Blood from copper 

Opportunity, Montana asks the tough questions

So dog-eared are the pages of my copy of Opportunity, Montana that from across the desk the book appears waterlogged. Simply put, there's just that much to like in Brad Tyer's debut—that much to ingest, puzzle over, learn from, return to. The bottom corner on page 29, for instance, is folded upward, and scanning the lower half of the page I find the passage I'd hoped to revisit: "Human blood does contain traces of copper, but our blood is primarily iron-based, via the hemoglobin that delivers oxygen to the cells. Crabs have copper-based blood. It's blue." With a shiver of pleasure I realize that this seemingly innocuous factoid alludes to all three of the book's chief subjects: copper, water and blood.

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Like many fine recent nonfiction publications, Opportunity, Montana is a determined hybrid: part history, part narrative, part treatise, part balanced reportage. But the book does not waffle as it wanders. It hones in on the well-documented Milltown Dam cleanup, the history of atrocities surrounding the drainage-long pile-up of toxic sediments, and the irony of that phrase "cleanup" (i.e. If John Doe's dog takes a huge dump in his backyard, then moves said dump to his neighbor's backyard, can one aptly use the phrase "cleanup" to describe said process?).

In the case of Opportunity, John Doe is the Atlantic Richfield Company, aka ARCO (and its predecessors and underlings). The "neighbor's backyard" is Opportunity, the tiny upper Clark Fork community that bore the brunt of Anaconda's fall-out (ask the horses whose mouths decayed from eating arsenic tainted grass), and to which Milltown's toxic sediments—five parts copper, two parts lead, one part beryllium, etc.—were rail-shipped and "housed."

The facts surrounding this debacle are well documented, but it is also well documented that facts often fail to tell the story. Thankfully, one of Tyer's particular talents is his ability to give allegorical life to statistics, to enact them. One example refers to how water contaminated with 50 parts per billion arsenic increases cancer risk by 1 percent: "One percent isn't a sexy number. The average Facebook user has 245 friends. Only 2.45 of those would die." Tyer, the former editor of the Independent and current managing editor at The Texas Observer, is also a master of the literary quickdraw. He slings zingers like, "A dam-plugged reservoir is a liquid scab," his pen-turned-six-shooter well polished, perhaps, from years of editorially honing interns' leads.

Every good story needs a villain, and it could be argued that this book's villains are a triumvirate of Copper Kings: William Clark, William Daly and Dennis Washington. Quite convincingly, the book illustrates how, over a century and a half, the big guns' profiteering has become increasingly subtle and political. Washington, for example, owns liability from upper Clark Fork mines, but he also owns Envirocon (which was paid to clean up Miltown) and Montana Rail Link (which was paid to transport the toxic train loads up the valley to Opportunity).

The reader groans. But Tyer doesn't let the reader off so easily. He asks, Who is truly to blame for the fiasco in Opportunity? True, big business' dog took the dump, but ARCO has done nothing but hemorrhage money toward reclamation since the Environmental Protection Agency levied its judgment. Politicians, on the other hand, helped procure $5 million of the congressionally appropriated Superfund redevelopment money, then initially proceeded to divvy it as follows: $4.8 million to Missoula, and a measly $200,000 for Opportunity.

Now the reader squirms. And that's what Tyer is so good at—exposing injustice while refusing, as a lesser writer would, to shirk all blame. How about that copper wiring in the phones we're holding? Whoever we are, he seems to say, if we live outside of Opportunity, at least a trace of blood is on our hands. Missoulians may bristle at Tyer's loving but prickly portrayal of their town. Sound rhetorician that he is, Tyer establishes ethos by poking fun at a place he clearly relishes but refuses to take as seriously as it often takes itself.

And, lest these same Missoulians start to think that I have been too easy on Opportunity, here are some of the book's errata: The Clark Fork Coalition board member who recently purchased a ranch on the uppermost Clark Fork is not from Georgia but from Tennessee, and Montana's brown trout are wild, but not native. Small inaccuracies, to be sure, but with a book this good the reviewer is largely charged with picking nits.

"It pleases me, loving rivers," wrote Ray Carver in a late poem, "loving them all the way back to their source." Tyer doubtless does justice to the source of inspiration (the Clark Fork) but his treatment of his own biological source and source of agitation (his late father, Bobby Ray Tyer) is less thorough. Throughout the book, Tyer returns via scenes of memoir to his at-best strained relationship with "Bob," who was at-best bemused by his son's decision to become a journalist. Structurally, the relationship reads like a love story in an action film; it serves the purpose of deflection, but it's revealed to us episodically and hard to invest in. Tyer asserts that his father would have deemed Opportunity's story not worth the telling, and it seems, at least subconsciously, the book itself is Tyer's attempt to prove his dad wrong. Toward the end of the book, however, the dynamic gains metaphoric depth as Tyer begins to hint at parallels to the debacle in Opportunity. "It's an irreconcilable situation," he writes about the Clark Fork, but we sense he could be alluding to his relationship with his father.

It's a portion of Opportunity—which establishes Tyer as one of our finest writers of rivers—I'll reread with pleasure, because it warrants deeper immersion. As does the entire book. When a story about slag heaps and sluices can make the hair on the back of your neck stand up, you know you're holding rare ore.

Brad Tyer reads from Opportunity, Montana for the Festival of the Book Fri., Oct. 11, at 1 PM at the Holiday Inn. Free. Go to humanitiesmontana.org for full schedule.

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