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Scores of properties subject to EPA cleanup in Black Eagle

Black Eagle, Montana
Posted at 1:36 PM, Dec 07, 2021
and last updated 2021-12-07 19:50:59-05

BLACK EAGLE — Ever since the site of the former ACM smelter and refinery was granted superfund status by the Environmental Protection Agency in 2011, residents in Black Eagle knew that a cleanup process was coming.

And after years of investigation, soil sampling and public comment - the EPA released a Record of Decision in August, which details plans for the cleanup and which areas will be affected.

“Based on the record of decision we're going to address approximately 175 yards or portions of yards in Black Eagle by removing that contaminated soil and replacing that with clean soil,” said EPA Remedial Project Manager Charlie Coleman.

Before it was shut down in 1980, the ACM smelter and refinery site had operated for more than 80 years in Black Eagle. Soil studies conducted from 2011-2013 found levels of arsenic and lead in residential yards, necessitating cleanup.

“The contamination actually is fairly low level. It’s arsenic and lead and as the science continues to update, we're finding that even small amounts of lead could have an impact, especially on children,” Coleman said. “And so, it really is important that when we have the opportunity to clean up lead in communities that we do that.”

The Record of Decision details the selected remedy for four areas of Black Eagle: Northern Community Soils Area of Interest (CSAOI), Southern Community Soils Area of Interest, the Northern Outlying Area and the Railroad Corridor indicated on the map below.

Both the northern and southern CSAOI are in residential areas and will require the removal and replacement of soil up to a maximum depth of 18 inches.

Black Eagle, Montana
Black Eagle, Montana

The cleanup process will require access to private property in Black Eagle, so the EPA has been working with Cascade County officials to make sure the process is done in a collaborative and sensitive way for landowners.

“A lot of that work is going to be individual cleanup in individual yards in Black Eagle,” explained Cascade County commissioner Don Ryan. “So, what if I own a lot in a house in Black Eagle, and I don't want you to dig it up my soil - what happens then? You know, who's responsible in the future for the contamination in that soil. And those are things that have to be worked out as to how that's going to be handled.”

Coleman doesn’t anticipate there to be much of a pushback in cleanup efforts, citing a 90% participation rate from residents during the sampling process. The next step is engaging the community and landowners in the area. The EPA expects access agreements to be sent out, and work to begin on soil replacement in 2023.

“Most of the contamination is fairly shallow. We won't go down any further than 18 inches in the yard,” Coleman said. "We’ll work with landowners, then work around trees and bushes and their favorite flower garden. We're pretty sensitive to not just going in there and making a big old mess.”

Black Eagle, Montana
Black Eagle, Montana

Ryan says most Black Eagle residents are receptive to cleanup and embracing the opportunity to remove the cloud of contamination on their land titles.

“I commend the people Of Black Eagle for their patience because it is a long process,” Ryan said. “But I feel like we're making some steps now, so hopefully we'll be able to see some work done soon.”

While work in the residential areas of Black Eagle is expected to begin in 2023, cleanup of the actual smelter and refinery site, designated “Operable Unit-2” by the EPA, is still a way off. The contamination there is much deeper.

Recently, the county selected a preferred land use plan for the eventual re-development which included an amphitheater, disc golf course, interpretive center, and other amenities.

But the EPA is still in the sampling and investigation phase and doesn’t expect cleanup efforts to begin at the site for a few more years.

“We're still in the investigation phase where we've collected quite a bit of data. We plan to collect additional data at least into next year,” Coleman said. “And then the following year, maybe start to look at cleanup alternatives. I’m going to say we’re probably 3-4 years in the making.”

But making plans for future use of the site will help with selecting a remediation plan.

“In order to get the right cleanup for the property, we want to know what the anticipated land use is going to be. And that's where the community comes in,” Coleman said. “So, they went through this process to identify the sort of things they'd like to see with the use of the property. In this case, they tend to be more on the recreational side which is lesser use than if they wanted to build condos over there.”