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State, local leaders celebrate next step in East Helena smelter site restoration

Posted at 2:26 PM, Nov 05, 2019
and last updated 2019-11-05 16:26:43-05

State and local leaders gathered in East Helena Monday morning to celebrate another milestone in the restoration of the former ASARCO smelter site.

Gov. Steve Bullock officially signed off on a plan from the Montana Department of Justice’s Natural Resource Damage Program, allocating about $5 million for restoration at the site. Attorney General Tim Fox and leaders from around the East Helena community were on hand to mark the occasion.

Bullock said the history of the ASARCO smelter has played a central role in the community. Now, he said, the cleanup and rehabilitation of the site are setting examples for the future.

“We’re at a site that’s been a Superfund site for almost 20 years, but significant cleanup’s happened both in East Helena and all around the area,” he said. “Then to say, ‘How can we repurpose and position this area for the next century?’”

The $5 million distributed in the restoration plan was paid directly to the state of Montana for damage claims at the site. That payment came in conjunction with a 2009 settlement with ASARCO.

$3.2 million will go toward developing a Greenway trail system, connecting the smelter site with East Helena and with nearby trails. Prickly Pear Land Trust will partner with public agencies on the project.

PPLT executive director Mary Hollow said bringing new recreation opportunities to the smelter site will provide a new asset for East Helena’s future while also continuing the heritage of its past.

“That in East Helena will absolutely focus on families and young children and how we can work closely with the education community here, how we can connect different aspects of the community itself to one another by trails,” she said. “There’s just an incredible amount of potential for that on this project. We’re really excited.”

$2.1 million will go toward priority water infrastructure projects in the city of East Helena. State leaders said there would also be commitments from the Montana Environmental Trust Group, the Treasure State Endowment Program and the state Renewable Resource Grant and Loan Program, totaling an additional $2.8 million.

“We look forward to continuing to work with our partners on the water system improvements that are brought forth with this restoration plan,” said East Helena Mayor Jamie Schell.

The plan also includes $160,000 for watershed and habitat improvements along Prickly Pear Creek.

Cleanup work at the ASARCO site has been going for several years. Since the work began, contaminated soils have been covered with a 62-acre cap to prevent groundwater contamination. About a mile and a half of Prickly Pear Creek’s channel has been rebuilt to restore a more natural floodplain and keep the water out of contaminated areas.

Leaders said it’s taken cooperation from many partners to make this work possible – including the state, the city, PPLT, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Montana Environmental Trust Group.

“There’s a lot of good yet to come, and I’m looking forward with all of you to seeing those things happen,” Fox said.

Leaders said they are now working on a plan for transferring land around the smelter site to PPLT, so they can start preparing for the Greenway project.