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

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On Dec. 16 last year, I was one of a couple hundred history-curious Missoulians who walked out onto a snow-covered bluff above the old Milltown Dam abutment to see something you almost never get to see: a river tangibly restored. Below us, the Clark Fork began to spill down its reconstructed streambed, joining the also-undammed Blackfoot River in free flow for the first time since the dam was built in 1908. We took pictures, though the visuals weren't dramatic. A biblical wall of water crashing down the valley would have looked much cooler.

At first, as earthmovers upstream breached the embankment that kept the river in its temporary bypass, the restoring confluence was just a trickle you could step across -- not that anyone was allowed down there to do that. By the end of the day, it had washed out its mouth and was flowing full-bore in its new custom-made bed. Now it's a river. Parks are planned, and the banks have been planted, but the confluence won't be open to through-canoeists for another couple of years.

Two days before this, I'd gone to Anaconda for a town-hall meeting with the EPA. It was 20 degrees and blowing snow that night, and I was one of about 30 people sitting on benches in the main courtroom of the county courthouse. EPA's Charlie Coleman was there, along with a representative of the Clark Fork River Technical Assistance Committee. ARCO was not. The update concerned the Opportunity Ponds, a seven-square-mile hump of mine tailings and smelter waste at its namesake community's doorstep.

The first speaker, consultant Gunnar Emilsson, referred repeatedly to "the Opportunity Ponds," until a man in back raised his hand and asked if Emilsson was aware that the name of the site had been changed. Some Opportunity residents would just as soon disclaim naming rights to the poisoned perpetuity next door. They had successfully petitioned to change the site's name to better reflect its management and function. It was one of Opportunity's few victories.

Emilsson didn't know what the man was talking about.

"What's it called now?"

"BP-ARCO Waste Repository."

"OK," Emilsson said. "Well, the site's official name is Opportunity Ponds, as reflected in the Record of Decision" -- the EPA's guiding document for site management -- "but you can call it whatever you want."

Emilsson stumbled over the new name two or three times and then reverted to "Opportunity Ponds." Everybody does, even the Missoula newspapers. I do, too. The landscape has already been stripped of integrity and life. I don't want to see it lose what's left of its poetry as well.

BP-ARCO had been faced with two concurrently pressing problems. First, the company needed someplace to remove the Milltown sediment to. And upstream at Opportunity, it needed topsoil to spread across thousands of acres of dust-whipped tailings ponds. ARCO proposed that the Milltown sediments, dried out and perhaps tilled with lime or manure, might work to cap at least part of the ponds with vegetative, soil-holding growth, solving both problems.The bad news, formally admitted at the Anaconda town-hall meeting, is that it didn't work. The Milltown waste was carefully shipped and prepped and spread and planted on a portion of Opportunity's ponds, but nothing would grow on it. We saw slides of shriveled roots.Opportunity never wanted the Milltown waste in the first place. When the Milltown dam came down and the trains started rumbling the dredge toward Opportunity, resident Connie Daniels told reporters, "This is a good thing, but some are paying the costs. We're sacrificing for everyone else." Opportunity had been assured that the toxic sediments were nothing to worry about. It had repeatedly been reported that the Milltown sediments -- a tiny fraction of the waste that had already transformed Opportunity's ponds into low plateaus -- were in any case less toxic than what was already there.

That also turned out to be false. Dennis Neumann, a Bozeman-based reclamation specialist and EPA adviser, informed the crowd that contrary to projections, tests showed that the new cap of Milltown dirt is up to five times more toxic than the toxic dirt it covers. And since the entire purpose of the project was to keep unsecured toxic dust from flying across the community's windowsills, importing the Milltown sediments had only made the problem worse.

A woman up front raised her hand and said, "Everybody here is feeling really betrayed. You guys have had information that we didn't have."

Opportunity's residents seemed to have a hard time grasping the full blatancy of what they had just been told. One man at the meeting insisted that the Milltown waste be "sent back to Missoula" since it hadn't worked as advertised. Another asked, "Any more secret stuff we ought to know about?" The crowd laughed. Coleman, the EPA's well-liked and much-abused spokesman for the Opportunity situation, said, "We are learning new stuff all the time."

It's a fact worth noting, though I'd never heard it mentioned before that meeting, that the Milltown sediments were never studied for their suitability as topsoil in Opportunity. Why wouldn't you study that? Because it didn't matter. The Milltown sediments weren't imported to Opportunity to cap the ponds. The Milltown sediments were imported because ARCO needed someplace to dump them. If they somehow worked as soil, too, that'd be two birds killed with one stone and topped with cream gravy as far as ARCO was concerned. Otherwise, well, the waste had to go somewhere. Waste always does.

EPA exercises approval and oversight of ARCO's remediation responsibility. At that Dec. 14 meeting, EPA said ARCO had until spring to come up with a viable plan for providing 6 to 18 inches of functional, growable soil on top of Opportunity's Milltown mess. Come May, EPA extended the deadline. ARCO's dilemma, EPA had been persuaded, is the kind of thing that requires further study.

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