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EPA cleanup: Feds question Butte mortality study

2012-04-17T06:00:00Z 2012-04-18T06:34:27Z EPA cleanup: Feds question Butte mortality studyBy Nick Gevock of The Montana Standard

A federal health official Monday questioned the findings of a graduate student whose doctoral dissertation found higher mortality rates in Butte from cancer and other diseases.

The academic paper has drawn interest from community members who question the effectiveness of the EPA’s cleanup efforts of the Butte Superfund site to protect public health from a host of toxins. The report was written by Stacie Barry and used Centers for Disease Control data on death records in Butte from 1978 to 2006.

She concluded that Butte has higher mortality rates than Montana and the United States for cancer and some other diseases.

But Dr. Michelle Watters, a federal environmental health officer, said Barry’s report is not conclusive and only a starting point to conduct further public health studies. And Watters, who works for the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, said there are several limitations in the data that Barry used to compile her report.

“There is always a question of looking at your data and appreciating what the shortcomings of your data are,” Watters told more than a dozen people who came to the Butte-Silver Bow Health Department on Monday. “It’s really a mortality ratio that she’s presenting — it’s a crude rate.”

Barry’s report has stirred debate across the board in Butte. Critics of the Butte cleanup plan have said it points to the potential for exposure to toxins and how sufficient the past two decades of EPA remediation has been.

Watters, who also holds a doctorate in environmental engineering, said ATSDR is not a regulatory agency, but rather works with EPA to evaluate toxins associated with cleanup sites. She said the limitations of the Barry study include failing to account for other factors in mortality rates, such as race, age, sex and other health factors. And death records have some other flaws as a data source, because the cause of death could have been attributed to something else.

Yet, Watters said Barry’s work has value and shows the need to conduct a more thorough environmental health analysis in Butte.

But Cord Harris, a representative with Atlantic Richfield Co., the principally responsible party for mining contamination in Butte, was sharply critical of Barry’s report.

“We think it’s inherently flawed in its design,” he said.

ARCO issued a statement that said it would support future health studies in Butte that are science-based. It also defended the Butte cleanup work of the past and in the works.

“We believe the current remedies are protective of human health and the environment and we have confidence in EPA’s work,” the statement read.

Several attendees, however, said federal officials are trying to discredit Barry study because they don’t like what she found. Among them is Fritz Daily, who questioned ARCO’s word, citing the incident years ago when a flock of snow geese died on the water in the Berkeley Pit.

“They wanted us to believe that those snow geese kamikazeed onto the Berkeley Pit and died of a grain fungus they caught in Canada,” he said. “The EPA is trying to destroy the message by destroying the messenger and that’s wrong.”

And John Ray, a Tech professor and member of the Citizens Technical Environmental Committee, said the coordinated message from the EPA and ARCO is troubling.

“Now we have the regulated praising the regulators,” Ray said. “I never recall ARCO being as outspoken in praising EPA as they are now.”

— Reporter Nick Gevock may be reached at

(11) Comments

  1. Outraw
    Report Abuse
    Outraw - April 18, 2012 12:08 am
    I believe one thing should be pointed out, that the Berkley pond is not man made poison. The cauldron might be man made but the brew is almost all nature. The richest hill on earth. Can't be good all the time.
  2. Outraw
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    Outraw - April 17, 2012 11:20 pm
    20 years re mediating the post and pole plant and 20 some years on Silver Bow Creek is progress. ?
  3. EcoRover
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    EcoRover - April 17, 2012 10:34 pm
    "Yet, Watters said Barry’s work has value and shows the need to conduct a more thorough environmental health analysis in Butte." Well, that's a start. In the past, ATSDR rubber stamped whatever half-aXX studies or conclusions ARCO and its lackies at EPA cooked up.

    "Cord Harris, a representative with Atlantic Richfield Co., the principally responsible party for mining contamination in Butte, was sharply critical of Barry’s report." Ooh, now that's a big surprise. ARCO doesn't want to spend money protecting Butte's health.

