After years of legal wrangling and environmental cleanup of the East Helena ASARCO Federal Superfund Site — a grueling process other Montana communities like Missoula and Bonner have also endured — a stroke of the governor’s pen earlier this Thanksgiving month made way for a recreational greenway trail along Prickly Pear Creek. It was an honor to take part in this historic signing ceremony and milestone.
More than $3 million and 232 acres of land that are part of a natural resource damage settlement are now set aside for Prickly Pear Land Trust to build the greenway, linking East Helena in Lewis and Clark County and Montana City in Jefferson County. Present and future generations of children and families will enjoy the public trail and creek access for decades to come. Fish have returned to the creek — once a dead zone and part of the former ASARCO lead smelter site. Willows have grown in thick along the banks, where nothing grew before. Cottonwoods and waterfowl are expected, and even a bird preserve is planned near the new schools for student field trips.
This Thanksgiving, I’m grateful for the razor-sharp wits, hard work and dogged determination of legal advocates, environmental scientists, construction crews and community members that led to this success. Work crews dug out rock-hard slag and polluted muck from the creek bed and banks, re-engineered the scarred stream channel, and returned Mother Nature to her rightful place — after a century of heavy industrial abuse with unforeseen consequences.
The former lead smelter gave East Helena a century of rich history and strong sense of pride. The smelter operation put bread on the table, helped win wars and grew the economy. Yet, back in its heyday, little did folks realize the extreme, nearly irreparable harm to the community’s environment and delicate ecosystem — costing nearly $150 million before it’s all said and done. This Thanksgiving, I’m thankful that we now work for environmental protections to prevent degradation of our land, water and public health throughout Montana.
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During a site tour after the signing ceremony, I stood with others at the top of the giant slag pile near the creek. Work should start in 2020 to shape and cover the slag pile to resemble a mountain. One environmental scientist said, “the slag cooled harder than granite because smelter workers poured it while molten hot.”
We looked over the vast expanse where the smelters once towered — the contaminated land capped now with several feet of earth — pollution entombed in perpetuity. Protective institutional controls will prohibit homes from being built on that capped area because it’s not safe to live on 24/7 — and never will be. However, the beautiful landscape is safe for other uses — “perfect,” as someone suggested, “for an amphitheater or other cultural use.”
As we descended to the base of the massive slag pile, we passed huge, old iron vats that looked like they could be the Sleeping Giant’s cereal bowls. In reality, they were used to pour the molten slag back in the day. Talk now is to refurbish them into an historic exhibit along the greenway. Prickly Pear Land Trust wants to enlist volunteers from East Helena’s community to contribute ideas, make suggestions and help out with the entire project.
Fellow Montanans, this land is your land now — remediated and ready for further restoration and future generations of Montanans to enjoy — something to be thankful for this Thanksgiving.