Knocking Opportunity 

Bordered by wasteland and marked as a dump, a small town near the Clark Fork’s headwaters fears the Milltown Dam cleanup could shut the door on its future.

On the afternoon of Aug. 2, nearly everyone gathered at the brink of Milltown Dam was smiling, and with good reason. State leaders, joined by national environmental officials, stood before about 80 people to announce a historic event: The Milltown Dam was finally coming down, a “feat that has never been accomplished in the United States at this magnitude,” Montana Attorney General Mike McGrath said.

The document spelling out the details of the $100-million cleanup and restoration had been finalized. Milltown’s aquifer and the local fishery, contaminated and threatened by waste swept downstream by the Clark Fork River from massive mining operations in Butte and Anaconda and built up behind the dam over the last century, would be restored. The river would be returned to its historic channel, and the crumbling dam would disappear. Now, before embarking on years of hard work, was time for celebration. After the speeches, bottles of champagne popped and officials mingled with the press and citizens who had awaited this moment for years.

But one woman moving among the crowd hadn’t come to celebrate. Connie Daniels, Deerlodge County commissioner, said she had come to tell the other side of the story.

“We’re sacrificing for everyone else,” she said. “I’m here to share the other side with folks—yeah, this is a good thing, but some are paying the costs.”

Daniels was talking about her hometown, Opportunity, which is adjacent to 3,500 acres where 2.1 million cubic yards of arsenic-contaminated sediments will be shipped by rail once they’re excavated from behind Milltown Dam.

A group of Opportunity citizens recently formed the Opportunity Citizens Protection Association to call attention to their concerns about environmental degradation, and to pursue money for researching and restoring their community. They say they aren’t fighting the decision to store Milltown sediments nearby—though they aren’t happy about it, either—but they’re committed to blocking future shipments of mine waste and investigating ongoing and future environmental damage.

They’re also determined to get a chunk of the $5 million that Sen. Max Baucus secured for redeveloping the Milltown site. They say it’s only fair that they get something out of a deal that leaves Milltown clean and Opportunity with the dregs.

They detest the public image of Opportunity as the state’s dumping grounds and say they’re being left behind while Missoula County prospers. They cite as evidence and inspiration work done this spring by UM environmental studies professor Robin Saha and his graduate-level class, which concluded that the decision to place the Milltown sediments in Opportunity is a clear case of environmental injustice.

Environmental Protection Agency officials, Missoula County officials and local environmental groups sympathize with Opportunity’s plight, but say the Milltown project can hardly be blamed. It just makes sense to consolidate mine wastes in one regulated area, they say, rather than contaminating someplace new. They also say that folks in Missoula County worked three long years to create a vision for redeveloping the Milltown area, and that the $5 million shouldn’t be shunted off to a community that hasn’t developed a plan of its own. There are mining-related environmental problems all along the Clark Fork River, from Butte to Thompson Falls, they say, and all need to be addressed.

Both sides say they don’t want to work against each other, that the common, larger goal of a healthy Clark Fork Basin is more important. But there’s no arguing that in the end, Milltown will be 2.1 million cubic yards of toxic soil lighter, and Opportunity will carry that load. Environmental impacts, which can be evaluated through science, don’t tell the whole story. The psychological effects of living next to a wasteland, and of knowing that your environment is getting worse while others’ is improving, can’t be measured, but they can nevertheless be felt.

Opportunity’s history says a lot about its place in the world today. In 1912, the Anaconda Copper Mining Company bought 500 acres from nearby farmers and divided it into 10-acre tracts it sold cheaply to smelter workers. It named the new town Opportunity in an attempt to prove that people could live the good life even in the shadow of the smelters.

In those days, the Company worked hard to convince people that its massive smelting operation wasn’t poisoning the air and land. Following the building of the Washoe Smelter in Anaconda in 1902, thousands of cattle and other livestock had literally dropped dead and farmers throughout the area complained of dramatically reduced crop yields. People, too, sickened and mysteriously died. Though the Company fought long and hard to deny it—both in the courts and through company-owned newspapers and politicians—the cause of the sickness was arsenic. The Washoe Smelter, which processed 4,800 tons of ore a day, pumped as many as 59,000 pounds of arsenic trioxide a day into the air, along with significant quantities of sulfur dioxide, copper, lead, zinc and antimony, according to historian Donald MacMillan’s Smoke Wars. All of it contributed to Butte’s status as the world’s second-largest copper producer, at 284 million pounds a year.

