Strange Bedfellows in Montana Lead to Mysterious Illnesses

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Old and new mines in Butte, Montana, may be poisoning residents in the homes within view, and the EPA may be as much to blame as anyone else.

Evidence comes from a study by  environmental epidemiologist Suzanne McDermott of City University of New York Graduate School of Public Health and Health Policy. In the study, McDermott and her two fellow scientists compared meconium – a baby’s first poop – from Butte babies to that of babies from South Carolina where there is no mine. The Butte samples contained heavy metals at levels thousands of times higher.

A previous study from a local researcher found similar results of highly elevated levels of heavy metals in Butte residents’ hair samples, compared to samples from residents of another Montana city. Specifically, Butte residents were carrying significantly higher levels of arsenic in their hair and blood.

McDermott gained interest in Butte when she noticed it had higher rates of cancer deaths and other diseases than the rest of the state, and she found, in separate work, higher rates of brain and central nervous system cancers in Butte’s children, compared to other parts of Montana.

“Locals have wondered for years whether that dust carries heavy metals that may be slowly poisoning them. The EPA and health officials, however, have maintained what strikes many as two conflicting messages: One, that previous open-pit mining in Butte left behind a toxic legacy necessitating a major cleanup effort. And two, that the current open-pit mining operation is safe,” reports High Country News.

That juxtoposition of EPA’s position started to make a lot more sense after seeing how the EPA responded to the published results – they asked for the mining company (Montana Resources)’s input. Instead of investigating the elevated metals, EPA questioned the comparisons. EPA asked the academic journal to retract the study, and email records show they helped the mining company attempt to defund the researchers.

As extractive industries face massive changes due to the energy transition that is closing some mines and opening others, the relationships between these private interests and the federal agencies meant to keep communities safe is more important than ever.

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