I spent last summer and fall floating down the country's largest Superfund site in a canoe. I was living in a borrowed cabin near Georgetown Lake, about 20 miles from the headwaters of the Clark Fork River. I wanted a closer look at a disaster before it was undone.
Montana's rivers, any fly-fisher will tell you, are everything a real river should be. Not the upper Clark Fork. Not yet, anyhow.
My meanderings were marked by pink golf balls and green cattle bones. The golf balls washed into the river from Anaconda's Old Works golf course—a pretty green bandage stuck on part of the town's razed smelter complex—via Warm Springs Creek. Or they were shanked from the aspirationally named Anaconda Country Club, in the rural burb of Opportunity, into Mill Creek. You see them nestled in the brown sand of shallow bars miles downstream, sunlit dimples winking under the water.
The cattle bones are covered in blue-green copper sulfate. I find them scattered by coyotes and lying in broad scabby swatches of riverbank called slickens, dead zones where flood-borne mine tailings from the old copper boomtown of Butte, upstream, have settled in deep drifts and choked the roots of the few silvery sun-bleached ghost willows still standing. Slicken soil is sulfurous gray and scummy, frosted with pimply eruptions of mineral salts—copper, arsenic, zinc, cadmium—that tinge the dead zone with rimes of green, blue and white. It's not your typically scenic canoeing view. The salts leach out of the wet soil to coat the bones. I keep a cardboard box full of them in my garage, on a shelf where the dogs can't reach them.
Now that the Milltown Dam has been razed, Missoulians are turning their attention to plans for a new state park near the former reservoir. Meanwhile, the state of Montana and the Environmental Protection Agency will spend the next few years removing the slickens from "Reach A," the 43-mile stretch of river from Warm Springs Pond to Garrison. Contractors will cut roads through mostly private ranchland to reach the river, divert its water into a ditch or pipe, then dig out the banks and bed to depths of five, 10 or 15 feet, and haul it away. They'll re-grade the banks with "donor soil" and route a new channel, using dirt wrapped in tubes made of coconut matting imported from Sri Lanka. Then the water will be steered back in.
The green bones and the soils that stain them will be gone. Trout and golf balls will return.
When I wasn't paddling one Superfund site, I was walking another one, part of the same puzzle, about seven miles up Warm Springs Creek from the river, through a succession of former copper smelter sites studding the hills flanking Anaconda's northern exposure. They're gorgeous, especially in fall, when the slopes are painted with saffron outbursts of stunted aspen and streaked rusty red with relic brick.
Across the valley to the south is the rise where the Anaconda Company's last smelter, the Washoe, sat from 1919 to 1980. Its smokestack dusted the Deer Lodge Valley with tons of arsenic every day. There's no hiking on that side, even though the site is technically a state park. It was handed off to the state in 1986, when proud locals balked at plans to tear the 585-and-a-half-foot-tall Washoe Stack down. Poisoned soils and the prospect of bricks falling from the sky create untenable liability. The public can stare at the eminence through a pole-mounted binocular a mile away, installed on a plaza modeling the stack's massive footprint.
When the EPA took me up the smelter hill on a media tour last year, we parked right under the stack. They made me wear a hardhat. Nobody explained how a hardhat was supposed to help if a brick fell 58 stories onto my head.
The English language loves a do-over: remediation, reclamation, restoration, redevelopment, redemption. F. Scott Fitzgerald is frequently quoted on the dearth of second acts in American life, never mind American landscapes, but the quote is usually misunderstood. Second acts aren't synonymous with second chances. The second act—and Fitzgerald the screenwriter knew it—is the three-act play's meaty, messy middle, where quests become complicated and outcomes tarred with doubt before resolution finally parts the clouds in Act III. What Fitzgerald really meant, I bet, is that Americans have no patience for uncertainty and setback. Give us exciting incidents and cathartic climax. Hold the confusion.
The Clark Fork—120 river miles from Butte to Missoula—is getting a do-over. It needs it. In the late 1800s, Butte boomed into the world's largest copper camp just as Thomas Edison's lightbulb was sparking the need for millions of miles of copper wire. Ten thousand miles of passageways were excavated underneath the city that grew above them. Untold numbers of trees were chopped for mine timbers, and open-air ore-roasters and primitive smelters smothered the rest with airborne arsenic. Silver Bow Creek, feeding the Clark Fork, carried the brunt of it.
