Study finds blood lead levels decreasing in Butte

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BUTTE, Mont. (AP) - Work to clean up toxic material left over from more than a century of mining operations in the Butte area is succeeding, based on the findings of a health study, federal officials say.

The Montana Standard reports (http://bit.ly/1lt49IW) that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency released the 199-page study on Friday.

One of the findings of the Butte Priority Soils Operable Unit Public Health Study, Phase 1 Report, is that children are being exposed to lower levels of lead.

The report is the first of five studies planned over the next 30 years to determine if efforts to remove contamination from the Superfund site are effective.

“Is Superfund effective? Absolutely,” said Nikia Greene, a project manager for the Environmental Protection Agency. “The data is showing that.”

The study looked at the blood-lead levels of more than 3,000 children, finding that from 2003 to 2008 the children had higher levels than the national average. But from 2009 to 2010, the blood-lead levels were about the same as the national average.

“This means that blood-lead levels were declining faster in Butte” than nationally, the report said.

The study found that blood-lead levels tended to be elevated in children in low-income families, and especially if children lived in homes built before 1940.

Lead, mercury and arsenic are the primary contaminants in Butte, the EPA said. The agency chose to consider lead first because of the availability of blood-lead level testing in children.

“This brings citizens’ concerns more to the forefront,” said Steve Ackerland, an environmental consultant to the watchdog group Citizens’ Technical Environmental Committee. “What do we need to evaluate, so (the people of Butte) know Superfund has left them whole and that Butte is a healthy place to live and raise your kids? No one study will answer that, but we feel we have established a good process, tackling it in a way that establishes trust in the outcomes.”

Smelting and refining operations occurred in the area from 1893 to the 1970s. Contamination from the operations was dispersed from the smelter site’s 506-foot-tall smokestack, which operated before pollution-control technology became common.

The stack was designed to eject a volume of 1.5 million cubic feet of air per minute. The EPA in 2011 put the former copper smelter and refinery on the Superfund list.

Local officials are also working on cleaning up the area with the Residential Metals Abatement Program run by the county’s health department. It tests for lead in homes and yards at no cost to homeowners.

EPA officials said they are asking for public comments from the community about cleanup work to help guide the process and future studies.

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