Anaconda Smelter Stack
The Anaconda Smelter Stack anchors a Superfund site that's the subject of a remediation agreement between the federal government and Anaconda Ritchfield Company. Credit: Keith Ewing / Flickr

The Atlantic Richfield Company, the U.S. Department of Justice, and the Environmental Protection Agency have reached an agreement to govern cleanup of the Anaconda Smelter Superfund Site, which accumulated pollution associated with copper mining and smelting from the 1880s until the smelter’s close in 1980. 

Milling and smelting activities at the site produced high concentrations of heavy metals such as arsenic, lead, copper, cadmium and zinc, which have contaminated soil, surface water and groundwater. In 1983, the U.S. government added the 300-square-mile site anchored by Anaconda’s iconic 585-foot-tall smokestack to the Superfund’s National Priorities List.

Per terms of the agreement announced Friday between Atlantic Richfield, DOJ, EPA and Montana’s Department of Environmental Quality, the company will clean up soils in areas uphill of Anaconda, “effect the closure of remaining slag piles at the Site” and complete cleanup of residential yards in the communities of Anaconda and Opportunity. Securing flue dust and hazardous rock tailings will also play into the cleanup effort, which is estimated to cost $83 million.

Atlantic Richfield, or ARCO, was folded into British Petroleum in 2000. The company also agreed to reimburse the EPA and DOJ $48 million for past work. Additionally, the company will pay $185,000 to the U.S. Forest Service, which administers parts of the site located on the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest.

The consent decree was filed in the U.S. District Court in Butte. Various administrative orders issued by the EPA since the 1990s have governed elements of the remediation process, but the decree marks an “important milestone for the people of Anaconda and Montana,” DEQ Waste Management and Remediation Division Administrator Amy Steinmetz said in a release.

If the smokestack represents our past, this consent decree represents our future.

Montana U.S. Attorney jesse laslovich

“A lot of great cleanup work has already been done, and this consent decree will ensure that remaining remediation needs are funded and completed,” Steinmetz said.

According to information about the site provided by the EPA, cleanup work that’s already been completed includes the remediation of nearly 1,000 residential and commercial properties, sampling of all domestic well and water supplies located within the site boundaries, the consolidation of 3 million cubic yards of waste onto ARCO property, and capping and revegetation of 5,000 acres of land located on the smelter facility and disposal areas. Wetland construction and stream restoration are also part of completed remediation work.

In written remarks about the agreement, Montana U.S. Attorney Jesse Laslovich evoked the history of the Anaconda smelter stack, which remains one of the tallest free-standing brick structures in the world and anchors the Anaconda Smoke Stack State Park.

Laslovich, a former Anaconda-area legislator, described the smokestack as a “symbol representing the hard work of many Anacondans, including members of my family, that built our town.”

“But it’s also a symbol of a Superfund site that has existed for far too long,” he continued. “If the smokestack represents our past, this consent decree represents our future. Many people, some who are no longer with us, worked diligently to get us to this point and I’m grateful beyond words for all their work. Our water will be cleaner, our soils will be purer, our slag will be covered, and our future will be brighter because of this historic agreement.”

The agreement is subject to a 30-day comment period, which has not yet been scheduled. The comment period will be overseen by EPA and DEQ.

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Amanda Eggert studied print journalism at the University of Montana. Prior to becoming a full-time journalist, Amanda spent four years working with the Forest Service as a wildland firefighter. After leaving the Forest Service in 2014, Amanda worked for Outside magazine as an editorial fellow before joining Outlaw Partners’ staff to lead coverage for Explore Big Sky newspaper and contribute writing and editing to Explore Yellowstone and Mountain Outlaw magazines. Prior to joining Montana Free Press’ staff in 2021 Amanda was a freelance writer, researcher and interviewer. In addition to writing...