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A Western Town, Contaminated

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brycea | Nov 16, 2009 08:30 AM

Bryce Andrews of the Clark Fork River Coalition, reports from a Superfund Meeting at the Opportunity, Mont., Community Center

I drove in just before 7 pm, down a little spur road that headed west a few miles after Warm Springs. Ahead of me the Anaconda Stack, lit up by amber lights around its base, slipped in and out of view behind willows. Glimpsed from the corner of my eye, the faint-glowing stack looked like a plume of smoke. It towered over roadside yard-lights like the stalk of a mushroom cloud.

It’s no accident that driving to Opportunity feels setting a course for heart of something huge and awful: The area around that blithely named one-horse town is closing in on a century of use as our regional trash can.

Opportunity is steeped in the legacy of western Montana’s copper boom. I mean this literally, not figuratively. Located downwind and downstream from the Anaconda stack and smelter, Opportunity has been positively simmered in contaminants. For decades, tiny bits of lead and arsenic whooshed out of the Stack’s huge maw, rode the breeze on flakes of ash, and spiraled down in dirty flurries. Little toxic flecks adulterated Mill Creek, and then the aquifer.

You can’t see any of this in the dark. Not the bombed out creeks, the dead zones, or the massive complex of chalky, naked tailings that wraps around town on three sides. Fine by me. I didn’t come for the wasteland. I’ve seen enough of it already.

The Opportunity Community Center was crowded. The walls were made of tongue-and-groove pine, and had the sickly yellow shine that comes inevitably to old shellac. I sat on a bench with my back against the wall. Mirrors were mounted on opposing sides of the room, and when I looked into the one across from me, it held an endless multiplication of pine boards and dirty baseball caps. The effect was garish and woodsy all at once, like a casino built by loggers.

About half the crowd was from Opportunity. I recognized a few faces, and pegged a handful of others based on the scowls they were directing toward the projector screen at the front of the room.

The other half of the crowd was here on the clock. When the meeting started, they introduced themselves in turn by name, position and affiliation. For the most part, the professionals were affiliated with government agencies like the Montana Department of Environmental Quality, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the Natural Resource Damage Program.

I listened to the first speaker, a young hydrogeologist who had spent the last year of her life sampling domestic and stock wells. She knew the layout of Opportunity, and its little satellite Crackerville. Having been everywhere, through front yards and across back forties, she was familiar enough with the locals to address a few of the people in the crowd by name.

A quiet room—all eyes front. The hydrogeologist talked for a long time about how concentrations of arsenic, cadmium and lead in most of Opportunity’s wells remained below something called the “Maximum Contaminant Load.”  She projected a map onto a large screen, showing the irrigated fields and houses of Opportunity. A couple dozen little triangles were superimposed on the image. Most were green. A few were bright red. Her tone suggested that we should find this reassuring.

All told, 10% of her sampled wells exceeded the maximum allowable concentration of arsenic or one of the other usual suspects. “It’s mostly the shallow ones, she said, “and you’ve really got to seal around the top of your well stem, so surface water can’t run straight down.”

Ten percent. In the town of Opportunity, one in ten wells pumps poisoned water. I looked around the room when she said that, expecting some sort of outraged response. I thought heads would shake and questions would fly. Something should have happened, but nothing did. I looked across at an old guy who had introduced himself as an “Opportunity landowner.” He stared forward, motionless and slack-jawed, like a horse that’s been used too hard to notice when it’s spurred.

The hydrogeologist talked quickly. She jumped from one finding to the next, as though anxious to get out of the spotlight. It looked as though she would rather have chugged a gallon from one of the red triangle wells than talk like this to a packed house.

Overall, she said, the groundwater wasn’t getting any worse. The tainted wells would be capped and replaced, and their owners could drink free bottled water in the meantime.

Toward the end came this, almost as a footnote: “Now Crackerville, it’s a little more interesting. Every time we go out there and sample, we find a new area of concern.”

Bryce Andrews is the Ranchlands Program Manager for the Clark Fork Coalition, the "Voice of the River." More information can be found at www.clarkfork.org.

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