Open-pit strip mining replaced underground hard-rock mining in the 1950s, and now Butte is famously home to the Berkeley Pit, a manmade sump for the 40 billion gallons of acid water that have poured out of all those miles of underground passages since the pumps that kept them dry were turned off in 1982. Looming over the pit are the Yankee Doodle Tailings, the biggest such dump anywhere in the world.
In 1883, copper baron Marcus Daly founded the company town of Anaconda, 26 miles downstream on Warm Springs Creek, and built the world's largest copper smelter there to treat the Butte ores. The smelter funneled its waste downhill into the wetlands where Mill Creek and Willow Creek seeped into the Clark Fork.
The Anaconda Company was purchased by the Atlantic Richfield Company, ARCO, in 1977. Three years later Congress passed the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act, aka Superfund. ARCO closed down Butte's mines and the Anaconda smelter. The cost of business had gotten too high; besides, ARCO's Chilean mines had become more profitable producers. British Petroleum absorbed ARCO in 2000. BP-ARCO foots the Clark Fork cleanup bill today.
Arsenic was first found seeping into downstream wells in 1981, unleashing a rash of Superfund designations cascading upstream toward their source. The river has been a work in progress ever since. A quarter century in, much has been rebuilt. Most of the tributary Silver Bow Creek, spilling off the Continental Divide through Butte, has been dug up and replaced like a faulty sewer line.
Missoula, the downstream terminus of the Superfund complex, is getting a do-over, too. The main restoration issue on the Clark Fork over the past few years has been the dismantling of Milltown Dam, just upstream of Missoula, and remediation of the 180-acre reservoir that had puddled behind it. Its bottom held a hundred years of mine waste washed downstream in floods and high water. The weight of the lake drove toxins into the aquifer, and from there into the wells.
Three million tons of the poisoned sediments were dug up and loaded onto trains that ran seven days a week, from October 2007 to September 2009, upstream to Opportunity.
Milltown's arsenic plume is supposed to disperse within a decade or so. Above the plume, contractors have sculpted a new floodplain with Caterpillars and anchored rootballs along the bends and planted the banks in willow. The temporary channel that held the river while they worked is being filled in.
Opportunity is not getting a do-over. For 70 years, Anaconda's smelters sluiced their tailings into Opportunity's wetlands. Now that the river is being cleaned up, contaminants from Silver Bow Creek and Milltown Reservoir have been shipped there. Starting this year, the slickens of the Clark Fork's mainstem will be dumped there, too.
Comprehensive cost estimates for the river's restoration amount to $1.3 billion—a dollar for every man, woman and child in China. Opportunity is getting 0.1 percent of that, $1.3 million, for a park.
Opportunity can't get out of Act II.
On Dec. 16 last year, I was one of a couple hundred history-curious Missoulians who walked out onto a snow-covered bluff above the old Milltown Dam abutment to see something you almost never get to see: a river tangibly restored. Below us, the Clark Fork began to spill down its reconstructed streambed, joining the also-undammed Blackfoot River in free flow for the first time since the dam was built in 1908. We took pictures, though the visuals weren't dramatic. A biblical wall of water crashing down the valley would have looked much cooler.
At first, as earthmovers upstream breached the embankment that kept the river in its temporary bypass, the restoring confluence was just a trickle you could step across—not that anyone was allowed down there to do that. By the end of the day, it had washed out its mouth and was flowing full-bore in its new custom-made bed. Now it's a river. Parks are planned, and the banks have been planted, but the confluence won't be open to through-canoeists for another couple of years.
Two days before this, I'd gone to Anaconda for a town hall meeting with the EPA. It was 20 degrees and blowing snow that night, and I was one of about 30 people sitting on benches in the main courtroom of the county courthouse. EPA's Charlie Coleman was there, along with a representative of the Clark Fork River Technical Assistance Committee. ARCO was not. The update concerned the Opportunity Ponds, a seven-square-mile hump of mine tailings and smelter waste at its namesake community's doorstep.
