Feb 27, 2024
By Blair Miller

Another $40 million in federal funds is going toward the ongoing efforts to clean up 100 years of lead and other heavy metal contamination at the East Helena Superfund site, the Environmental Protection Agency and Biden administration announced Tuesday.

The EPA said the $40 million from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, and $10 million from existing settlement money, will go toward testing and cleaning up residential yards with lower soil-lead contents that previously did not qualify for cleanup.

The EPA last month revised a Record of Decision from 2009 to allow yards showing soil-lead levels of 400 parts per million or more to be included in the cleanup – a change from the previous levels of between 500 ppm and 1,000 ppm.

The agency said cleanup efforts would start this summer and that there are 1,517 current properties that still have 400 or more ppm of lead in the soil.

The EPA will discuss the cleanup plan and a timeline at a meeting from 9-10 a.m., on March 11, at East Helena City Hall, with open office hours all day for people who can’t make the meeting.

“The city is excited that the EPA is continuing to show concern for the residents of East Helena,” East Helena Mayor Kelly Harris said in a statement. “East Helena is a great place to live and to raise a family—we value our people and our community, and it is great to see more funding and more cleanups on the way.”

The ASARCO lead and zinc smelter operated from 1888 to 2001, dumping lead, arsenic and other heavy metals into the soil and water in East Helena and into the Helena Valley. Between 1991 and 2011, about 1,576 properties in and around East Helena were remediated. Another 69 were remediated between 2015 and 2020.

Results of soil testing performed in 2023 in East Helena that led to more testing and remediation efforts that will start in 2024. (Photo via EPA document)
 Results of soil testing performed in 2023 in East Helena that led to more testing and remediation efforts that will start in 2024. (Photo via EPA document)


After testing done last April on 50 properties in East Helena, the EPA came up with a new estimate for cleanup by parts per million, erring on what it called the “more conservative” 400 ppm rather than a higher threshold based on the testing data that showed varied levels across the properties.

At a meeting in August, east Helena residents said they were concerned about lingering contamination that was not addressed under the previous thresholds, the EPA said, which led to the proposed changes announced Dec. 1.

The EPA is also working on updating its residential soil lead guidance for these types of sites that could further drop the bottom threshold, the EPA said in the update to the Record of Decision.

The document says the State of Montana supports the changes to the threshold, and Department of Environmental Quality Waste Management and Remediation Division Administrator Amy Steinmetz said DEQ was excited about the additional funding to support the project.

“This vital work will have a lasting positive impact on the community,” Steinmetz said in a statement.

The EPA’s 2021 five-year review of the site found heavy metals continue to decrease at the site, Prickly Pear Creek and people and animals living nearby are protected from the contamination, and the slag recycling project is ongoing.

“I know for a fact that folks in East Helena are concerned about all the possible contaminants left over from the old smelter,” said Sen. Jon Tester, D-Montana, who was Montana’s lone senator to support the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law. “I’m proud to have secured this funding from my bipartisan infrastructure law, and I’ll continue to work to ensure this site is cleaned up safely and effectively.”

The $40 million from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law is part of more than $1 billion the law has put toward cleanup projects at Superfund sites across the country. Last March, the EPA sent $65 million from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law to go toward ongoing cleanups at the Basin Mining Area in Jefferson County, the Carpenter Snow Creek Mining District in Cascade County and the Upper Tenmile Creek Mining Area in Lewis and Clark County. There are  27 Superfund sites in Montana the DEQ and EPA are jointly working to clean up.

“Funding from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law has been a game-changer for so many communities across the United States,” EPA Region 8 Administrator K.C. Becker said in a statement. “… With this funding, EPA’s Site team can quickly mobilize to remove lead from affected yards in East Helena.”