Today, the Opportunity Ponds constitute part of the legacy of those days.

The town of Opportunity, with about 250 homes and 800 people, sits one mile from the 3,500 acres of ponds owned by the Atlantic Richfield Company (ARCO), which merged with the Anaconda Copper Company decades ago.

There’s one main intersection in town, one small grocery store, a community club and a fire department. Down the road, Beaverdam School has sat empty since children began making the five-mile journey to the Anaconda school in 1979. The town’s residents are mainly retirees, and the area’s largest employers are ARCO, the state prison in Deerlodge and the state hospital in Warm Springs. Old cottonwoods line the streets and break the line of sight between the town and the ponds.

The Opportunity Ponds aren’t really ponds, though at one time they were. Beginning in 1884, copper ore was crushed and mixed with water and chemicals like arsenic at the smelter to separate out the valuable metals. Once the riches were gleaned, the remainder was sluiced down the hill into large settling ponds. There, the heaviest contaminants drifted to the bottom over the years and decanting towers siphoned off the water, leaving behind toxic sludge. When one pond filled up, a new one would be dug and filled; the Company started close to the smelter and slowly worked toward what is now Interstate 90. Today, the tailings remaining from Anaconda processing are about 40 feet deep and cover 3,500 acres, for a total of about 150 million cubic yards. A plume of toxins has sunk into the earth below the unlined ponds. Some of the depressions have been reclaimed and are now covered in grass; others are bare tailings exposed to the wind.

“This is going to take a long process, but I think the product six to eight years from now will be impressive,” says Russ Forba, EPA’s Milltown project manager.

In order to repair Milltown’s aquifer, poisoned by a plume of chemicals leaching from the sediments that have gathered behind the dam, the sediments must be removed.

Starting early next year, preparations will begin. First, infrastructure to prepare for the removal of the dam must be installed. A bypass channel will be dug along the I-90 side of the Clark Fork River to divert the river away from the reservoir’s most contaminated sediments. The level of the reservoir will then be lowered by about 10 feet to dry the sediments, and a rail spur connecting to the railroad line that runs along I-90 will be built so sediments can eventually be loaded onto train cars onsite and carted to the Opportunity Ponds. Then in 2007, the spillway of the dam will be removed, and excavators will scoop out about 2.5 million cubic yards of the most highly contaminated sediments and load them onto train cars. Over the next two years, a new channel and flood plain will be dug for the Clark Fork River, imitating its historic channel before installment of the dam.

Forba says that though there are an estimated 6.6 million cubic yards of contaminated sediments in the reservoir, only about a third of that needs to be removed to restore Milltown’s aquifer.

“Our main focus is to clean up the groundwater,” he says. “And the bottom line is we don’t think we have to remove it all to solve the groundwater problem.”

Once the reservoir reverts to river, he says, most of the poisoned soil will be above the waterline, where it poses less threat to groundwater. Plus, the sediments that will remain have much lower contents of arsenic than the soil scheduled to be removed.

Initially, the plan was to create a new waste repository for the Milltown soil near Bandmann Flats, upriver from the dam. That plan changed after the initial public comment period, when ARCO weighed in, saying it was against removal of the dam, but if it was going to happen the waste should be consolidated at the Opportunity Ponds, says Robin Bullock, ARCO’s northwest regional manager of 14 years.

One reason was that ARCO didn’t want to have to create and manage a brand-new waste repository. A second was that the Milltown sediments can be used as a portion of the 10 million cubic yards of revegetative soil needed to complete the project of covering and regrowing—or “capping”—the Opportunity tailings so they’re more natural-looking, and so dust doesn’t continue to blow off them.

Tailings from two other ARCO Superfund cleanup sites along the Clark Fork—the Colorado Smelter tailings and the Silver Bow Creek tailings—have already been used as capping material over the last decade, and tailings from the latter project are still rolling in. Bullock says the plan is to have the Opportunity Ponds completely capped and on the way to looking natural by 2010.

