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Dust to Dust

November 17, 2010

UM students taking a dust sample from a sill of the Opportunity Community Club.

Last week I tagged along with University of Montana professor Robin Saha’s environmental justice class to Opportunity, where they’ve developed a class project around sampling the community’s dust.

They’re looking for arsenic, cadmium, and lead.

Which is harder than it looks. First you have to find community members willing to invite you into their home. Then you have to use a finicky little vacuum to collect samples in intricately labeled little filter jars. Then you have to pay to have the samples analyzed. And then, at the end, you’ll hopefully have an unaccredited sliver of evidence (the students aren’t certified on the machinery, after all, and so whatever they find isn’t really officially admissible) that’s at least measured in the kind of units that can be compared and contrasted with the EPA’s quasi-relevant standards.

(This year’s dusting is a follow-up to last year’s dusting which, unfortunately, employed a measuring technology that delivered results in milligrams per kilogram, or some such ratio. The EPA uses parts per million, PPM, and the math between the two is apparently insurmountable. This year the class is borrowing equipment from Anaconda-based EPA contractor Jim Kuipers and Associates that yields PPM.)

Then, if anyone wants to, they’ll be able to compare at least a little bit of data on Anaconda’s airborne dust exposure to what the EPA says, or may in the future determine, is a safe level.

Aside from groundwater, which isn’t known to be contaminated yet, dust is Opportunity’s biggest current health concern. EPA/ARCO is trying to cover the dry “ponds”—remember, they’re actually more like mounds—with topsoil and grow plants, largely to keep the dust on the ground when the wind blows, as it does with some ferocity around here. The Milltown sediments were supposed to serve as just such topsoil, but they seem to have failed that purpose by not growing anything.

Anecdotally, this was not a terrible year for Opportunity, dust-wise. An unusually rainy summer kept the dirt wet.

The students tested the interior and exterior of the Opportunity Community Club (pictured above), one private residence, and one (the only) corner grocery. And they left flyers and published a press release in the Anaconda Leader inviting more participation. They’re going back this Saturday to try to get another seven houses. I’ll be curious to see if they’re thwarted by the snow the valley just got washed with.

I think the most interesting thing about all this is that it’s students doing it. That more than a hundred years after the ponds were put into use, 30 years after they were “retired,” and several years since they were reopened to take more crap, nobody else has done this. That neither the EPA nor ARCO apparently has the tools or the time or the will to sample for measurement against its own standards.

I’m not dogging the EPA, hell if I’d know how to do their jobs, and they’re clearly employing measures to reduce the dust that blows off the ponds onto Opportunity. But they’re doing it—and maybe that’s the only practical way to do it—half-blind.

When you look at all the ought-to-be-basic things that need to get done in Opportunity, you’d think that a reasonably systematic analysis of the most obvious potential health threats in the homes of Opportunity would be near the top of the list. Go from there. Noting its absence, you have to wonder how badly anybody really wants to know. There is no news that could be good for either the EPA or ARCO. Any finding could and probably would cost them money. There is no news that’s likely to save them any.

What’s the use of identifying a harm that you can’t afford to do anything about?

Thanks to the class for letting me tag along, and I’ll try to remember to post their results when they’re available.

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