At the turn of the 19th century, Montana exploited the richest copper deposits in the world, fueling the electric growth of 20th century America and building some of the nation's most outlandish fortunes. The toxic by-product of those fortunes—what didn't spill into the Clark Fork—was dumped in a town named Opportunity.
In the 21st century, Montana's draw is no longer metal but landscape. To match reality to myth, affluent exurbanites and well-meaning environmentalists are trying to restore the Clark Fork to its "natural state." In the process, millions of tons of toxic soils are being removed and dumpedo—nce again—in Opportunity.
In his new book, Opportunity, Montana: Big Copper, Bad Water, and the Burial of an American Landscape, former Independent editor Brad Tyer investigates the town's history and wrestles with questions of environmental injustice and the ethics of burdening one community with an entire region's waste. The following excerpt, published with permission from Beacon Press, looks at Opportunity today, and how some residents feel about their downstream neighbors in Missoula.
On November 8, 2011, Connie Ternes-Daniels totaled her Buick Rendezvous on a bull moose. That's how she knows that things in Opportunity, slowly but surely, are getting better. She tells me about it over lunch at Donivan's Family Dining in Anaconda. Connie orders a salad. I have the Miner Burger–a cheeseburger with a slice of ham on top. Donivan's also features an "Opportunity Omelet" on its all-day breakfast menu, filled with sausage and drenched in cream gravy. Connie says she's never tried it.
Connie, the Anaconda-Deer Lodge County planning director, was driving east on Montana Scenic Highway 1, headed from a commissioners' meeting in Anaconda to the 30-acre homestead she shares with her husband in Opportunity. The meeting had ended at 7 p.m. and the road had already grown dark. She had just passed the turnoff to Mill Creek Road, but not yet reached the railroad tracks, when the moose materialized out of nowhere. She was traveling about 65 miles per hour in the 70 mph zone and yanked the steering wheel trying to avoid the animal. The Buick's passenger side plowed into it, knocking it dead into the ditch between the eastbound and westbound lanes. The impact shattered her windshield, but Connie wasn't hurt. The son of Anaconda's sole auto dealer and his girlfriend were driving behind her, thinking about passing, when they saw Connie swerve. They let her wait with them in their truck, out of the cold, while her husband came to pick her up.
A week later, another local resident ran into an elk on the road, and several weeks after that a pilot flying into nearby Bowman Field radioed in a moose browsing in the middle of his runway.
Connie felt terrible about killing the moose.
"It's sort of interesting that all of the remediation has really enhanced wildlife," she tells me. "I just don't want to run into them."
Connie was born in the Deer Lodge Valley, and left to attend Montana State University in Bozeman and then Montana Tech in Butte before going to graduate school at the University of Montana in Missoula. She's lived in Opportunity since 1982, when her husband–an Opportunity native and an electrical engineer on smelter hill when it closed down in 1980–inherited property from his grandfather, who had purchased one of the community's original 10-acre tracts from the Anaconda Company's Deer Lodge Valley Farms development arm. Now they operate a small hobby farm, some cows and horses and hay, and Connie raises miniature horses.
"There's always been agricultural use in Opportunity," she tells me. "That was the whole purpose of it from the beginning. It was to show that you could have little agricultural operations under the plume of the big stack."
You could and you couldn't. The local rumor is that the Anaconda Company raised livestock on the upwind side of Smelter Hill, importing healthy animals to Opportunity fairs for show. Now that the stack produces no plume, Connie hasn't noticed any problem.
Gold, her palomino Tennessee Walking Horse, is 34 years old. "He eats the grass and drinks the water. My vet says he's one of the oldest horses he's ever seen, and the horse has lived in Opportunity since he was nine years old"–that was seven years after the smelter shut down.
Which is not to say that Connie thinks everything is peaches and cream in Opportunity. She knows better. She served two terms on the county commission before going to work for U.S. Sen. Jon Tester as his Butte field director. She left that job to come work for Becky Guay as the county's planning director.
"Jon's state director offered me more money to stay. I took a pay cut from what I was making to come over here. I like projects, and I like being able to say, 'Yeah, see what you can do when you work together?'"
She knows what it's like when you don't. Connie was on the county commission on May 5, 2003, when Butte's Montana Standard announced that Sen. Max Baucus wanted to send Milltown's toxic lakebed to Opportunity.
Connie read about Baucus' proposal in the newspaper like everyone else.
"There wasn't a discussion here about that. It was announced in the newspaper and there was no discussion with any public official at the time. We read about it. I was irate about it. I have no proof, but I have to believe that Dennis Washington had a discussion with Sen. Baucus and said, 'This means jobs.'" Jobs, that is, for Washington's Montana Rail Link, which would ship the wastes to Opportunity.