO. For the past seven years it has been fighting—or tangling up in court, at least—a lawsuit filed by 98 residents of Opportunity who claim that ARCO and the Environmental Protection Agency inadequately cleaned up their property.

Opportunity is the little town that sits a few miles east of Anaconda, astride the vast network of tailings ponds that used to poison the Clark Fork River while the smelter’s giant smokestack, pumping out tons of arsenic and heavy metals every day, poisoned the land.

Those residents of Opportunity say they are still living on dangerously contaminated property, years after ARCO supposedly did its “remediation” work. The EPA is siding with ARCO, saying the courts have no business intervening in an agreement already negotiated between the government and the company.

But the EPA, no less than private companies, has to be held accountable by somebody. Under a Trump administration the agency won’t be held to account by its own chief, Scott Pruitt, a corporate shill if ever there was one. Let’s hope the courts do the job.

Meanwhile, here was ARCO hoping to head off any future lawsuits by offering residents of Anaconda money and a piece of paper, just like the ACM of old.

The Montana Standard looked at one of those letters, brought in by a woman, a lifelong resident of Anaconda, who asked to remain anonymous. She also brought in the results of ground sampling done by ARCO, showing dangerously elevated levels of lead and arsenic in her yard.

She said she was worried about her health and that of her family, especially of her grown son, who used to play in the yard.

“It makes you feel there isn’t much value in your life,” she told the Standard.

I guess it depends on how you define “much.” We know that to the Atlantic Richfield Co., her life is worth a thousand bucks.

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