The legacy of the poisoned Clark Fork 

Page 3 of 4

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.

click to enlarge Slickens are still common along the upper Clark Fork River. - PHOTO BY BRAD TYER

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.

click to enlarge PHOTO BY BRAD TYER

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.

  • Email
  • Favorite
  • Print
Today | Sat | Sun | Mon | Tue | Wed | Thu
Hump! Film Festival

Hump! Film Festival @ Roxy Theater

Fri., Oct. 20, 7:30 p.m.

All of today's events | Staff Picks

© 2017 Missoula News/Independent Publishing | Powered by Foundation