East Helena smelter site update

Posted at 2:53 PM, Nov 16, 2023

HELENA — Wednesday evening an environmental site update for the former ASARCO Smelter site in East Helena was held.

“It’s gonna have the jobs. It's gonna have places for people to live. And because this amazing city and the people who are running it are interested in this redevelopment, it is part of the story of East Helena, which is still yet to be defined its final chapter,” says Executive Director of Helena Area Habitat for Humanity, Jacob Kuntz.

It’s been about a year since the last site update occurred. Numerous groups came together to discuss the progress that has been made during that time. A few major points cropped up during the meeting as to the future of the former smelting site and surrounding area.

For one, arsenic and selenium concentrations have declined more than 50% on the smelter site since 2016. Additionally, the plume of selenium offsite has also receded by ¾ of a mile.

Secondly, the final major cleanup effort will soon take place. This effort will grade and cap the 16-million-ton slag pile. This will happen after the uppermost 2 million tons are crushed, loaded into rail cars, and eventually shipped off to South Korea where they will be able to recover valuable metals such as zinc and turn the remaining material into cement. Cindy Brooks, Managing Principal for METG says she is happy to be a part of the future of East Helena.

“This is the future of East Helena. Our responsibility is to complete the cleanup, facilitate the safe reuse of the property, and basically work our way out of a job. And that's, yeah, we're pleased to be making a huge step towards that,” says Brooks.

Various organizations such as Power Townsend, Habitat for Humanity, and the Oakland Companies have acquired hundreds of acres of land in the area. The cleanup of these lands is the responsibility of the landowners and must meet certain federal standards before development. Once those criteria are met, developers plan to create hundreds of new homes, as well as commercial buildings such as restaurants and stores. Additionally, Prickly Pear Land Trust is creating a park alongside the creek that runs near the slag pile.

“They're gonna need new schools. They're gonna have new businesses. They're gonna be new vibrancy to the downtown of East Helena. I mean, there's gonna be redevelopment here like you've never seen. And the spirit of East Helena, we want to make sure that we maintain and preserve and just amplify,” says Kuntz.

Public and private developments have already cropped up from the ASARCO land acquired by METG, such as the Highland Meadows Subdivision, East Helena High School, and the Town Pump Store.