Montana officials anger local landowners

Smokestacks are nothing new. They’ve been part of the American industrial landscape for more than a century. So, why are so many Montana landowners and ranchers up in arms over the 585-foot tall smoker in their backyards? In a recent story by the Associated Press, several people were quoted about their fears related to a state park preserve that is so contaminated no one can go there.

The massive stack, taller than the Washington Monument in DC, is a popular tourist attraction, with visitors climbing to a viewing platform to see the relic of Montana’s mining heyday. Copper was the cash crop in those times when the ore was smelted to provide electricity across the United States. But that technology came with a cost. Toxic metals polluted the ground for miles around the smelter … how much ground? About 300 square miles of contaminated land and water.

Some residents are tired of waiting for the federal government to finish the cleanup work. They want the right to clean up their own property, since the company and the government don’t seem too interested – according to them – in finishing the job.

The company that walked away from the community, Atlantic Richfield, is being sued by residents who are determined to make the firm pay to clean up its own mess. But the company has the EPA on its side, and neither are willing to budge. Now both AR and the EPA are arguing in court that the community’s suit is keeping them from completing the planned cleanup across the wider area.

The EPA is using terms like “acceptable cancer risk,” and this isn’t winning any points with the community. EPA spokesman Robert Moler said the community needs to understand the real risks, “The goal of the cleanup plan is to protect human health, not to restore soil levels to original conditions…”

Residents, even those who once worked for AR and are proud of that work and the company that offered it, say they don’t accept that “arbitrary” measurement. They just want to clean up their yards … but that could cost nearly $750,000 per yard, a cost these folks simply cannot afford to pay.

The case has been winding through the courts for about eight years, with the community winning more often than not, both in court and in the court of public opinion. Now, AR is ready to put an end to it, and is petitioning that the case be heard by the Montana Supreme Court. This is an iffy proposition, because any high court decision, at the state or federal level, could set a precedent that would impact pollution cleanup cases nationwide. And a win for the community will re-energize other communities that have been fighting. Should be interesting to watch.

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