The first speaker, consultant Gunnar Emilsson, referred repeatedly to "the Opportunity Ponds," until a man in back raised his hand and asked if Emilsson was aware that the name of the site had been changed. Some Opportunity residents would just as soon disclaim naming rights to the poisoned perpetuity next door. They had successfully petitioned to change the site's name to better reflect its management and function. It was one of Opportunity's few victories.
Emilsson didn't know what the man was talking about.
"What's it called now?"
"BP-ARCO Waste Repository."
"OK," Emilsson said. "Well, the site's official name is Opportunity Ponds, as reflected in the Record of Decision"—the EPA's guiding document for site management—"but you can call it whatever you want."
Emilsson stumbled over the new name two or three times and then reverted to "Opportunity Ponds." Everybody does, even the Missoula newspapers. I do, too. The landscape has already been stripped of integrity and life. I don't want to see it lose what's left of its poetry as well.
BP-ARCO had been faced with two concurrently pressing problems. First, the company needed someplace to remove the Milltown sediment to. And upstream at Opportunity, it needed topsoil to spread across thousands of acres of dust-whipped tailings ponds. ARCO proposed that the Milltown sediments, dried out and perhaps tilled with lime or manure, might work to cap at least part of the ponds with vegetative, soil-holding growth, solving both problems. The bad news, formally admitted at the Anaconda town-hall meeting, is that it didn't work. The Milltown waste was carefully shipped and prepped and spread and planted on a portion of Opportunity's ponds, but nothing would grow on it. We saw slides of shriveled roots.
Opportunity never wanted the Mill-town waste in the first place. When the Milltown dam came down and the trains started rumbling the dredge toward Opportunity, resident Connie Daniels told reporters, "This is a good thing, but some are paying the costs. We're sacrificing for everyone else." Opportunity had been assured that the toxic sediments were nothing to worry about. It had repeatedly been reported that the Milltown sediments—a tiny fraction of the waste that had already transformed Opportunity's ponds into low plateaus—were in any case less toxic than what was already there.
That also turned out to be false. Dennis Neuman, a Bozeman-based reclamation specialist and EPA adviser, informed the crowd that contrary to projections, tests showed that the new cap of Milltown dirt is up to five times more toxic than the toxic dirt it covers. And since the entire purpose of the project was to keep unsecured toxic dust from flying across the community's windowsills, importing the Milltown sediments had only made the problem worse.
A woman up front raised her hand and said, "Everybody here is feeling really betrayed. You guys have had information that we didn't have."
Opportunity's residents seemed to have a hard time grasping the full blatancy of what they had just been told. One man at the meeting insisted that the Milltown waste be "sent back to Missoula" since it hadn't worked as advertised. Another asked, "Any more secret stuff we ought to know about?" The crowd laughed. Coleman, the EPA's well-liked and much-abused spokesman for the Opportunity situation, said, "We are learning new stuff all the time."
It's a fact worth noting, though I'd never heard it mentioned before that meeting, that the Milltown sediments were never studied for their suitability as topsoil in Opportunity. Why wouldn't you study that?
Because it didn't matter. The Milltown sediments weren't imported to Opportunity to cap the ponds. The Milltown sediments were imported because ARCO needed someplace to dump them. If they somehow worked as soil, too, that'd be two birds killed with one stone and topped with cream gravy as far as ARCO was concerned. Otherwise, well, the waste had to go somewhere. Waste always does.
EPA exercises approval and oversight of ARCO's remediation responsibility. At that Dec. 14 meeting, EPA said ARCO had until spring to come up with a viable plan for providing 6 to 18 inches of functional, growable soil on top of Opportunity's Milltown mess. Come May, EPA extended the deadline. ARCO's dilemma, EPA had been persuaded, is the kind of thing that requires further study.
I met George Niland at the 24-hour Copper Bowl Cafe and Lanes in Anaconda. That's about five miles up the road from Opportunity, past the mile-and-a-half-long flat-topped pyramid of the Anaconda Tailings Pond and the half-mile-long, 25-million-ton black slag heap and the decommissioned stack that loom over this stretch of Montana Scenic Route 1. There's no commercial establishment in Opportunity where we could meet.
Niland looked a little like an inland pirate, with his ragged Fu Manchu mustache and green Carhartt overshirt, a camo-patterned doo-rag clinging to his head. He looked at me over rectangular-framed glasses and refrained from smoking and drank cup after cup of black coffee for two hours while we talked. I tried to match him cup for cup. When we parted company, I was shaking.
