It’s hard to imagine Anaconda without slag. Driving into town, it’s the first thing visitors see. Large obsidian hills of fine, sand-like byproduct leftover from the town’s robust history of copper smelting, back when the so-called Copper Kings roamed Montana.
The main pile is a jaw-dropping scene, encompassing 130 acres, with an estimated 16 million cubic yards and weighing about 55 million tons. It’s at once a hallmark for Anaconda’s proud working heritage and a symbol of the toxic legacy which that history gifted the town.
The stuff is everywhere. You can jump into a pit of slag at the Anaconda Smelter State Park, pick up a handful and let it run through your fingers like sand, except its coarser and sharper. You can buy Ziploc baggies of it at the Chamber of Commerce for two bucks each — cash only though. And at Old Works Golf Course, you can get your golf ball stuck in “slag traps.”
For some, slag is an economic opportunity and a pathway to a revitalized town otherwise stricken with contamination and its label as a Superfund site. A company by the name of Premier Industries wants to create a new operation extracting pig iron from slag and sell the remainder as a material used in the fracking process.
According to Rick Tabish, the primary contractor for the project, the business would make hundreds of millions of dollars and create 700 jobs. In a town of 9,000, this would make Premier one of the biggest employers around, along with the hospital and the Warm Springs prison.
Tabish and Premier Industries isn’t the first company to seek fortune in the smelter’s leftovers, which pose both business and environmental challenges, and it likely won’t be the last. The question is whether this business could succeed where others have failed to live up to expectations.
On “Black Monday,” Sept. 29, 1980, the Washoe copper smelter closed down for good and over 1,000 people lost their jobs. It was sudden. Just weeks before, ARCO, the company that bought the smelting operation from Anaconda Copper Company, expressed optimism that it would be expanding operations.
The event caused a major disruption in the town, where people relied on the smelter for their jobs and livelihoods. They left in droves. In Deer Lodge County, of which Anaconda is county seat, the population has dropped 42 percent since 1970, and the number of jobs have dropped by 26.7 percent, according to data compiled by Headwaters Economics, a Montana research firm.
They’re still leaving, too. A 2016 Census survey estimates that there are 200 fewer people since 2010. The median age now is 46.8, meaning 50 percent of people are over 46 years old. That’s well above the state average of 39.7 and the national average of 37.6. Over 42 percent of people receive Social Security and 30.5 percent receive retirement income, both over 10 percentage points higher than Montana averages.
Wife and husband Gloria and Mike O’Rourke have lived in Anaconda for 28 years. Gloria, who grew up here, described herself as a boomer, and Mike coined the term buster for himself. It’s the difference between living in Anaconda before and after the smelter shut down.
The couple have seven jobs between them. In addition to being a minister, Mike’s a family therapist, county superintendent of schools and chief financial officer of Montana Economic Developers Association, a nonprofit organization which he and his wife run together. Gloria is the coordinator for MEDA, executive director of Anaconda Community Foundation and coordinator for Montana Ambassadors.
It’s not just them, they said. Almost everyone they know supports themselves through a masterful juggling of jobs.
“Is this normal?” Barbara asked, rhetorically.
Mike responded, “You’re just chasing jobs.”
It’s in this setting that Anaconda has tried to start its economic engine, welcoming with open arms — and tax incentives — any entrepreneur promising jobs.
John Fitzpatrick, an “old war dog” lobbyist of Montana’s Legislature, was in Anaconda during that time working on economic development initiatives, and he currently splits his time living in Helena and Deer Lodge County. He said the town is littered with stories of businesses coming to town with big promises and failed expectations.
“Honest to God, every huckster and promoter in the western United States showed up in Anaconda [after the smelter shutdown] with the theme song 'we can do this, we can do that.' Every single one of them was a bust,” he said.
Fitzpatrick said people in Anaconda are susceptible to “the big lie,” the idea that people are more willing to believe a lie so massive purely out of the belief that no one would actually lie that much. It’s an expression coined by Adolf Hitler. For Anaconda, people also want to believe the lies because they present a dream that they want to be true.
“You get one of these situations and the community gets desperate and they do really foolish things,” he said of Anaconda after the smelter shutdown.
People are equally suspect of grand business ventures regarding Anaconda’s slag pile; it would be the perfect storybook ending if the town could resolve its economic troubles by creating an industry around the waste that plagues its image.
The EPA is on board with the idea. The 1998 record of decision for the Anaconda Superfund site concludes that slag will not be considered a waste so long as a business is selling it as a product. (If five years go by without activity, the agency could start forcing ARCO into the process of capping the pile with limestone and clean soil, the go-to solution for waste in Anaconda.)
EPA Remedial Project Manager Charlie Coleman, who has worked at the Anaconda site since the 1980s, said reusing the slag would have an added bonus beyond “just sticking it in a hole.” Not only would reuse provide a direct economic impact for locals, it would also leave less waste behind to eventually cover up.
“Superfund has always been more than just make sure this waste doesn’t hurt somebody; we’ve always been pushed to do more. Not only do you want to make the site safe, you want to make it reusable, you want to put it back into beneficial use,” Coleman said.
After all, there’s a lot of slag: 130 acres in the main pile alone. It also looks and acts like sand, a known commodity. And if something acts like a resource and quacks like a resource, surely it is one.
The problem is, slag isn’t sand. It’s made up of mostly iron and silica, comprising about 72 percent of the slag, as well as harmful metals such as arsenic and lead. While the latter two combine for just .35 percent of the slag, spread out over the whole pile they would total nearly 200,000 tons.
