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.