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Part of East Helena slag pile bound for South Korea
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Part of East Helena slag pile bound for South Korea

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EPA and Montana Environmental Trust Group staff watch construction of the new Prickly Pear Creek channel from atop the East Helena slag pile in this file photo.

Nearly 2 million tons from East Helena's 14 million-ton slag pile will be moved by rail to Washington, then shipped to South Korea as part of an effort to clean up the Superfund site at the former ASARCO East Helena Smelter Facility, officials said.

The hauling is expected to begin in April and continue for five years, federal officials said. The plan is to remove 20,000 tons a month initially.

Officials said the 2 million tons that will be removed represent the most contaminated portion of the slag pile. 

Cindy Brooks, managing principal of the Montana Environmental Trust Group, which controls both the smelter site and ASARCO-owned lands, said they have entered into an agreement with Metallica Commodities Corp. of White Plains, New York, to move the unfumed slag.

She said Metallica is an international metals trader. She said unfumed slag did not go to the zinc plant, so it has recoverable zinc. Slag is the glasslike byproduct left over after a metal has been smelted.

Officials said Montana Rail Link has started to build a railroad spur onto the property in order to haul the slag to Longview, Washington, where it will then be sent overseas. Brooks said it will be sent to the largest zinc smelting facility in the world in South Korea, where zinc and other materials will be extracted. 

The Environmental Protection Agency and the Montana Environmental Trust Group discussed the project during an online meeting via Zoom Tuesday night. About 50 participants listened in and viewed an hour-long multi-slide presentation that focused on cleanup and redevelopment of the site.

Contamination including arsenic and selenium in soils at the site have caused groundwater plumes and levels above safe drinking water standards.

Brooks said the “takedown plan” is to start removing 20,000 tons a month starting in April, and later increase that to 30,000 tons a month.

She said the final corrective measure for the site is to regrade and put a vegetative cover over the slag pile. That will be done after the removal is complete.

Brooks said the slag pile is the last major source of selenium to groundwater. She said it produces about 75% of the selenium loading into the groundwater on the site today.

“Overall, implementation of this project will save money on the actual final regrading and capping,” Brooks said, adding that some proceeds will go into the East Helena cleanup account that can be used for future remediation actions.

Brooks said construction on the rail link property has started. She said the slag will be crushed to 2 inches in size and loaded onto conveyors and eventually loaded into trains of 95 cars per train. She said there will be measures to suppress dust.

She said everything is taking place on the plant site, including the rail-loading process.

East Helena Mayor James Schell was happy with the news.

“It’s fascinating and we are very lucky we are chosen to ship that product,” he said Wednesday, adding he has some skepticism, as such projects have been proposed elsewhere in the past.

He said passersby will certainly notice a decrease in the slag pile as they pass through the town of 2,000 residents.

He said it was the first time the South Korea project had been publicly announced. He said the deal was reached through efforts by the EPA, the METG, Montana Rail Link and Montana Department of Environmental Quality.

Officials said Tuesday there has been improvement in groundwater quality and that long-term monitoring and more corrective measures may be added, based on those results.

The East Helena site includes a lead smelter that operated from 1888-2001. The METG says on its website the slag pile occupies almost half of the ASARCO smelter property. In its heyday, the smelter processed 70,000 tons of lead bullion a year, and provided a livelihood for thousands. However, it also produced tons of contaminants. In 1984, the EPA declared East Helena a Superfund Cleanup Site, the website states.

Lead and zinc smelting operations deposited heavy metals, arsenic and other hazardous chemicals into the soil, surface water and groundwater of the Helena Valley, the EPA said. It noted the sources of the contamination included the smelter stack, emissions from the plant operations, process ponds and direct surface water discharges.

Historically, air and surface water was the way in which the contaminants were transported. Cleanup at the site, which involves a 140-acre former facility and about 2,000 acres around the smelter property, is ongoing.

In September, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit reduced the amount of money Atlantic Richfield Co. (ARCO) must contribute to the site’s cleanup. ARCO, successor to Anaconda Copper Mining Co., operated a zinc fuming plant from 1927-1972. It then sold the plant to the American Smelting and Refining Co. (ASARCO), which operated it for another decade.

In 1998, there was a multimillion-dollar settlement between ASARCO and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for violations of the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act and the Clean Water Act.

The smelter closed in 2001, and after later declaring bankruptcy, ASARCO placed about $96 million in a trust managed by the Montana Environmental Trust Group. The state of Montana is a beneficiary in the trust via the Montana Department of Environmental Quality and the Montana Department of Justice, along with the EPA.

A U.S. District Court found ASARCO had spent nearly $111.4 million in cleanup costs and that ARCO was responsible for 25% of the total cost, about $27.9 million. The court also added a $1 million award to ASARCO due to ARCO'S "failure to cooperate with authorities and its misrepresentations to the EPA and to Asarco."

Schell said he will remain skeptical until he actually sees the slag being moved.

“So many promises have been made to so many cities around Montana for this type of activity,” he said.

Nolan Lister of the Independent Record contributed to this story.

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