A superfund site in Montana sold bags of hazardous waste as souvenirs

In Anaconda, Montana, a former smelter is both a toxic waste site and a point of local pride.
In Anaconda, Montana, a former smelter is both a toxic waste site and a point of local pride.
Image: AP Photo/Matt Volz
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On Monday morning (November 18), the oversight body of the US environment agency sent a letter bursting with the prose of stifled alarm: It had recently become aware that “a certain unapproved use of slag is taking place in Anaconda, Montana.” The slag, a toxic waste product from decades of mining and copper smelting in Anaconda, was being sold as a souvenir.

Anaconda, mind you, is a Superfund site, a designation given to the most contaminated areas in the country. This particular 300-square-mile plot overlaps with and surrounds the town of Anaconda, also known as the Smelter City. “Nearly 100 years of smelting activities resulted in widespread contamination of the area,” wrote the office of the inspector general of the US Environmental Protection Agency, in its Monday letter to the EPA regional administrator responsible for the area. “The 585-foot-tall Anaconda smelter smoke stack and large Main Granulated Slag Pile… are highly visible landmarks in the community and reminders of the city’s industrial past.”

The slag itself is mostly iron and silica, leftover from separating metal from its ore. But it also contains arsenic and lead, as the inspector general reminded the local EPA office. Lead is harmful at any dose, and especially toxic to the nervous system; arsenic can flat-out kill you, the inspector general wrote. And here was a town tourism brochure actually advertising the fact that curious tourists and history enthusiasts could take home a wee bag of the stuff. Staff of the inspector general had visited the town in July and heard about the “souvenirs” themselves.

There it is, right in the town brochure.
There it is, right in the town brochure.

The Associated Press reports the offending slag was being sold by the town’s chamber of commerce in resealable sandwich baggies. They sold up to 40 “Bag O’Slag”s per summer for $2 each. Other wares for sale included huckleberry jam. The souvenirs have been reported on before, notably by High Country News, in a 2018 profile of the nostalgia that the giant slag heaps in Anaconda evoke in local residents. But evidently no one at the EPA noticed it then.

The inspector general’s office suggested that the local EPA branch find out who had bought the slag-bags in the past, and notify them of the potential danger of the substance in those sandwich baggies, especially to children. “As a result of slag being used or sold as a souvenir, the public may be at risk of exposure to contamination,” the letter said.

“It’s a silly little thing, but I understand, they’re concerned,” Mary Johnston, the chamber’s executive director, told the AP on Monday. “It was not a big moneymaker. It was just a novelty item we could offer,” Johnston said. They stopped selling sandwich bags of slag as of Monday.