“It was not a difficult decision for EPA to make,” Forba says. “We know that there’s some hard feelings in Opportunity, but we thought it was the right thing to do.”

“There’s already a very large amount of waste there…As far as the impact of these materials, when you already have 100 to 150 million cubic yards, it’s almost nil,” he says.

Serge Myers, president of the Opportunity Citizens Protection Association, doesn’t believe much of anything that ARCO or the EPA have been telling him and others in Opportunity. Namely, he doesn’t buy official assurances about the safety of his town’s water, air and soil. He also disagrees with their assessment that public meetings afforded Opportunity citizens involvement in the decision-making process regarding where the Milltown sediments would be stored.

Sitting at the dining room table in his white, two-story Opportunity home, Myers recites OCPA’s motto: “They had their way; we had no say.”

“All the way through, we feel like we’ve been really left behind,” Myers says.

He says that at a meeting held last year by ARCO and the EPA, 40 citizens showed up and 33 of them raised their hands when asked who opposed storing the Milltown sediments at the Opportunity Ponds.

“We got so disillusioned,” he says. “Cleaning up the river is great, but they should have cleaned up this area first.”

He, along with group spokesman George Niland and secretary Maureen Holbrook, talk about their right to a “clean and healthful environment” as guaranteed by the Montana Constitution. They feel they should be compensated somehow for their compromised surroundings.

In an ideal world, it’s likely that everyone would agree. But in truth, the Clark Fork corridor running from Butte to Milltown—one of the nation’s largest Superfund sites—is far from ideal.

Kathy Hadley, chairwoman of the Clark Fork River Technical Assistance Committee that provides citizens with help understanding the Clark Fork Superfund cleanup, sympathizes with the OCPA folks, but also sees the bigger picture, which is that the Clark Fork and surrounding communities in general have been contaminated by past mining activities.

“They shouldn’t feel alone,” she says. “They aren’t being picked on, because, frankly, on the Clark Fork nothing’s been done of substance.”

For instance, it was back in 1981 when Missoula County health officials first discovered that Milltown’s drinking water supply had been contaminated by the arsenic plume beneath the Milltown Reservoir. Years of investigation and proposals followed, and it wasn’t until December 2004 that an EPA plan for cleaning it up was issued. In 2006, 25 years after the problem was discovered, work will begin.

The Anaconda site, which includes Opportunity and the Opportunity Ponds as well as the town of Anaconda and the Anaconda Smelter, was placed on the National Priority List for cleanup the same year as Milltown: 1983. Charlie Coleman, EPA Manager of the Anaconda Site, says extensive investigations and cleanups of water and soil have gone on in that area since the ’80s, and the Record of Decision for the area was issued in 1998. Since then, he says, more than 1,000 acres of the Anaconda and Opportunity Ponds have been restored, along with a number of other projects.

In short, much work remains to be done. Besides specific unfinished projects, Coleman says, monitoring of air, soil and water will stretch long into the future to detect emerging problems.

A second worry of OCPA’s members is that they are living in a toxic environment and the Milltown sediments will make it worse. Their two main concerns, they say, are the dust that blows off the Ponds’ tailings and well water, which they worry is contaminated by arsenic leaching below the ponds. Niland says he thinks the fact that three out of four of his siblings, himself included, developed cancer as adults even though it doesn’t otherwise run in his family is no coincidence. Part of the goal behind OCPA’s inception earlier this year was to investigate those fears and disseminate their findings to other locals.

Holbrook says the dust—which blows on windy days off the Opportunity Ponds—has got to stop. Hadley, who lives about five miles from Opportunity—has noticed the dust and wondered about it, too, as has most everyone in the area.

“There’s some times when you’re driving down [Highway] 48 and you can’t see Opportunity,” Holbrook says. “My house is covered in dust.”

ARCO’s Bullock says that workers at the Opportunity Ponds wear dust-monitoring equipment as they work and regular monitoring over many years hasn’t revealed any problems. Still, dust-control efforts are in place: Water trucks regularly wet the roads within the Ponds, and more than 1,000 acres have been seeded with grass. Lime rock is also applied to the surface because it reacts with acid in the tailings to create a crust, Coleman says.

