Merry Christmas Montana 

Ding dong, let the dam be gone

“Lightning flashed hot blue across the bottom of the star-filled sky, revealing dark clouds stalking the ridgetop. Deep thunder vibrated through the rock. The earth twitched in sleep…the tremor hit Milltown at 3:29 a.m., and the 80-year-old dam began to give. By daybreak, the destruction was complete. The old stress lines had cracked, crumbled, and then without warning crashed into foaming ruin as the power of the flood-swollen Clark Fork River surged forth to reclaim old channels. Days later, white-suited crews were still digging through the ruins of flood plain buildings, searching for still forms buried in the toxic sludge that coated the destruction.”

So wrote this old Ghost of Christmas Past exactly 20 years ago in a feature story for Montana Magazine. Luckily, that story will never come to be a tale of Christmas Future. Montana received a tremendous Christmas present when, just this week, the EPA signed the historic record of decision, setting the wheels in motion to remove the crumbling Milltown Dam—and the tons of toxic sediment stacked behind it—once and for all. And lo, the angels on high sing Hallelujah!

Two decades ago, when Ted Schwinden was governor, the people of Milltown faced a crisis. Tests showed that the toxic sediments behind the dam were leaching arsenic and other heavy metals down into the clean aquifers beneath their homes, which were then being sucked back up through their wells, literally poisoning their drinking water. Schwinden had come from Helena to meet with the townspeople, but he was somewhat befuddled as to what could be done. After all, the Milltown Dam was the property of the powerful Montana Power Company and, despite the decrepitude of the rock and timber structure, was still pumping out electricity as it had done since just after the turn of the century.

At that time, just after the Superfund Act had become law, Montana was wrestling with the combined impacts of Butte, Anaconda and the 100 miles of the Clark Fork River that would become the nation’s largest Superfund site. Removal of the dam, however, wasn’t even considered an option.

The problem should have been addressed at its root, by removing the dam and the millions of tons of leaching toxic sediments, thus ensuring that the downgradient plume of toxic pollution would no longer threaten the clean aquifers below. But instead, the state decided to simply find still-clean water even further downgradient and drill new wells for Milltown’s residents. Given the relative ease and minimal cost, it is no surprise that the state took the easy way out—and passed the real problem on to future generations.

For 20 more long years the toxic sludge would line the reservoir, and all the time the millions of tons of lead, copper, arsenic, zinc and a host of other poisons would continue to leach into the groundwater and the polluted plume would continue to move downstream. Even worse, the dam itself began to move downstream, much to the dismay of the pollution scientists, the engineers and the Montana Power Company, the corporate entity that would bear ultimate liability should the ancient pile of rocks crumble beneath the waves.

And so, in another classic patch job, the Milltown Dam got a facelift. A couple years of heavy construction and the visibly corroded exterior was covered with nice new concrete, anchor bolts driven, and to those who didn’t know better, the image of stability was restored.

In a taste of what could come, however, massive fish kills were recorded below the dam as concentrations of heavy metals released into the river by the construction activities soared, and the finny residents below the dam paid the price for man’s continuing folly. What was becoming obvious, to any who cared to look, was the futility of the increasingly expensive half-measures being employed to “save” the Milltown Dam.

As the years rolled by, Gov. Schwinden was replaced by Gov. Stephens, who was replaced by Gov. Racicot, who was replaced by Gov. Martz, who is now to be replaced by Gov. Schweitzer. If everything goes as currently planned, with luck and $100 million dollars, the Milltown Dam will not be there for whoever follows Brian Schweitzer into the governor’s office.

After decades of Band-Aids, patches, excuses, endless studies, thousands of public meetings and dozens of comment periods, we are finally getting down to what should have been done so long ago. The only way to ensure the cessation of groundwater pollution in perpetuity is, of course, to remove the source of the pollution—which is exactly what the EPA’s historic record of decision does.

In 2005 a new bypass channel for the Clark Fork River will be constructed, dewatering the toxic sediments for the first time in a century. By 2006, millions of cubic yards of poisonous sludge will be removed and shipped off to join hundreds of millions of tons of toxic tailings in Anaconda. Then the dam itself will begin to come down, stripped of its concrete veneer, exposing the rotten rock-cribs beneath, and eventually removed entirely, restoring the historic confluence of the Clark Fork and Blackfoot rivers.

It would be great to believe that the toxic sediments were gone forever, but the sad truth is that the Anaconda “storage sites” are little more secure than the old dam itself. Nearly 10 square miles of land, tucked in the triangle between I-90, Warm Springs and Opportunity, are filled with the toxic spew from the former Anaconda Smelter. It would be great to believe these sediments could simply sit in that floodplain, at the headwaters of the mighty Columbia, without causing future damages. But that, like the long delusion that the Milltown Dam could be saved, is folly. Sooner or later, some future generation will have to clean up the rest of the mess.

For this Christmas, however, let us rejoice. The Milltown Dam will soon be gone and the restoration of our beloved rivers will begin. Hallelujah!

When not lobbying the Montana Legislature, George Ochenski is rattling the cage of the political establishment as a political analyst for the Independent. Contact Ochenski at

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