There’s an honest-to-God history show playing on the outskirts of town for the next several weeks, and this one has all the elements that define classic, western-style historical dramas: the clash of opposing political forces, the John Henry-esque struggle between the heart of man and his own devices, the ultimate prize of redressing the wrongs committed back when western land represented little more to extraction barons than a goose to be strangled for its golden eggs.
The theater is a huge one: the 180-acre site previously occupied by the Milltown Reservoir. The dramatic catalyst is the decision by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to draw down the reservoir to levels proposed in cleanup option 7A (dam and sediment removal) in order to study the logistics of sediment removal. The protagonists, exposed to the naked eye for a rare stretch of depth and duration, are the historic channels of the Big Blackfoot and Clark Fork rivers at their confluence. The antagonist, well on its way to being de-fanged, is the massive cement, rock, and timber structure of the Milltown Dam.
I took in a sneak preview of the show last week when I met Keith Large, a remediation specialist with the Montana Department of Environmental Quality, at the site. At the time, the reservoir had been shrunk by just over six feet in depth, a little more than half of the projected 11-foot drawdown expected as of press time. Barring any natural events that would unleash downstream a significant amount of the heavy metal-laden exposed sediment, the EPA will allow the sediment to dry for a couple of weeks before testing its physical characteristics to determine a feasible combination of the extraction and dredging processes necessary for its removal.
As we stood near the northern edge of the dam and surveyed the exposed sediment in Area 3 (EPA has divided the site into five areas, with the most heavily contaminated ones being those closest to the dam), Large sounded convinced, from a professional standpoint, that the dam is not long for this world. And he sounded jubilant, from the personal perspective of a Missoula native, that the dam-and-sediment removal option appears to be on the verge of approval.
The list of interested parties on record for the removal option is a long one: the Missoula County commissioners; the state Fish, Wildlife and Parks department; the Indian tribes with jurisdiction; 94 percent of the public comments received by EPA. If Large and others close to the process are reading the tea leaves correctly, EPA will announce its decision, expected in the coming months, to remove the sediments and knock down the dam.
This one is a no-brainer in the purest sense of the term. Over 6.5 million cubic yards of contaminated sediment lay at the bottom of the reservoir, and it is anything but dormant. The 110-acre arsenic plume extending beneath the northwestern edge of the reservoir is making its way towards the Missoula watershed; only sediment removal will stop it. The risk of fish-killing copper concentrations that wash past the dam during unusual hydrological events (such as the ice jam of 1996) can be eliminated only through sediment removal. Dam removal will not increase the estimated 3 to 5 percent of the sediments that currently passes through the structure on a yearly basis (most of the sediments are thought to have been deposited there by the flood of 1908, one year after the dam was completed).
Information gathered in the coming weeks will determine the logistical challenge of sediment removal, but hopes are high that most of the work can be done through straightforward excavation, with a relatively minor amount of the more involved process of dredging. Existing and reclaimable railroad spurs should make sediment transportation fairly convenient and relatively noninvasive to the surrounding community, and a 3,400-acre tailings impoundment awaits up the rail line at Anaconda’s Opportunity Ponds.
But even in the absence of the overwhelming environmental remediation benefits on the site, this is a project that screams for completion on the basis of natural history alone. Gaze upon the rotting vegetation newly exposed to the sun of Area 3, and you will see scores of dead alien invaders: illegally-introduced fish species like pumpkinseeds, largemouth bass, and northern pike. The aggressive pike, in particular, are a huge problem to native trout species. Take away the warm, still water of the reservoir and instantly the tides shifts favorably for our beloved trout. Take away the dam, and those trout currently blocked by a wall of cement will be free to roam a 300-mile stretch of unfettered watershed.
But most of all, the sediment and dam removal option will allow us the magnificent opportunity to make our future in the image of our past. It will give us the rare gift of returning to the good old days, when the confluence of two great rivers stood at the entrance of a great town.
Of equal importance is the chance to square up the books with Mother Nature. The poet Richard Hugo once wrote that a town needs a river to forgive it, and you’d have to think that both the Blackfoot and the Clark Fork will be far more magnanimous when they are once again allowed to mingle freely and naturally.
Go out to the reservoir, and look upon the separate channels of the two rivers. Imagine the past, and know that you are seeing the beginning of a glorious future.