Opportunity's burden 

Missoula cheered when cleanup began on the Clark Fork, but someone still has to take the waste

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"I firmly believe that that decision was a political decision that influenced the EPA," Connie says.

To add insult to injury, two years later Baucus announced that he had secured a $5 million congressional appropriation to help redevelop the Superfund-affected communities with parks and trail systems. This time, Connie got the news directly from Baucus' state director, Jim Foley.

"I'll never forget that call," Connie told me. "He said, 'Max has got $5 million for redevelopment. Four point eight million is going to go to Missoula and 200,000 is going to go to you.' I think my statement was, 'Over my dead body.' I was incensed. We have had to scrap and fight for every little pittance. What the hell are we going to do with that? I mean seriously?"

Ultimately Connie fought and scrapped and got the appropriation halved between Missoula and Anaconda-Deer Lodge County; $1.3 million went to remediation and redevelopment of Opportunity's Beaver Dam Park.

click to enlarge Workers haul waste in Opportunity. - PHOTO BY CATHRINE L. WALTERS
  • Photo by Cathrine L. Walters
  • Workers haul waste in Opportunity.

Beaver Dam Park is named for the fenced-off Beaver Dam School. The Beaver Dam School itself is named for the valley's once prodigious beavers. The water-slowing dams they built meant that more mine tailings settled out here, on the valley floor, than anywhere else in the watershed.

Connie is happy about the park. She fought for years to get it. It's something. If nothing else, it cleaned up a contaminated and blighted block. "The fact remains, if it wasn't used as a school or park ground, it would have reverted back to Atlantic Richfield. There are lots of reversionary clauses on a lot of company ground. If it wasn't used for its original intention, then it would revert back."

Even once she secured the money for the park, she had to fight to get the property's soil tested before construction began. EPA and ARCO were willing to presume the ground was nontoxic enough for Opportunity's children. It wasn't. Contractors conducted a removal action—stripping contaminated soil and replacing it with clean donor soil—before work could begin.

Some of the donor soil came from the Stewart Street "borrow area" on the other side of the interstate, across from Opportunity, but there's not much soil left there.

Nine months after EPA's initial deadline, EPA and ARCO finally announced a plan to cap the Milltown section of the Opportunity Ponds. The compromise calls for 12 inches of new "vegetative growth medium"—topsoil, that is—on top of the Milltown sediments. The county had wanted 18 inches. The modern national standard for reclaimed mining sites is three to four feet. If forced to find more dirt, ARCO publicly threatened, the company would dig up the grassy, tree-crowded strip of buffer that partially obscures the treeless ponds from Opportunity's view. It's company property, after all.

In short, ARCO, with EPA approval, is digging up dirty dirt, diluting it, calling it clean dirt, and mixing it into more dirty dirt to dilute that. Require anything more thorough and the company stands ready to cannibalize this "garden community" of a company town for dump cover. It boggles Connie's mind.

"Anyway–—"

Connie says "anyway" a lot, usually as a way to trail a thought off, sometimes apologetically, as if she's gone on too long. It's an enormously confusing patchwork of projects to keep track of, and she has developed pet peeves, but she doesn't want to dwell on her frustrations.

"I don't think running around screaming about 'it's contaminated' and blah blah, and going on about every negative thing under the sun is ever going to get you out of it," she says. "I would rather focus my personal energies, and my professional energies, on trying to do something constructive and positive to make some sort of an impact to change things to some degree, to the best of our abilities."

click to enlarge The return of wildlife, evidenced by the tracks, is a positive sign for Opportunity. - PHOTO BY CHAD HARDER
  • Photo by Chad Harder
  • The return of wildlife, evidenced by the tracks, is a positive sign for Opportunity.

What she wants to change is what Opportunity has already become: a ghost town whose ghosts haven't left yet. She is encouraged by the new START–Sanction, Treatment, Assessment, Revocation and Transition—adult–correctional facility recently constructed just across Highway 48 from the ponds, and the Anaconda credit union's new office in the old company train yard, and the newish $200 million NorthWestern Energy power plant and transfer station just up the Mill Creek Road, each of which required pre-construction soil remediation. But she knows that's not enough. Neither is the park.

"The park is wonderful, it's a great little thing, but really, for this community to recover, it needs a lot more. I think you need to put something back here. People still live here, there's still businesses here, so what can we do to help them? I've lived here my entire life and I can do things every single season of the year. I was out cross-country skiing yesterday, I horseback ride in the summer, you can go to Georgetown Lake. There needs to be some investment back in it to help these areas recover. I think it's only fair."

Connie is one of the few people I've talked to who seems comfortable talking about Opportunity in terms of bald fairness. It is conceivably logical to dump an entire river restoration's waste at an already dumped-upon site, but is it fair?

Is it fair that the EPA's national safety standard for arsenic in soil is 150 ppm, while the standard applied in Anaconda and Opportunity is 250 ppm? Is it fair that ARCO's thousands of acres of dumpsite are taxed as agricultural land, the state's lowest tax bracket? Is it fair that in calculating the resources lost to the state through a century's worth of mining and mining waste, the state Natural Resource Damage Program discounted Anaconda-Deer Lodge County and the Opportunity Ponds entirely, never to be compensated for? The place was too fucked-up to make amends. Connie has tried to find out who made that decision, but no one will say.

Is it fair that Missoula gets it river cleaned up at Opportunity's expense?

"Do you think for one second that Missoula would take one drop of contaminated soil from this area down there?" Connie asks me. "Absolutely not." She's finished her salad, and periodically checks her watch. Her mother has been ill, and she's expecting an update from her brother. I've told her that I've felt almost guilty, as a Missoulian, at the way Opportunity has been steamrolled, the way it's been taken out of the equation.

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