He was born in Anaconda's hospital and raised in Opportunity, in the house on two acres that his mother, 81 and healthy when he and I spoke, purchased in the early 1950s for $2,000. As a younger man, he worked on the railroad and as a guard at the Anaconda smelter. Now he's on disability and repairs computers as a hobby. He's got three children and six grandchildren scattered in Great Falls, Anaconda and Bozeman. A brother-in-law works for Jordan Contracting in Anaconda, driving trucks across the ponds. Niland says he'd leave Opportunity if it weren't for his mother, but she's not going anywhere.
He attended school through sixth grade in the whitewashed Beaver Dam schoolhouse the Anaconda Company built for the community in 1914. The school was closed, on the heels of the smelter, in 1981. Niland wants to see it restored, maybe used as an interpretive center, but the county says it's too full of asbestos to save. It's going to be mothballed as the centerpiece of a small park—the $1.3 million bone Opportunity managed to beg from federal money pumped into the redevelopment kitty by Montana Sen. Max Baucus.
Niland remembers that when he was growing up, the Clark Fork ran either tobacco-colored or green from the mine tailings flushing out of the concentrator upstream at Butte. He called it Shit Creek. Neighbor kids played King of the Hill on the slag pile at the end of Stewart Street—the same slag used as de-icer on Opportunity's winter streets.
Two of his sisters died of cancer. Two of his mom's dogs died of cancer. He says he could name 15 neighbors in Opportunity who have died of cancer. Seven years ago, Niland was diagnosed with a cancerous tumor on his spine. The doctors who removed it gave him a 70 percent chance of emerging a quadriplegic. He beat those odds.
It's pointless to try to quantify direct health effects. At least that's what everyone seems to have concluded, since no comprehensive health survey has been done. A decade ago, when Niland and a few others were starting to make noise about Opportunity's dilemma, activist Lois Gibbs—the woman who blew the whistle on New York state's Love Canal and helped usher in the Superfund era—came to meet with the group. She told them not to bother trying to prove they were dying. There are too many environmental factors at play in an open valley over the course of a hundred years to ever sort them all out to a defense team's satisfaction. It's incredibly hard to prove you weren't going to die anyway.
The EPA's standard for earthbound arsenic in Opportunity is 250 parts per million. According to Niland, EPA tests of his yard came back at 167 ppm. Niland doesn't trust the results. He says the EPA tests by taking multiple 3-inch surface samples, mixing them, and then testing the mix. If the EPA took four samples, and three tested at 50 ppm arsenic, and the fourth, from a hot spot, tested 500 ppm, he'd get a result much like the one EPA gave him. The EPA says the arsenic plume beneath Opportunity's 5,000-acre tailings ponds—50-foot mounds of heavy metal dust sitting atop former wetlands at a creek-threaded headwater—just happens to be migrating away from the river, and from Opportunity's wells.
The EPA also said grass would grow on the Milltown sludge.
Niland is into hot rods, hunting and racy humor, and he has a habit of asking inconvenient questions. Why was the downstream Superfund stretch cleaned up before the upstream work? Why concentrate all the waste in Opportunity, so close to the headwaters? Why, when the Beaver Dam school property in the center of the community was recently found to require soil replacement, are the Opportunity yards surrounding it considered safe?
I ask him an inconvenient question of my own: So what should be done?
Niland says that if he was in charge, he'd make ARCO buy Opportunity out, like it did in the 1980s with the smelter-centric community of Mill Creek, just across Scenic Highway 1.
But Opportunity lacks ammunition. The Opportunity Citizens Protection Associ-ation, an organization Niland helped found to watchdog ARCO and the EPA, is idled now. People stopped showing up to OCPA's annual "Opportunity Days" picnic, so OCPA stopped hosting it. The group has dwindled from seven official members to four, and Niland has lost friends over his advocacy. They said he was dragging property values down.
"We got tired," Niland told me. "We don't know what to do next."
