HELENA, Mont. — Environmental regulators have put a halt to a Montana business association’s sale of sandwich bags of mining waste advertised as a “Bag O’Slag.”
Environmental Protection Agency officials overseeing the Superfund site cleanup of pollution from nearly a century of smelting operations in Anaconda came across the potentially toxic tchotchkes for sale by the city’s chamber of commerce. The slag, a byproduct of smelting copper, contains small amounts of arsenic and lead.
Mary Johnston, the chamber’s executive director, said the EPA asked the chamber to stop selling the black slag in a resealable bag and gave them some alternatives.
Anaconda’s Old Works Golf Course — which has slag in its sand traps — sells souvenir slag and a golf ball in a sealed container.
Johnston says the chamber sold up to 40 bags a summer for $2 apiece alongside Montana history books and huckleberry jam.
“It’s a silly little thing, but I understand, they’re concerned,” Johnston said Monday. “It was not a big moneymaker. It was just a novelty item we could offer.”
The bags had a picture of the Anaconda smokestack and part of the slag pile on the front and information about the slag on the back, including a warning against handling it because it has characteristics similar to broken glass.
“While we expect minimal risks associated with the normal handling of the souvenir slag, we will be evaluating the material and are advising those in possession of the bags to dispose of them as normal household waste as a precaution,” said Rich Mylott, a regional spokesman for the Environmental Protection Agency.
Superfund sites in southwestern Montana have created a sort of toxic tourism.
In nearby Butte, visitors can pay $3 to view the Berkeley Pit, a former open-pit copper mine filled with acidic, metal-laden water that is now being treated so it can be released into a nearby creek.
The Jack Nicklaus-designed golf course was built in the mid-1990s to cap mining waste and to help boost Anaconda’s economy.
Driving into Anaconda, the skyline is dominated by a 585-foot brick smokestack — the area is a state park — and the enormous slag pile that is 2,600 feet long, 2,100 feet wide and up to 275 feet tall.
Charlie Coleman, the remedial project manager for the EPA, told The Montana Standard in January 2016 that the slag “doesn’t pose a big threat to human health or the environment.”
The Superfund cleanup plan allows for the estimated 26.5 million-ton pile of slag to be maintained as a resource, rather than waste. It can be used as blasting media, to manufacturing roofing or other building material, as underground pipe bedding material and controlled landscaping for the golf course, the agency said.
Earlier this year, the EPA proposed capping the slag with 18 inches of dirt and vegetation to prevent dust from blowing around.
People are “trespassing onto the Anaconda Co. Smelter Superfund site to collect slag for souvenir bags, which EPA personnel told us ‘is not an approved (or approvable) use of the slag,’” acting inspector general Charles J. Sheehan wrote Monday in a memo to the EPA’s regional administrator Gregory Sopkin.
The EPA’s Office of the Inspector General asked Sopkin to notify individuals or businesses known to be collecting and selling slag that those are not approved uses and to determine how many souvenir bags have been sold and what should be done to inform purchasers of potential health risks.
Sopkin has 15 days to distribute a fact sheet that describes the potential hazards associated with the souvenir bags, any precautions needed, especially for children.
Johnston says the chamber has been selling the bags for several years.
“It was just something that years ago someone thought, ‘Oh, this would be a great idea,’” Johnston said.