Hot digitty dam - In Milltown, let the rivers and suds start flowing

Come Friday around at 11 a.m. the decrepit Milltown Dam will be breached, allowing the Clark Fork and Blackfoot rivers to merge and flow freely downstream for the first time in a century. For Missoula, and all of Montana, it’s time to party! This historic event will mark a milestone in restoration efforts to clean up after the now-defunct Anaconda Co. and the Butte Copper Kings who, like so many other mining moguls, took their gold and ran, giving Montana the shaft.

Back around 1983 I remember being at the table as then-Gov. Ted Schwinden addressed a room packed with citizens in Milltown. Their concern was that the water they and their families drank, bathed, washed and cooked with was found to be contaminated by heavy metals and other poisons seeping into the aquifer from the millions of tons of toxic mining and smelting sludge filling the reservoir behind the dam. Slowly but surely, relentless gravity and the water pressure of the reservoir had forced the pollutants down through the river bottom and into what was once the clean water beneath. Now, the toxic stew was coming back up to the surface, out of their taps and into their bodies.

It was a strange time back then, and one that present-day Montanans would do well not to forget. The Anaconda Co. had pretty much run the state for almost a century, owning the newspapers, openly buying legislators and having governors, senators and congressmen mewling at their feet, more than happy to perform any task to keep “the Company” happy.

Gov. Schwinden was no exception. Faced with a room of extremely nervous, agitated and scared citizens, he obviously struggled with breaking the long-established pattern of kow-towing to big business; he seemed reticent to acknowledge the failure of the regulatory agencies that were supposed to keep the citizenry safe and to blame the mining and smelting company that had poisoned the water.

All too soon this meeting, like so many others to come, broke down into presentations about concentrations of toxins and heavy metals in parts per million, parts per billion, milligrams per liter and a host of other gibberish that left citizens scratching their heads. And, of course, there were phony assurances that, despite the problems, there would be no adverse health effects.

To their credit, the angry citizens were having none of it. They knew what they wanted, which was to have their wells replaced with clean sources of water, and they wanted it as soon as humanly possible. More than once Schwinden glanced around the room, red-faced, trying to dodge the bullet that had somehow landed directly in his lap. In the end, he promised the state would look into finding new water sources, new wells would be drilled and all would be well.

Of course that governor, like so many others, was full of beans.  He had no idea of the real scope of the problem and had no intention whatsoever of discussing removal of the Milltown Dam, which was now the property of Anaconda’s successor in muscling the state’s politicians—the Montana Power Company.  

The new wells got drilled and the area residents got some clean water. But the polluted plume of groundwater continued to move down-gradient toward Missoula and, after many more years of study, even the most timid regulators had to admit that it would continue to do so until the millions of tons of toxic sediments were removed from the reservoir.

It was also about this time that the Big Scare hit. Both the Blackfoot and Clark Fork rivers had thick, frozen surfaces from the kind of below-zero winters Montana used to have, and massive ice floes had broken loose and were headed downstream toward the dam. Built at the turn of the century by Copper King William A. Clark, the ancient artifice had already suffered a number of leaks, holes and washouts to its primitive rock-filled wooden crib construction. Plus,
the whole dam was slowly moving downstream.

The thought that the ice floes would crash into the structure and finish the job in a horrific scene of mass destruction seemed all too real. The Mike Horse Dam in the headwaters of the Blackfoot River had already failed more than a decade earlier and the ensuing flood of toxic mining tailings had literally wiped out the Blackfoot’s legendary trout fishery. If the Milltown Dam failed, and the millions and millions of tons of toxic sediments were released, Missoula and everything downstream was in serious danger–and not just the fish.

As it turned out, the ice floes didn’t make it to the dam and that catastrophe was averted. But clearly, the clock had run out on the life of the Milltown Dam, and discussions turned to the previously taboo subject of its removal. The nagging question of what to do with all the toxic sediments found its answer in the federal Superfund Act, whereby the Anaconda Co., now owned by ARCO, would have to pony up the funds to remediate the past pollution.  The dam, like the entire Clark Fork River from Butte to Missoula, had been designated as the largest Superfund site in the nation, giving it a priority that would eventually lead to the extensive reclamation efforts still on-going.

Which brings us to tomorrow.  After a century of pollution and nearly a quarter century of prevarication by spineless politicians, the Milltown Dam will be breached. Hopefully, we have learned the lesson of what happens when Montana ties its future to the profit motives of large corporations–especially now, when our politicians seem intent on replacing the Copper Collar with the Coal Collar.

So party on, Missoula—and don’t forget to raise a toast to your fellow  citizens who finally forced the cleanup to fruition.

Helena’s George Ochenski rattles the cage of the political establishment as a political analyst for the Independent. Contact Ochenski at opinion@missoulanews.com.
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