HELENA — A big change is coming to East Helena’s slag pile, as leaders have announced plans to remove 2 million tons of material to be reprocessed.
The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Montana Environmental Trust Group held an online public meeting Tuesday to give a yearly update on cleanup and restoration work at the former ASARCO smelter site.
During the meeting, leaders announced Metallica Commodities Corp., a New York company, had agreed to take the top layer of material from the slag pile and ship it to South Korea.
There, Korea Zinc Company will recycle the slag – extracting zinc and other metals and preparing the leftover material to be used in cement.
“It’s really a full, ultimate recycling,” said Cindy Brooks, managing principal with METG.
Metallica will build a crusher at the site. Once the material is crushed, it will be stored at the south end of the slag pile, then sent by train to Longview, Washington and by ship to Korea.
Montana Rail Link has already started work on a new rail siding for the project. Metallica is expected to start moving slag next spring, shipping 20,000 tons per month at first and 30,000 tons per month by 2022. The work will last around five years.
Brooks said this material is by far the largest source of selenium in the East Helena area – thought to be responsible for around three-quarters of groundwater contamination.
“For us, this is really a source removal project; it’s a project to remove the primary source of contamination that’s still out there,” she said.
Brooks said they had been looking at options for moving the material for years, but that rising zinc prices have now made it more economically feasible.
She said Metallica will be providing all the investment for the work and will also pay roughly $1 per ton into the East Helena cleanup account – money that could go toward any future mitigation work at the smelter site if needed.
The slag pile has been a fixture of the East Helena community for decades. It consists of an estimated 16 million tons of the material left over from ASARCO’s lead production.
The material that Metallica will remove is “unfumed” slag – meaning it had not been reprocessed to extract leftover zinc. Much of the rest of the pile is fumed, so leaders expect companies will not be interested in moving it.
While the removed material would only be a small portion of the pile’s volume, METG estimates it could reduce the pile’s height by half.
“That’s always been something important to the city of East Helena,” said Brooks. “So there will be a visual, visible change in the landscape in East Helena.”
Once all the unfumed slag is removed, work will start on a vegetative cap for the pile – a cover intended to keep any remaining materials inside from leaching into groundwater.
Brooks said moving the slag will lead to significant cost savings on that cap. “There’s just a lot less area that has to be managed and capped."
Brooks said they do not expect the removal work to create significant noise or dust that would impact the East Helena community. Metallica will be working under an air permit from the Montana Department of Environmental Quality.
Brooks estimated Metallica’s operation would create at least 10 jobs, depending on the time of year.
Also during Tuesday’s meeting, the EPA and METG highlighted other plans for the smelter site. Leaders say they are close to finalizing the transfer of some land to Prickly Pear Land Trust, which is planning a Greenway trail system to connect the site with East Helena and with nearby trails.
“It’s really going to be the crown jewel of what’s going to be done out there – turning this property over for the benefit of the community, the city of East Helena and the public,” said Brooks.
In addition, METG pointed to continued development, like the 300-home Highland Meadows project, going in on parcels around East Helena that they have sold or transferred.
EPA leaders also noted continued improvements in groundwater quality around the area. They said recent tests have shown a “plume” of selenium contamination is not spreading as far north as it once did, and arsenic levels are also lower near the smelter site.
“It’s pretty impressive,” said EPA project manager Betsy Burns.