Opportunity isn't much to look at, and it's hard to see from the roads that bind it. Interstate 90 and state highways 1 and 48 enclose a triangle. The northern expanse is, from any distance, a featureless plain; the Google Earth view reveals a pale 5,000-acre crust of tailings. The triangle's southeastern corner is Opportunity, a single thoroughfare and three cross-streets lined with modest homes built in the 19-teens and '50s. Opportunity's yards are green, and several are filled with storage sheds for rent. There's a little grocery dating from the '40s at Stewart Street and South Hauser, catty-corner from the seldom-used white-clapboard community center. Some folks keep horses and others graze cattle. Most are at least semi-retired. It is by all appearances an unremarkable small Montana town.
The remarkable thing about Opportunity, the thing I can't get over—aside from the name, and there are hundreds of fading villages in the West saddled with equally cheap irony—is that even though what's going on here is clearly not right, I can't figure out what else should be done.
Environmental justice is the idea that no community, however economically disenfranchised or racially marginalized, should be subject to a disproportionate burden of the environmental costs of wealth and its wastes. In 1994, President Bill Clinton signed an executive order that embedded environmental justice in federal decision-making.
You might think that would mean that the EPA, perhaps the federal agency most directly involved in environmental hazard management, wouldn't approve a plan that singled out one staggering community as a restoration project's dumpsite of choice.
You might figure that if specific communities aren't to be unfairly burdened, then other communities will have to share the burden.
By that measure, maybe the college town of Missoula, with its restored confluence and engineered whitewater play wave under downtown's Higgins Avenue bridge, should carry some of the cleanup's load. And in fact that was the EPA's initial recommendation in 2003: to store the Milltown wastes at a site called Bandmann Flats, just downstream of the dam, in East Missoula. But public comment from Missoulians was almost unanimously opposed.
In response, in 2004, EPA changed course to enact the Opportunity solution. Bandmann Flats is now a golf-course community called Canyon River.
Joel Chavez, with the Montana Department of Environmental Quality, the state's man in charge of rebuilding the Clark Fork, told an audience last March that it's just good sense to "keep all the rats in one trap."
As unsatisfying an answer as this is, I'm not prepared to say he's wrong. Waste has to go somewhere, and Opportunity is already buried. It's hard to see what would be gained by sending it somewhere else and ruining that place, too. Would Opportunity be better off if two and a half million cubic yards of toxic sludge had been dumped closer to Missoula? Would Missoula be better off?
But keeping all the rats in one trap is the very definition of disproportionate burden. Opportunity got dumped on because it's disproportionately burdened.
And here's an ugly rub: Opportunity was born to die. In the early 1900s, farmers and ranchers in the encompassing Deer Lodge valley sued the Anaconda Mining Company for causing the shriveled crops and dead livestock in their fields, felled—the farmers believed—by arsenic poisoning. They were joined by the administration of Theodore Roosevelt, whose federal timber was dying in swaths downwind of the smelter stack. In 1904, with the Anaconda smelters producing 20 percent of the nation's copper, the farmers filed suit.
The Anaconda Company stalled its way past Roosevelt and bought out the farmers—they'd been mocked in company-owned newspapers as "smoke farmers"—to insulate itself from liability. In 1914, the company drained part of that land and carved it into 5- and 10-acre plots and sold them off to smelter workers. Opportunity was advertised as a "garden community" where citizens tired of the industrial bustle of Anaconda could retire in peace. Terms were good, and the company promised that if the man of the house died in the middle of his mortgage, the company would forgive the loan and give title to the widow. The Butte Miner praised Opportunity as "one of the most successful welfare systems ever introduced by a big industrial company," and declared that the area was "destined to become an important dairy and stock section."
By 1914, the Anaconda smelter had already been pouring its poison down Opportunity's drain for four years. It's unlikely any early Opportunarians thought they were buying into a Garden of Eden.
It's too easy to blame a mining company now three decades dead. It's too easy to blame the faceless oil company that inherited the mess and wants to keep its costs down. The cell phone on which I made my appointment with George Niland runs on copper. Fifty pounds of copper power the truck in which I drive my canoe to the poison banks of the Clark Fork. I like electric lights, and I'm exceedingly fond of refrigeration and hot water. Just try and take it away from me. Just try and deny it to China and India, where copper-fueled industrialization is ramping up to surpass the scale that denatured the Clark Fork and required the sacrifice of Opportunity.
