A green future looms for the slag heaps east of Anaconda | Local

The black buried under the green.

It happens in the years to come.

Millions of tons of black, glassy scoria loom south of Montana Highway 1 as visitors travel near Anaconda. Two separate stacks are less visible.

Ugly resides in the eye of the beholder.

Some travelers regard the slag as a startling horror. Others associate the black byproduct of copper ore processing with the region’s fascinating history of smelting and its contribution to national electrification and security.

The slag was once a kind of loot – a symbol of relative prosperity.

Black slag looms in the foreground with the foundry chimney towering behind. Probably beginning in 2025, a contractor working for Atlantic Richfield will begin installing a partial cap on portions of slag east of Anaconda.

Change is ahead. Probably beginning in 2025, the Federal Superfund super slow cleanup of the Anaconda smelter site and a contractor working for Atlantic Richfield will begin capping portions of the arsenic-bearing slag with a partial cap of soil and vegetation.

The black will eventually fade to green, providing both an aesthetic improvement and a cap to keep slag dust from swirling around due to the site’s relentless winds.

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Carl Nyman, Superfund coordinator for Anaconda-Deer Lodge County, admitted to having mixed feelings.

“Some of the first historic resource consultants who came to the site in the 1990s called the slag heap our mining landscape, and one told me he hoped it would never go away. “Nyman said.

“I felt the same way back then, because I love exploring old mining sites,” he said. “There’s nothing quite like walking through historic remains to get a sense of what happened there and what life was like.”

Still, Nyman said his thinking changed when it became clear that the contaminants in the slag weren’t as inert as once believed.

“Add that to the fact that the slag heap is a giant sand dune in a high wind area,” he said. “We don’t know how far the wind carries the slag, but it’s no exaggeration to say it’s at least a few thousand feet.

“Dust and slag are a risk to everyone’s health and the environment,” Nyman added. “So, although I would like to see this mining landscape continue, it is really not possible. It is a matter of public safety. »

The depth of ground cover will eventually reach 18 inches. First, however, as currently contemplated, a partial cover of approximately 6 inches will be applied to the north and west slopes of the giant mound of black, known as the main granulated slag heap.

These slopes are the most visible and also vulnerable to wind dispersal of slag dust. This is the work that should begin in 2025.

Charlie Coleman, EPA remediation project manager for the Anaconda smelter site, said the cover soil will likely come from a site on Smelter Hill where excavation is required to recover acceptable soil.

He said the EPA has developed seed mixes that use native grasses that are resistant to metal contamination.

The current strategy provides for permanent coverage and a cap once it becomes clear that a company is not ready to start a business that would mine the slag from the site.

That’s the plan of the EPA and Atlantic Richfield Co. The latter bought Anaconda Co. in 1977 and eventually became responsible under Superfund law for dealing with the massive pollution left behind by the company. that she bought.

Copper King Marcus Daly founded Anaconda as a company town. Ore processing and smelting operations began around 1884 before moving to Smelter Hill. The Washoe smelter ceased operations in 1980.

He left something like 30 million tons of slag. The total area covered is approximately 195 acres, which is about the size of 147 football fields.

The EPA said the material would fill more than 160,000 52-foot coal cars if the slag was shipped offsite.

Overview of the slag

The black cinder pile along Highway 1 east of Anaconda is visible in this 2015 aerial view.


Slag is what remains of the copper ore after a refractory furnace has extracted the copper. According to the EPA, slag is primarily copper sulfide, copper-iron sulfide, and copper-arsenic sulfide, with small amounts of other metals.

A few commercial operations have harvested the slag for industrial uses or building materials. No outfit has truly shaken the amount of dross on the site.

More recently, US Minerals backed out of processing the slag and admitted in August to violating laws protecting worker safety. Federal agencies reported that the company negligently exposed employees to inorganic arsenic, a hazardous air pollutant.

There are three main locations where slag has accumulated over a century of smelting: the main pile of granulated slag, the largest and most visible pile; slag from the Anaconda landfill, north of Warm Springs Creek; and the West Stack Slag area, in a ravine west of the chimney.

The start of the final cover works will be suspended until it becomes clear that there will be no other companies interested in harvesting the slag. Coleman said he doubts Atlantic Richfield will greenlight another operation unless the team plans to remove large amounts of material.

Atlantic Richfield released a statement Thursday.

The company said it continues to explore opportunities for commercial use of slag at the Anaconda site, pursuant to a 2021 agreement with federal and state agencies.

In addition, Atlantic Richfield has stated that it is developing the partial cap corrective design as outlined in this agreement.

“We look forward to continued engagement with stakeholders as we develop a final remediation design and schedule,” the company said.

Did Coleman hear from local officials who might mourn the black slag cover-up?

“With a lot of new development going on, they would like Anaconda to look a little better when it comes to town,” he said.

Still, Nyman said he suspects some people would feel sad about the slag being covered “because it’s been a big part of their life and their history.”

Meanwhile, he said, Anaconda County-Deer Lodge is working with Atlantic Richfield to one day provide safe, long-term access to the foundry chimney to help offset visual changes in a landscape. familiar mining.

“The stack seems to be the thing that’s really important to most people,” he said.

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