Mountain Outlaw Magazine: Freedom to Flow

Excerpt from “Freedom to Flow: Montana’s Prickly Pear Creek Sees New Life After Industrial Past” by Caitlin Styrsky. This story was originally published in the summer 2017 edition of Mountain Outlaw magazine.

Prickly Pear Creek flows out of Montana’s Elkhorn Mountains and winds through the scenic countryside of the Helena Valley. Although the creek primarily passes through bucolic pastures and grasslands, a portion of the waterway washed through rehabilitated habitat at the form American Smelting and Refining Company (ASARCO) facility in East Helena.

ASARCO began operating here in 1888 and for more than a century the smelter refined ore to produce lead bullion, an impure blend of lead, gold and silver. The smelting process also yielded valuable byproducts, such as copper, zinc and sulfuric acid, which were shipped to other refining facilities for further processing or sold as commodities to manufacturers.

At the time, lead was used to produce goods such as batteries, ammunition, lead-based paints and leaded gasoline. Although the East Helena facility employed generations of area residents, smelter operations also threatened the safety of the community by leaching arsenic, heavy metals, and other potential drinking water contaminants into the surrounding soil and groundwater. The Environmental Protection Agency added the ASARCO facility to its National Priorities List in 1984, but the site remained operational until 2001.

ASARCO declared bankruptcy in 2005 and the resulting court settlement placed the nonprofit Montana Environmental Trust Group in charge of evaluating the site’s environmental impact and cleaning up the property. This multi-year project includes the rehabilitation of a 1.25-mile stretch of Prickly Pear Creek.


An IR View: Land acquisition a smart move for East Helena

As government entities everywhere have demonstrated, failing to plan for future infrastructure needs now can result in dire consequences later.

Take Helena Public Schools, for example, which has put off its maintenance needs for so long that property owners are likely facing sizeable tax hikes just to bring local school buildings up to par.

But East Helena Public Schools officials are doing what they can to avoid writing another cautionary tale.

“If we learn from history — which I hope we do because there’s no sense in teaching it in school if we don’t — the history would say that in the next 50 years you’re going to need three more school buildings,” East Helena Public Schools Superintendent Ron Whitmoyer said.

“Well, where are you going to put those school buildings?” he asked.

Dartman field appears to be the best answer.

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Cleanup planned for East Helena school land acquisition

By Tom Kuglin, Excerpt from the Helena Independent Record 

East Helena Public Schools’ acceptance of about 50 donated acres comes with environmental cleanup costs but also a vision for future school expansion.

The school district expects to soon close on the Dartman property just north on Valley Drive from Radley School — a donation from the Montana Environmental Trust Group, which owns the land and controls assets from the Asarco settlement.

While no specific plans are proposed for new school construction, the district feels it needs to be proactive as it approaches capacity with anticipated future growth, said Superintendent Ron Whitmoyer. With current enrollment at about 1,200 students, a 1,300-student capacity and new housing going up, school officials believe facilities accommodating about 1,800 students are needed.

“It may not be today but maybe 10 years down the road we need to plan to the future,” he said. “So we’re looking at the property as a long-term investment.”

Dartman has advantages over other properties the district considered in a 2014 Great West Engineering feasibility report, Whitmoyer noted. The location allows connection to East Helena city services. Estimated cleanup costs also fell lower than other sites. And remediating the property, which has elevated lead levels, progresses the community as it deals with the challenges of Superfund status.

“The kind of cool thing here is the piece of property is currently contaminated and has limited usage,” Whitmoyer said. “Through this deal we can take this property, remediate it and put it back into a healthy condition for the health of the community.”

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East Helena school district officially acquires Dartman Field

Marga Lincoln, Excerpt from the Helena Independent Record

East Helena Public Schools officials signed a deal Wednesday to take ownership of 50 acres of Dartman Field, according to school district superintendent Ron Whitmoyer.

“The final cost to the district is $90,931,” he said.

“This is a banner day for the taxpayers of East Helena — to have this property as a place to expand the school district as it continues to grow,” he said, “and hopefully serves the school district the next 50 years.”

Current school district enrollment is around 1,200 students, and the district could reach its enrollment capacity of 1,300 in the next three years.

The district has worked on acquiring the Dartman property, located just north of Radley School on Valley Drive, for close to six years.

The 50 acres, which will need remediation for arsenic contamination from the old East Helena lead smelter, is a donation from the Montana Environmental Trust Group.

METG has owned the field and controls assets from a settlement with Asarco, which at one time operated the smelter.

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Building options go to East Helena School Board for next steps, bond proposal at least 10 months off

By Marga Lincoln, Excerpt from the Helena Independent Record 

Constructing a new school or building additions on two existing schools were the two options put on the table at the East Helena School District Board of Trustees at its Monday night board meeting.

“We will mull over your recommendations,” board president Scott Walter told the Long Term Infrastructure Committee members, while thanking them for their months of work.

The next step is for the school board infrastructure committee to thoroughly examine the options before bringing back a proposal to the full board, he said.

School superintendent Ron Whitmoyer said the board needs to develop an action plan to take the next steps.

“I can’t see a bond issue by November,” he said, although that had been an initial target when discussions were launched last fall.

It may be 10 or 11 months before there is a ballot proposal, he said.

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Dartman Field and facilities plan on East Helena Schools Monday night agenda

By Marga Lincoln, Excerpt from the Helena Independent Record 

An update on East Helena School District’s purchase and sale agreement for Dartman Field, a 50-acre parcel contiguous to Radley School, is on the agenda for the board of trustees meeting 5:30 p.m. Monday, June 13, at East Valley Middle School.

