Administrators: East Helena smelter cleanup already producing strong results

By Jonathon Ambarian, from KTVH.com

EAST HELENA – Four years ago, the site of the former ASARCO smelter in East Helena was crowded with buildings. Today, almost all of them are gone.

It’s the most obvious sign of the long-term project to clean up the Superfund site, led by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Montana Environmental Trust Group, which took over the site as part of ASARCO’s bankruptcy settlement.

For more than 100 years, ASARCO conducted lead and zinc smelting operations in East Helena. Soils around the smelter were contaminated with lead and other heavy metals, while chemicals like arsenic and selenium leached into the groundwater, spreading beneath East Helena in large plumes.

The EPA laid out three key steps to address the contamination: placing a cap over the site, redirecting Prickly Pear Creek and removing limited amounts of contaminated soil. Work on the cap and the new channel for the creek were completed last year.

Betsy Burns, the EPA’s remedial project manager for the ASARCO site, said the 60-acre cap over the smelter area is one of the largest in the U.S. It’s about three feet of clay, designed to protect people and wildlife from the materials underneath and to keep rain and snow from carrying those substances into the groundwater.

“It allows moisture to infiltrate into that, and then it’s uptaken by the grasses that are planted on the top of the cap system,” Burns said.

The cap system also includes a concrete drain around the outside, to carry extra runoff away from the contaminated area.

Rechanneling Prickly Pear Creek was another major effort. Burns said the creek had been rerouted multiple times over the years as the smelter complex expanded. A dam had also been built, creating two small lakes that bordered contaminated soils.

Crews removed the dam and lowered the creek by several feet in order to bring down the groundwater level and keep it from reaching contaminated area. They also created a more natural, meandering channel for the creek, including a floodplain along its banks.

The water is also farther from the massive East Helena slag pile. Burns said the creek had begun eroding parts of the pile.

While workers did remove some of the contaminated soils from the smelter site, Burns said it would have been far too impractical to remove all of them. Altogether, she said the volume of affected soil would have been equivalent to the size of the slag pile.

“There are ways to manage materials without moving them,” said Burns.

Burns said the EPA is now considering covering the top portion of the slag pile with a similar cap to the one placed over the smelter area. She said the material in the lower part is more solidified, so it poses less of a risk.

Most of the actual construction work at the smelter site has been completed. A public hearing on the final remediation projects could happen as early as this fall or winter. But the EPA will remain in the area for years to come, monitoring contaminants.

Burns said the EPA has already seen results from the work they’ve done at ASARCO. For years, they’ve been measuring arsenic and selenium concentrations in wells around the smelter area. Since 2012, Burns said those concentrations have been trending downward.

This year, crews have focused on restoring the area around the smelter site. They replanted much of the property with native vegetation.

“We’ve gotten some really good grassy vegetation within the floodplain, as well as different shrubs and bushes that have been planted, and you’re starting to see really good willow growth on the banks,” Burns said.

Capping the site has also made it more attractive to wildlife, like birds, deer and foxes. Removing the dam has opened Prickly Pear Creek up for fish. Burns said crews will start conducting surveys on fish populations in the coming years.

East Helena Mayor James Schell and members of the city council toured the smelter site earlier this year. Schell said he’s particularly excited about possible recreational opportunities there.

“To turn that into something that’s good, and to turn that realignment area into public access, with walking trails and fishing access, is a great thing for the area,” he said.

Schell said the cleanup has been a long process, and residents are happy to see any visible progress at the site.

“We really look forward to moving forward in the next five years, to finish off with the site activities, to close this chapter in the East Helena area,” he said.

Burns said the results of the cleanup so far have exceeded her expectations. Soon, she said they will be ready to show off the progress they’ve made at the smelter site to the East Helena community.

“Be looking for next spring, we’d like to have some public events out here,” Burns said.

East Helena school district officially acquires Dartman Field

By 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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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.

Read the entire article

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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