EAST HELENA — The material at the top of East Helena’s slag pile has been in the same place for more than 20 years. Now, some of that slag is being packaged up for a trip across the ocean. Crews are currently working at the former ASARCO smelter site, putting together the first of many shipments. Over five years, they will send about 2 million tons of slag to South Korea, where it will be reprocessed.
“I think it’s going to be a great outcome for the environment and for the economy and the community of East Helena,” said Cindy Brooks, managing principal of the Montana Environmental Trust Group, which oversees the ongoing cleanup efforts at the smelter site.
METG reached an agreement with the New York company Metallica Commodities Corp. to remove the top layer of slag. The company will then turn it over to Korea Zinc Company, which will extract zinc and other metals from the material, then use what’s left over to make cement.
The slag, which generally looks like large black rocks, is a byproduct of lead production at the East Helena smelter, which operated from 1888 to 2001. Workers are currently loading some of the material into hundreds of heavy-duty bags – each carrying around a thousand pounds. The bags are then stacked inside boxcars.
Earlier this year, Montana Rail Link built a new rail siding to the slag pile. The slag will be taken by rail to Washington, then by ship to Korea.
This process is only being followed for some initial test shipments. By next month, a crusher is set to be installed at the slag pile. Once the slag is crushed, it can be loaded directly into the railcars, making it much faster to put shipments together.
When the project reaches its height, 30,000 tons of slag will be shipped out of East Helena each month. The 2 million tons of material that will be removed only make up a small portion of the 16 million tons of slag, but they could reduce the pile’s height by half.
Metallica is only taking “unfumed” slag, which still contains zinc. A zinc plant operated at the smelter site from 1927 to 1982, and most of the material in the pile was already processed there, so companies are not as likely to move it.
Brooks said the unfumed material is thought to be the source of nearly three-quarters of the selenium contamination in East Helena groundwater. Reducing the size of the pile will also make it easier and less expensive to cap it – the last major step of the smelter site cleanup project.
Finally, Metallica is paying about $1 per ton for the slag – money that will go into an account to support the ongoing cleanup and monitoring efforts.
“It’s nothing but good outcomes,” said Betsy Burns, the EPA’s project manager for the site. “I don't know how a project gets much better, actually.”
However, the work brings mixed feelings for people like Manley Stallings. He worked for ASARCO for about 36 years, with 30 of those at the East Helena smelter. He was working as the production manager when the smelter closed down.
Stallings says the slag pile has become part of the East Helena community. “People that lived here feel the comfort when they’re gone and come back and see it: ‘Well, here we are, home again!’” he said.
He said it’s a good thing that the slag is being put to use, but that he’s sad to see one of the last visible reminders of the smelter get smaller.
“You kind of feel bad for it because you lived here and worked here and it was your home for over 30 years,” he said. “A lot of these people that were working here were second, third-generation family members – and to see their family history go away and don’t continue on like it has for so many generations.”
Burns said they have always been interested in moving some of the slag as part of the smelter site cleanup, but it was only after the growing need for raw materials over the last year that it finally became economically viable.
The slag shipments are expected to continue through 2025.