“It is simply an update on the status of the process,” said Superintendent Ron Whitmoyer. “How close we are to closing.”

The field, which is contaminated with lead from historic smelting operations, is being donated to the district by the Montana Environmental Trust Group and will require remediation.

The school district has applied for a grant to clean it up and “make it suitable for students,” said Whitmoyer.

Although the land is being donated, the district will be paying $90,000 to cover legal, technical, managerial and third-party costs.

Whitmoyer predicts the agreement could be signed any time before the end of the summer, but he has no firm date.

The 50-acre parcel is intended to accommodate the district’s expansion needs for the next 40 to 50 years, according to information in previous IR articles.

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East Helena Schools narrowing down facility options at Monday meeting

Marga Lincoln, Excerpt from the Helena Independent Record

East Helena Public Schools will take another step in its facility planning Monday night, with a public meeting set for 5:30 p.m. at East Valley Middle School library, 400 Kalispell Ave., East Helena.

“We want to sort through the options to pursue with the growth issues we’re dealing with,” said superintendent Ron Whitmoyer.

The district’s enrollment grew by 47 students this past year, a big leap from the typical annual increase of 8 to 10 students.

Based on the number of new houses going up in East Helena, the district expects to reach its capacity of 1,300 students within the next three years.

East Helena facilities planning meetings kicked into high gear in January.

Since then, citizens and staff, working with Slate Architecture, have narrowed the building options from 11 to four to address overcrowding.

And earlier this month, school district officials signed a purchase and sale agreement for Dartman Field, a 50-acre site contiguous to Radley School. The district plans to pay $90,000 for donation of the site by the Montana Environmental Trust Group, said Whitmoyer. The amount covers legal, technical, managerial and third-party costs.

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East Helena School Board to vote on acquiring Dartman Field

Marga Lincoln, Excerpt from the Helena Independent Record

The East Helena School District’s purchase agreement to acquire Dartman Field is on the agenda for Monday’s board of trustees’ meeting 5:30 p.m. at East Valley Middle School Library.

“This is the purchase of 50 acres that will hopefully set the district up to accommodate the growth of enrollment for 40 or 50 years into the future,” wrote school superintendent Ron Whitmoyer in a text message.

“The deal is finally on its hopefully firm road to conclusion,” he wrote, adding that he wasn’t “sure about it until Thursday.”

The title for the parcel of land is held by the Montana Environmental Trust Group, which acquired it when Asarco filed and emerged from bankruptcy in 2009, according to Whitmoyer and information on METG’s website.

At that time, the trust received funding to cleanup four contaminated Asarco sites in Montana, including land in East Helena, the website states.

Dartman Field has lead contamination, said Whitmoyer, as did the properties where Radley School and EVMS are located — which had lead remediation work done in the past.

The school district has a grant in progress, he said, to clean up Dartman Field and “make it suitable for students.”

‘It’s pretty clear what we need to do’: cleanup of East Helena smelter site in full swing

by Tom Kuglin, Excerpt from Independent Record

From atop the black mass of the East Helena slag pile, Environmental Protection Agency project manager Betsy Burns pointed to the features of an engineered floodplain and creek channel where Prickly Pear Creek will one day flow.

Heavy machinery revved and chirped below — to the east digging the channel, and to the west constructing a cap of rock and topsoil over contaminated material below the surface.

“Every day you come out here it’s pretty amazing the amount of material they’ve moved,” Burns said.

In 1998, contamination from Asarco’s lead smelter resulted in a multimillion dollar settlement with the EPA for violation of the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) and the Clean Water Act. The smelter closed in 2001, and after later declaring bankruptcy, Asarco placed about $95 million in a trust managed by the Montana Environmental Trust Group for related cleanup costs.

The trust has spent approximately $25 million to date, Burns said, which is “on track” with budget expectations. The majority of material used has been available on site and crews moved about 500,000 cubic yards of material this season, she added.

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Next year’s East Helena Asarco site cleanup plan to be presented

Eve Byron, Excerpt from the Helena Independent Record

The 2014 plan for the ongoing effort to clean up the former Asarco smelter site in East Helena and reduce the migration of groundwater plumes contaminated with arsenic and selenium will be presented to the community during a meeting on Dec. 18.

The public meeting on the proposed 2014 work plan is set for 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. Dec. 18 at the Montana Environmental Trust Group’s office at 325 Manlove St. in East Helena.

Presentations will include details on the 2014 Draft Interim Measures Work Plan; updates on the residential yard cleanups; and tips on following the Lewis and Clark County Soil Displacement and Disposal Regulations.

The open house will feature informational exhibits about groundwater cleanup efforts, redevelopment studies and other topics. In addition, the meeting presents an opportunity for the public to comment on the proposals.

“The 2014 focus is the interim cover system,” said Jay Dehner an engineer with CH2M Hill, which was hired to work on the project. “The interim measures sets it up for a final cover that will sit like a blanket over the top of it to reach our infiltration reduction goals for permanent closure of the site.”

Demolition of the 125-year-old former Asarco lead smelter has been ongoing since 2009, which is when the three smokestacks were blasted to the ground. In 2013, the Environmental Protection Agency oversaw the demolition of 24 buildings, including the circus-like green and peach Barnum and Bailey buildings and the six-story concrete ore storage building. Pulverized rubble fills their footprints, which are being covered by layers of clay and soil, and eventually will have a thicker permanent earthen cap with native grasses on top of it.

Prickly Pear Creek also was diverted into a temporary man-made channel, in order to route it away from the 14-million-ton slag pile and to make way for the removal of the Lower Lake and Tito Park. The Upper Lake already has been drained, and state, local and federal officials hope this work will help slow, or even stop, the off-site migration of the contaminated plumes.

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