The remaining dust-creating acres are where the Milltown sediments come in: They will be used as topsoil over the tailings and seeded with grasses to keep the dust in place. Both Bullock and Coleman acknowledge that the dust is a problem, but they say the only way to address it is to continue working toward capping all of the acreage. Once that’s done, they say, the dust problem will disappear. In the meantime, Coleman says he’s working with ARCO officials to install an air-monitoring station in Opportunity to ease citizens’ worries.

Myers is also nervous about the Milltown sediments being called “revegetative material” in Opportunity after they’ve been called “toxic sediment” in Milltown. ARCO and the EPA say the difference is accounted for by whether the soil is stored at a waste site or left loose near a town aquifer, and that the Milltown soil is much less toxic than the Ponds’ existing tailings and will be good for growing grass. Regardless of where it comes from, ARCO needs to cover the Ponds with soil. The company has told Opportunity that if it doesn’t come from places like Milltown, they’ll dig up soil from the land adjacent to the ponds—between the ponds and Opportunity—to accomplish the same task.

“We’re between a rock and a hard place—it’s one catastrophe or another,” Holbrook says of the options: bringing in contaminated soil from the outside or digging up acres around Opportunity to cap the ponds.

While OCPA worries about toxic dust aboveground, they also worry about poisoned water belowground.

The EPA and ARCO say repeated testing hasn’t found arsenic contamination in any residential drinking wells—though some groundwater tests have turned up the chemical—but Myers and Niland are still worried.

Though Myers says his well recently tested clean, he worries about the arsenic plume beneath the Opportunity Ponds migrating. He offers guests bottled water at his home.

Coleman says the possibility of the plume creeping is a concern, but if it’s moving anywhere, it’s away from Opportunity and toward the Clark Fork River.

Still, the OCPA folks say they want ARCO to install a public water system; ARCO responds by saying a trust fund has been set aside for remediation in case wells are contaminated in the future.

The state Natural Resource Damage Program, which won a substantial settlement from ARCO for restoration work, began investigating the quality of well water in Opportunity in 2001. NRDP Restoration Program Chief Carol Fox says if contamination had been found, the possibility of a public water system would have been considered, but that tests so far have come up clean.

Aside from Daniels’ and OCPA’s environmental concerns, they want to see their area redeveloped so they don’t feel like all their town has to offer is its status as a dumping ground.

“What I’m saying to Butte, Missoula and everyone else on the river is that if Anaconda-Deerlodge County is the waste repository for everybody, we need some help mitigating that,” Daniels says. “Help us get something positive out of it instead of just the waste material.”

Daniels wants to see a park in town, which could also serve as the hub of a trail system for the area. The proximity of Georgetown Lake and the Anaconda-Pintlar mountains could become assets that invigorate the community, both economically and imagistically, she says. To that end, Daniels and OCPA are working to patch together funds to buy the defunct Beaverdam School, which sits on the only open space in town. Myers says a 13-acre park, which would cost $700,000 and have features like a baseball field, picnic tables, barbecue pits and playground equipment—could make a real difference in how the town feels about itself.

Last weekend OCPA held a bake sale and raised nearly $400, Myers says. ARCO has pledged $50,000 in matching funds, and Daniels is pursuing a grant.

They see an additional money pot they believe they’re entitled to as well: Earlier this year, Sen. Baucus inserted $5 million in redevelopment money into the Highway Bill for the building of trails and parks associated with the Milltown cleanup and restoration project. The bill specifies the money will go to Missoula and Deerlodge counties, though it doesn’t say who gets what.

Daniels thinks Opportunity deserves half—$2.5 million—because of its role in the cleanup: “It’s only fair,” she says. Downriver, folks see it differently.

The $5 million in federal money was the direct outcome of three years of hard work by the Milltown Superfund Site Redevelopment Working Group, composed of volunteers from Milltown, Bonner and Missoula. The group held monthly meetings and hammered out an in-depth plan that includes a network of trails that will link up to the Kim Williams Trail, an interpretive center and footbridges. Early in 2005, the group held open houses to share the plan with the public and then presented a detailed budget of $14.1 million, conceptual plans and a site layout to the Montana congressional delegation.

