Watchdog alert: Toxic waste souvenirs ‘are not approved’

By Corbin Hiar | 11/18/2019 01:10 PM EST

The Anaconda Smelter stack and surrounding Superfund area in Montana.

The Anaconda Smelter stack and surrounding Superfund area in Montana. Orin Blomberg/Flickr

EPA’s internal watchdog today informed agency leadership that residents of Anaconda, Mont., are selling bags of the town’s toxic copper smelting waste to unwitting tourists.

The Office of Inspector General "is concerned that direct exposure to contaminants from slag could occur," Charles Sheehan, EPA’s acting inspector general said in a memo. The black, sand-like material, he noted, is laced with arsenic and lead — both of which can cause organ damage or death.

Inspectors involved with an ongoing audit of risk communication at Superfund sites found that the Anaconda Chamber of Commerce Visitor Center is marketing the smelting waste product as "Bag of Slag."

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The bags are "a token of the smelter," the town’s 2019 tour guide says, and are "much easier to obtain than trying to take a sample from one of the slag piles." The toxic mounds, the chamber said in separate marketing materials provided to E&E News, spread across 125 acres of land and some are up to 275 feet high.

Souvenir bags of slag for sale. Photo credit: Anaconda Chamber of Commerce.
Souvenir bags of slag for sale. | Anaconda Chamber of Commerce

That’s a violation of EPA’s cleanup plan for the area, Sheehan told Gregory Sopkin, the regional EPA administrator overseeing Montana. Agency leaders were also sent the so-called management alert.

"Individuals are trespassing onto the Anaconda Co. Smelter Superfund site to collect slag for the souvenir bags, which EPA personnel told us ‘is not an approved (or approvable) use of the slag,’" he wrote.

Sheehan urged Sopkin to "notify any individuals or businesses known to be involved in the collection or sale of the slag that those are not approved uses of the slag" and to "determine how long and approximately how many souvenir bags of slag have been sold and determine what should be done to inform purchasers of the health risks that the slag souvenirs may pose to them."

Mary Johnston, the executive director of the Anaconda Chamber of Commerce, said in an email to E&E News that the group sells "about 30 bags a summer … in snack sized sandwich bags and have about a quarter to a third of a cup of slag in each bag." The Ziploc baggies, she said, retail for $2 each.

Johnston claimed that EPA’s main concern is that the slag "is not in a sealed container." The town’s golf course, she said, sells slag in a plastic container.

"We may partner with them so we can continue selling this novelty item," Johnston wrote.

EPA’s Mountains and Plains region "recently became aware of the unauthorized removal and sale of slag material from part of the Anaconda site," an agency spokesperson said in a statement. "We share the [Office of Inspector General’s] concerns and will continue to coordinate with the OIG and state and local partners to notify the public on the safe handling and disposal of bags sold as souvenirs and additional actions related to the OIGs findings."

The Anaconda Co. Smelter site covers 300 square miles in southwestern Montana. It was contaminated by a century of copper processing and is on Superfund’s National Priorities List.

The site is at the heart of a closely watched Supreme Court case over whether landowners can go to state court to seek money for cleanup while EPA is already overseeing a Superfund restoration (Greenwire, June 10).

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