In 1980, the Department of Transportation started using slag to sandblast icy roads in the county. It was a great money saver for a few years, since they could use the slag for free and they didn’t have to bother with transportation costs of getting sand from out of town.
But as slag would pile up on the roadsides, concerns arose. Parents were afraid their children would get sick from eating snow and incidentally ingesting slag. Residents in nearby Georgetown Lake worried about harmful metals leaching into their otherwise pristine water.
A study conducted by the Centers for Disease Control seemed to confirm these concerns, showing that slag’s toxic elements (like arsenic) could leach into water. The CDC also warned that slag on the roads could be ground up into small airborne particles that, once inhaled, could irritate and rupture tissue in the lungs.
Not long after the CDC’s remarks, state legislators banned the use of slag on roads. George Ochenski, the environmental lobbyist leading the campaign against using slag, wrote in an email that “spreading industrial wastes into formerly clean environments is the height of idiocy.”
Since the 80s, the EPA conducted more testing on the slag and declared it inert in most situations, meaning the toxic elements won’t leach out, and allowed its use as a resource. But at least in a nod to the CDC study, Coleman said that the EPA won’t approve uses for slag near water, and typically shies away from uses where people would come in regular contact with the material.
“We didn’t want to take that risk,” he said.
Ochenski isn’t convinced that’s enough. He said had the EPA followed the CDC’s lead, the agency would have no choice but to classify slag as a hazardous waste. Instead, by calling it inert and allowing its use as a resource, EPA absolved itself — and ARCO — of having to clean up a big mess. “It's left in place as a great toxic welcome mat to Anaconda,” Ochenski wrote in an email.
Starting in 1982, Dominic DiFrancisco and his family made a living selling Anaconda’s slag as an abrasive used to blast paint off of metal (think ships and bridges) as well as roofing tile, through their company RDM Multi-Enterprises. It was a fairly successful operation, self-described as a multi-million-dollar business and netting the “Governor’s Award for Excellence in Exporting.”
That all changed once the EPA published its record of decision for Anaconda’s Superfund site in 1998, a master plan of sorts for not just the main slag pile but all of the region’s toxic waste. ARCO refused to renew its lease with RDM and the two parties entered a lawsuit that the DiFranciscos couldn’t win. Within a few years, RDM Multi-Enterprises would cease to exist.
“Clearly, if somebody is going to be marketing that material, we have to be very careful about how we divide the liability,” Sandy Stash, ARCO’s vice president for environmental affairs at the time, told the Montana Standard in 2000.
Coleman also mused that ARCO might want any business working the slag to pitch in a few bucks for the cap that will eventually adorn the pile.
The site would remain empty until 2011, when U.S. Minerals took over the former facilities of RDM Enterprises and used it for the same thing, abrasives and roofing tiles. Other companies, including ones from Sweden and China, expressed interest in using the slag as a product, but most moved on.
On the outside, U.S. Minerals seemed like a perfect match for the site. The company has plenty of experience working with slag and has seven locations similar to Anaconda, selling the product for uses in the abrasives and roofing tile industries.
The results have been less than stellar. While CEO David Johnston wouldn’t share financial details, or even how much slag the company has shipped off, he offered that business has been “less than we would like it to be.” Right now, the company only employs five workers.
Simply put, he said, the company doesn’t have the “magic formula” in Anaconda. It’s not close enough to a critical mass of customers and the majority of customers the company does have are out-of-state, as far as Missouri, making shipping costly.
Johnston still believes there’s potential for U.S. Minerals to expand, but was frank in saying that it would take a long time to work through the pile.
“I would say my children, my grandchildren, my great grandchildren, are still going to be able to see that pile,” he said. “Hopefully not as high as it is today, but there’s many years worth of material.”
Premier Industries is easily the most ambitious project to hit the slag scene. It also has the most questions.
No one really knows anything about the owner, except that he appears to be a hands-off investor based out of Texas and that his mouthpiece is the silver-tongued Rick Tabish.
The proposed business itself is a holy grail for slag reuse. Premier wants to extract pig iron from the slag, a process that many metallurgists and many companies have studied, but few have been able to turn into a profitable business. The rest will be sold as a proppant, which is blasted into the ground during the hydraulic fracturing process to keep fractures open and allow natural gas to escape.
Tabish, the primary contractor, claims that the project will bring in 700 jobs, gross $1 billion in sales and rake in $200-225 million in taxes. All of this, Tabish said during public meetings, and the process is environmentally friendly.
The idea has already been approved by the EPA and it is scheduled to fire up operations in the first quarter of 2018.
Fitzpatrick, who describes himself as an industrialist and not an environmentalist and who has gone to bat in the Legislature for large pro-fossil fuels groups, has been Premier’s foremost critic. Not because he doesn’t support the reuse of slag, or the jobs it could bring, but because he’s wary that the project is too good to be true.
The numbers don’t seem to add up, he said, even using the lofty prices that Tabish has announced of $300 per ton. High quality silica proppants can go for $50 a ton, maybe $100 a ton, Fitzpatrick said. So Premier Industries’ product would have to convince buyers that its product is up to six times as good.
Fitzpatrick, who worked most recently as head lobbyist for Northwest Energy, is also concerned that the company hasn’t announced any plans for waste disposal and doesn’t seem to acknowledge that it will produce waste.
“This is the only industrial process in the history of Anaconda that has no waste stream. That’s a little hard to fathom,” he said.
Still, while Fitzpatrick wonders if Premier will be another “Big Lie,” local leaders have uniformly supported the project, heralding it as an economic boon. But other Anacondans aren't holding their breath.
“I’ll believe it when it comes to pass,” said Patrick Duganz, who grew up in Anaconda and still has family and friends in the town.