BILLINGS, Mont. — The head of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency visited two contaminated mining sites in Montana on Friday as the agency faces pressure to speed cleanup work that's dragged on for more than three decades.
Acting EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler visited Butte and Anaconda with Republican U.S. Sen. Steve Daines.
"Superfund is a priority for the administration, for President Trump, and it's a priority for myself as well," Wheeler said during his visit, Montana Public Radio reported .
Wheeler also said the cleanup plans for both sites are works in progress and community input could still shape the final agreement.
Butte is home to the notorious Berkeley Pit , an open-pit copper mine holding 50 billion gallons (190 billion liters) of acidic, metal-laden water. An estimated 3,000 snow geese died after landing in the pit in 2016. Anaconda's environmental damage was caused by a century's worth of copper smelting that sent arsenic, lead and other metals into the air until 1980.
The two communities were placed on the EPA's Superfund list, which includes many of the nation's most contaminated sites, in 1983.
EPA officials in June announced a "conceptual" cleanup plan for Butte. Details have not been made public because of a gag order imposed by a federal judge in a lawsuit over the pollution.
In July, the agency reached a preliminary agreement over pollution in Anaconda with Atlantic Richfield Co., the state of Montana and Anaconda-Deer Lodge County.
Daines has been prodding the EPA to accelerate the cleanup projects and said Wheeler's visit demonstrated the agency's willingness to work with the two communities after so many years.
"It's time for action," Daines said in a telephone interview. "The sooner that happens, the sooner we can reduce the health risks."
Researchers from the University of South Carolina concluded in a study published last month that Butte and Anaconda residents continue to die from cancer, cardiovascular diseases and other illnesses at higher rates than in other Montana counties.
The death rate has been falling over time but remains elevated, the study said, suggesting cleanup work done to date appears to be "slowly improving the health impact of ongoing and historical pollution from mining and smelting."
The study was based on an analysis of death certificate data between 2000 and 2016 from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.