Achieving Environmental Justice for the Community of Opportunity, Montana: An Assessment of Superfund Concerns
The community of Opportunity, Montana, is surrounded by an area many consider to be the largest Superfund site in the United States. The nearby Opportunity Ponds is a major consolidation area for mining-related contaminated wastes in the state of Montana, and Opportunity residents have voiced concerns about their well water, windblown dust, and other issues since at least the late 1990s. Furthermore, the community has been subjected to ongoing environmental injustices: they feel they have been left to bear an unfair environmental burden without compensation and feel left out of important decision-making processes that affect them.
I have positioned myself as a research consultant to the Opportunity Citizens Protection Association (OCPA), a community-based non-profit citizens group in Opportunity, Montana. In June 2006, I conducted a qualitative study by interviewing a total of 21 Opportunity residents in three focus group sessions. These participants represented 17 different households, which accounted for 7% of the total households in the community. The objective of the study was to gather information intended to give the community a voice and to help OCPA achieve its goals by encouraging greater community participation and more effectively representing the community on Superfund-related issues. By providing this information to OCPA, this study will help the community overcome the environmental injustices it faces.
Traditional qualitative methods were used to analyze the interview data, and five main theme categories emerged: Health, ARCO-BPs Role, OCPA Organization, Lack of Information, and Stigma. Under the theme of Health, participants expressed worry about personal and public health and raised concerns about the prevalence and types of illnesses present in the community. Several people suggested a health study be conducted. As far as contaminants of concern, participants considered beryllium to be most threatening because of its health effects being perceived as immediate and lethal. Regarding dust, participants were divided as to whether they considered it a health concern or not. When considering potential drinking water contamination as a health concern, the majority of participants felt the water was currently safe to drink and preferred to stay with their private well and monitor the water. The vast majority were opposed to installing a public water system as a preventive measure.
Under the theme of ARCO-BPs Role, the majority of participants expressed distrust of ARCO-BP, especially concerning its soil and water testing methods. There was consensus that ARCO-BP was responsible for the mining-related contamination; therefore, participants felt the company should be required to compensate the affected community. Numerous participants believed ARCO-BP should provide annual or biennial well water testing for residents indefinitely to safeguard against future threats of water contamination. Furthermore, participants expressed that they felt ARCO-BP has ignored them and their role in decision-making processes that have affected Opportunity. Additionally, participants felt the company has been inadequate in some aspects of maintenance at Opportunity Ponds and suggested actions to remedy this. The most popular suggestion involved ARCO-BP alleviating the dust by only working with a small section of contaminated material at a time and capping it before continuing with another section. Lastly, several participants expressed concern regarding ARCO-BPs method of transporting contaminated materials in uncovered train cars.
Under the theme of OCPA Organization, participants expressed opinions of OCPA as a citizens group. While participants were appreciative of the organizations efforts, the majority were not interested in participating because the group was perceived as being confrontational, argumentative, one-sided, and selective about membership. They felt that strong personalities offset the groups effectiveness. Participants would like to see a more cooperative and united approach. They would also like OCPA to present a more clearly defined agenda. Regarding OCPAs plans to acquire the Beaver Dam School property, participants were divided on whether they would support it or not. The ones who did not support OCPAs intentions did not understand where the park fit into the concerns of the community.
Under the theme of Lack of Information, the majority of participants commented on the perceived lack of information, mostly regarding monitoring and government agencies, and incomprehensible and inaccessible information. Comments focused on the inadequacy of EPAs and ARCO-BPs monitoring, pertaining mostly to dust and groundwater. Concerning the information that did exist, participants felt it was largely inaccessible or incomprehensible to residents. Moreover, the perception of several participants was that EPA and ARCO-BP were withholding important information from residents about the contamination situation in the community and at Opportunity Ponds.
Under the theme of Stigma, participants commented on the stigmatizing effects of living near the largest Superfund site in the nation. The majority of participants agreed that Opportunity has a negative reputation among other communities. Participants commented on the economic as well as personal implications of this stigma, which included the depreciation of property and the loss/lack of business in the area.
To conclude the paper, the community resident results were compared to OCPAs concerns and I detected areas of alignment and misalignment. Based on these, I provided recommendations to OCPA on organizational goals that the community could support, and whether or not the identified areas of misalignment could be reconciled. I also recommended ways OCPA could more effectively engage community residents and foster an interest for participating in the citizens group. These include being more visible in the community by: informing residents of the organizations accomplishments and the ways it has benefited Opportunity, distributing newsletters on a more frequent and consistent basis, and holding a community meeting composed of strictly Opportunity residents, excluding government agencies and ARCO.
OCPA is continually working to achieve environmental justice for the Opportunity community. It is my hope that the information provided as a result of this study will help OCPA improve its strategies for encouraging public participation, rallying community support, and representing the community on Superfund-related issues.
Advisor:Assistant Professor Lyn Macgregor; Assistant Professor Robin Saha; Professor Vicki Watson
School:The University of Montana
School Location:USA - Montana
Source Type:Master's Thesis
Date of Publication:06/14/2007