Earlier this year, I got the chance to teach writing to high school kids in rural Oregon for a couple of months. During show-and-tell one day, I told them the story of Opportunity and showed them some slides. I asked them to write a persuasive essay about what they would do with a landscape-sized mess they suddenly had to get rid of. A notable minority, exhibiting a flair for final solutions and enviable disregard for the price of rocket fuel, suggested shooting it into space.
The impulse to just make it go away is ingrained, but the Opportunity Ponds aren't going anywhere. It would cost too many billions of dollars to move the tailings, and even if the money were there, where would you put them? What would you sacrifice instead?
This spring, I moved downstream to Bonner, across the Blackfoot from the now-defunct timber mill once powered by the now-removed dam, just downstream from where the reservoir used to be. I've spent my mornings walking up the Blackfoot, watching construction crews on the other side of the river dig out a PCB-laden pond on the mill property. By the time I got here, they'd already removed a low-head log-ponding dam and re-contoured the riverbank under an expansive slope of blond seed mat.
I hadn't been here long when the water started rising. Removing the dams lowered the water level, exposing thousands of long-drowned logs lodged in the Blackfoot's bed. Then a heavy snowpack melted off the mountains and pushed the river past flood stage, flushing out the logs. The brown water raced downstream, roiled under the Interstate 90 bridge to pile into the Clark Fork, and legged west toward Missoula.
The Clark Fork is named for William Clark, of Lewis and, but another William Clark—William Andrews Clark—put a more permanent stamp on it. In 1908, W. A. Clark built the dam in Milltown to power his Bonner mill. And in 1908, another heavy snowpack pelted with spring rain sent a 100-year flood raging down the Clark Fork, scouring the floodplain and taking out bridges in downtown Missoula. It was that flood, more than any high water that followed over the next century, that blew Butte's slag piles and tailings heaps downstream, where they settled out on the reservoir floor behind the then-new dam. Those were the sediments that eventually seeped into the aquifer, poisoning wells and sparking the Superfund designation that finally led to the dam's removal in 2008 and the restoration work that continues today. Those are the sediments that now top Opportunity's ponds.
Aside from an ornate Butte mansion now operating as a B&B, Clark's physical legacy in Montana disappeared with the dam. His copper profits—he was raking in an estimated $12 million a year in his early-20th century heyday—left the state to build an opulent Manhattan palace and an art collection now housed in the Clark Wing of the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, D.C.
Just a few months ago, less than a year after the Clark Fork flowed freely for the first time since he'd stoppered it, Clark's youngest daughter died. Huguette Clark was 104 when she passed away in a New York hospital on May 24. She'd come into the world a year before her daddy's dam was built, and she'd outlasted it by three. She hadn't been photographed in 80 years, and spent the last two decades of her life behind a thick blanket of privacy, collecting fine French dolls and cared for by nurses in an anonymous hospital room while multimillion-dollar mansions in California, Connecti-cut and New York sat empty. She left a fortune, primed for a squabble, estimated at half a billion dollars.
Huguette's hermitude was breached last year when Bill Dedman, an investigative reporter at MSNBC, published a series of articles exploring her family history and raising questions about the lawyers who represented her finances and shielded her from family and strangers alike. The article briefly resuscitated the story of William A. Clark, once toe-to-toe with John D. Rockefeller as the richest man in America, but long since forgotten outside Montana.
When Huguette involuntarily re-emerged, Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer wrote her a letter, asking her to steer some of her fortune back to Montana, the source of so much of it. He never got a reply.
The day before Huguette died, it turned out, Butte schoolchildren had started their own letter-writing campaign. They want a slice of the family fortune to rebuild Columbia Gardens, a Butte amusement park built by William A. in 1899 that burned to the ground in 1973 in what was widely presumed an act of arson intended to make way for the encroaching Berkeley Pit strip mine of Clark's corporate successors, the Anaconda Company. A newspaper article quoted the kids' teacher saying they wouldn't let Huguette's demise stop them. They'd send their letters to the lawyers.
One wishes them luck without holding out much hope. As the citizens of Opportunity know better than most, you don't get anything—not a restored river, not one red cent—for free.
This story originally appeared in High Country News. It was made possible with support from the Kenney Brothers Foundation.
Former Independent editor Brad Tyer's first book, Opportunity, Montana, will be published by Beacon Press in spring 2013.