    Read more:
  4. peace4ever
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    peace4ever - April 17, 2012 8:42 pm
    So sorry to see the powerful forces gathering to squash any hope of Butte (and Smelterland) getting a real cleaning and making our region a provably healthy place to raise a family. Still haven't seen any proof that Butte-Anaconda people are really tougher by five to ten times than other humans elsewhere who are exposed to smelted copper dust to justify these high action levels. So, we're just supposed to believe these EPA-ARCO people because they tell us we're safe? People are just going to give up on these places - you can already see that many people have not a penny left after paying for health care costs here, so this is a major impact on business development. The hospital hid the data for decades, and look how well this worked for our community. Now, the local government, being a perpetrator, is also running from this information, too. Who stands for the people here? This is a huge problem, people with no representation, being lied to - right and left.
  5. Docwaters
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    Docwaters - April 17, 2012 5:32 pm
    The research cannot prove causation. It is a starting place for additional research.
  6. Oofda
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    Oofda - April 17, 2012 4:55 pm
    edobrinen said: "I think it's straight forward- the cleanup is still in progress so normal mortality rates in Butte and Anaconda will take time. "

    Tell my grand children this in 50 years when the Pit is still full of toxic water.
  7. annd
    Report Abuse
    annd - April 17, 2012 2:31 pm
    and, yes, based on the responses we also all know that Stacie's research has "hit a nerve!"

    I wish they'd quit this nonsense. We couldn't even ask a question at the non-meeting that was to occur between officials, EPA, agencies, the city... as it was cancelled last week -- and I for one, am anxious to hear the outcome of the Health Dept mtg yesterday -- EPA & ARCO especially will defend one another, to the hilt. You scratch my back, I'll scratch yours!
  8. annd
    Report Abuse
    annd - April 17, 2012 2:29 pm
    EPA has already stated in a meeting that, because the clean-up would exceed a 100-year (time) to clean it up to habitable standards (basically) that they are not going to (for instance) clean the Parrot tailings --

    EPA, ARCO AND ATSDR are all in a firmly-established symbiotic relationship and enmeshed with one another. They are questioning an un-biased study based on sound science, saying that their "science" trumps the research. They've got each "other's interests" at heart, but not particularly Butte residents. Puh-lease.... EPA and ARCO aren't fooling any of us long-time Butte residents. All people (we live in a small town, folks!) have to do is relate the number of illnesses each of us suffer from. Voila! 1. We KNOW we have a high incidence of illnesses in our area, and 2) we also know that mining contaminants have to a large degree contributed to this!
  9. edobrinen
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    edobrinen - April 17, 2012 11:42 am
    I think it's straight forward- the cleanup is still in progress so normal mortality rates in Butte and Anaconda will take time.
  10. buttepayer
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    buttepayer - April 17, 2012 11:25 am
    Comments from local health "leaders" on TV news last night after this meeting were pathetic and disgusting. Are they going to carry water for ARCO until they retire or die? A upcoming phony environmental health study based on blood and urine tests will keep Butte and area suffering forever, or until ARCO is gone for good. It's all about stopping any liability for the perps.
  11. Oofda
    Report Abuse
    Oofda - April 17, 2012 7:00 am
    You know you hit a nerve when they start coming out of the woodwork. Let's not forget that part of the scientific process is the questioning and validation through multiple studies so it is perfectly normal for people to question the results but unless they have done a study and produced results and can openly show where and how they got their data, they are just blowing smoke to wind. If you want to discredit this, you're going to have to produce some cold hard facts. Either way, Stacie made this a win situation for Butte because now people are going to have to start looking into it, even if just to discredit the results, and for that, I feel she is already a hero. She has paved the highway for us to hopefully find out what many of us have questioned for years. Also, ARCO has too much riding on these findings to be a credible source on the subject.
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