Remediating a Superfund sacrifice zone on Montana's Clark Fork river

  • The Anaconda Stack, at 585 feet tall, dominates the landscape around Anaconda, Montana.

    David Vernon
  • Anaconda, Montana, looking south from the Old Works smelter site across the Old Works golf course, with its repurposed black smelter slag in the sand traps, toward the Anaconda smelter stack on the horizon.

    (c) Brad Tyer
  • A cattle bone stained blue-green with copper sulfate leached from the soil of a riverbank slicken on Dry Cottonwood Creek Ranch, near Galen, Montana.

    (c) Brad Tyer
  • Courtesy Clark Fork Coalition
  • Riverbank slicken contaminated with heavy metal sediments flooded downstream from Butte on the Clark Fork near Deer Lodge, Montana.

    (c) Brad Tyer
  • Montana Department of Environmental Quality crews reconstruct Clark Fork tributary Silver Bow Creek in Durant Canyon, between Butte and Opportunity, in September 2010.

    (c) Brad Tyer
  • The view facing north from Stewart Street in Opportunity, Montana. The Clark Fork River flows into Lake Pend Oreille in Idaho and then into the Columbia River, which flows into the Pacific.

    (c) Brad Tyer
 

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 Montana's Clark Fork River. I wanted a closer look at a disaster before it was undone.

Speak the words "Montana river," and you generate images of stone beds and trout redds, splashy creeks and browsing moose, translucent clarity and glacial cold. 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.

The state of Montana and the Environmental Protection Agency will spend the next few years making the slickens go away. From the Warm Springs tailings ponds across Interstate 90 from Opportunity down to the prison town of Deer Lodge -- the same 40-odd-mile stretch I've spent the last year paddling -- 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 0.01 percent of that, $1.3 million, for a park.

Opportunity can't get out of Act II.