Peter Nielsen, environmental health supervisor with the Missoula County Health Department, says he suggested including some money for upriver folks to start their own planning process, similar to what had just concluded in Missoula County. He does envision them getting a bit of the $5 million, but he balks at the notion of them getting half.

“It is clearly the case that we did all the work to get the money,” he says. “We don’t begrudge them any opportunity to succeed and we would like to see them have successful projects. But that would be a real blow to our group if we were only to receive half of what was promised.”

Tracy Stone-Manning, director of the Clark Fork Coalition, has worked with both communities and says the $5 million is a distraction from the bigger issue.

“This isn’t about us versus them—it’s about what’s right for everyone in the watershed,” she says. “The way to make it equitable is to not geographically fight, but to say there’s probably enough to go around.”

Stone-Manning also says that Opportunity would fare better if it had a public process and a plan for redevelopment.

“I think that Opportunity should definitely have some of that money,” she says. “But it’s my understanding that Baucus got that money because the Bonner redevelopment group had a plan. My understanding is that Opportunity isn’t at that stage yet. I would bend over backward to help Opportunity get to that stage.”

UM professor Robin Saha and his students have been looking at Opportunity through a different lens. Instead of focusing on the money or scientific debates, Saha’s Community Responses to Toxic Contamination graduate-level course examined Opportunity as a case of environmental injustice, which the class defines as a circumstance in which a community is asked to bear an unfair environmental burden for the rest of society. The class held a town meeting in Opportunity, looked through official records of the Milltown decision, thumbed through public comments and newspaper articles, and interviewed citizens about their views over the course of last spring.

Saha says that few outside of Opportunity are even remotely aware of the town’s situation or its calls for help. Myers says the creation of OCPA this spring was inspired by Saha as a way to increase Opportunity’s visibility. The final class report overwhelmingly finds that people there feel like no one’s listening to them or even acknowledging their plight. It’s important, he says, for people in places like Missoula to recognize the fact that waste from our area is going to a real place, and that it will have real impacts.

“This community has been like a sacrifice zone, and as far as I’m concerned, it’s not okay,” Saha says, adding that recent efforts by Missoula groups like CFRTAC and the Clark Fork Coalition are a step toward addressing Opportunity’s issues. “I don’t think we should treat them as though they’re disposable and that they and the waste can just be thrown away.”

At the end of the day, there are no simple solutions to Opportunity’s concerns. As the slow progress of cleanup all along the Clark Fork Basin shows, decades of pollution can’t just be undone. And the social impacts are similarly complex: People throughout the state have reaped both the riches and woes of mining and its legacy, and Opportunity certainly isn’t exempt. Myers, who labored 17 years at the Anaconda Smelter, recognizes this.

“Some of the stuff out there [in the Opportunity Ponds] is probably stuff I ground up,” he says.

That doesn’t make it any easier for him to live next to, or make it any less worrisome when he sees railroad cars heaped with contaminated soil roll into the Opportunity Ponds. He knows, practically and intellectually, that the Milltown sediments—a tiny fraction of the waste that’s already there—aren’t going to make or break Opportunity.

Nevertheless, he says, it adds to the problem, and it increases his town’s reputation as the state’s repository for Superfund cleanup waste.

Despite his distrust of ARCO, he ultimately sees the company as an entity that could ease the troubles of his town.

“This is a billion-dollar operation,” he says of ARCO, a BP subsidiary. “If they would just take us under their wing, we’d be a perfect example of how they can use their money to help.”

Like Daniels, he doesn’t want his town to be forgotten while others get their happy endings.

That’s a sentiment that Stone-Manning has nothing but sympathy for. She recalls a public meeting held last year in Opportunity to unveil the Milltown cleanup plan. The presentation ended with an artist’s drawing of what the Milltown area will look like once the work is done, full of color and life. As the image sunk in, one Opportunity resident raised a hand and asked, “Where’s our pretty picture?”

“If I were in that community, I would say ‘hey, what about us?’” Stone-Manning says. “‘Where’s our pretty picture?’ I think that’s valid.”

jmcquillan@missoulanews.com

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