Recently, the Butte Health Department released a “fact sheet” regarding Butte cancer rates that could be attributed to heavy metals exposure. It sought to calm citizen fears that Superfund is not working to protect the public’s health and found that all is well: don’t worry, we don’t have a cancer problem worse than anywhere else. Should citizens be satisfied with the health department’s conclusion that Superfund is working and that their health is being protected?
Government has a duty to protect public health. Superfund was specifically created to protect the public health from threats from toxic waste. Millions of dollars have been expended to achieve this purpose. It would be valuable for Butte citizens to know whether or not the Superfund cleanup has been effective.
Last spring, Dr. Stacie Barry provided a compelling answer to the question of Superfund’s effectiveness: Superfund has not reduced the cancer rates in Butte. The EPA went ballistic! Instead of reevaluating the efficacy of their cleanup efforts, EPA marshaled its full resources to discredit Dr. Barry’s report, even resorting to personal attacks on her professionalism and competency.
EPA then decided to get a study that would show the efficacy of the Superfund cleanup and enlisted the Butte Health Department to be its accomplice. The Health Department was tasked by EPA to be the lead agency in designing and conducting a study of the health effects of exposure to Superfund toxics of concern. The recently released fact sheet is the first attempt to beguile the public.
The Health Department is not up to the task of designing and conducting a valid and reliable health study of the effects of Superfund toxics on public health. The Health Department has no personnel trained to do such a study.
To assist in this effort, the Health Department in May created a health study advisory board, but this board has no one trained in risk assessment, environmental epidemiology, biomedical statistics or environmental toxicology; skills essential to conduct such a study. Only after reminding the Health Department of the provisions of Montana’s open records law was I finally given a list of advisory board members names. The health study advisory board was selected in secret with no public notice. The Health Department deliberately picked members with whom they were, as it was said, “comfortable” and who would not be too “volatile.” Although the board is under a late October deadline from EPA, it has yet, at the time of this writing, to meet. Four months wasted. How can the board produce any type of quality study? It is obvious this is a sham, public show process.
The EPA only gave this task to the Health Department because they knew that, by default, the Health Department would have to rely on EPA to produce the kind of confirmatory study the EPA wants.
The recently released fact sheet shows the ineptitude of the Health Department. The Health Department wants to use “incidence studies” to show that cancer rates in Butte are no worse than anywhere else. This incidence report methodology is recognized as the worst type of methodology for this type of study. For example, this methodology, because it only deals with reported health problems, under-represents low income citizens who live disproportionately within Butte’s Superfund sites. The fact sheet only looks at cancer, yet exposure to the Butte’s toxics cause many other diseases. The sheet does not concentrate on uptown Butte Superfund sites but plays the statistical trick of looking at all of Butte to lower the rate percentages.
Butte citizens deserve to know from a competent and unbiased source whether or not Superfund is protecting public health. Numerous peer reviewed, valid and reliable studies have indicated that the Superfund cleanup in Butte is a failure. Unfortunately, ever since the local government signed the settlement agreement with ARCO, local government has been more concerned about protecting the interests of ARCO and the EPA rather than that of Butte residents. For proof, read the settlement agreement. Local government, particularly the planning and health departments, needs to stop pandering to EPA and ARCO and start looking out for the public interest. Isn’t that why we have a local government in the first place?
— Dr. John W. Ray, 915 West Galena, in Butte.