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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I met George Niland at the 24-hour Copper Bowl Cafe and Lanes in Anaconda. That's about five miles up the road from Opportunity, past the mile-and-a-half-long flat-topped pyramid of the Anaconda Tailings Pond and the half-mile-long, 25-million-ton black slag heap and the decommissioned stack that loom over this stretch of Montana Scenic Route 1. There's no commercial establishment in Opportunity where we could meet.

Niland is a rough-looking character with a bit of the hangdog about him. This afternoon he looked a little like an inland pirate, with his ragged Fu Manchu mustache and green Carhartt overshirt, a camo-patterned doo-rag clinging to his head. He looked at me over rectangular-framed glasses and refrained from smoking and drank cup after cup of black coffee for two hours while we talked. I tried to match him cup for cup. When we parted company, I was shaking.

He was born in Anaconda's hospital and raised in Opportunity, in the house on two acres that his mother, 81 and healthy when he and I spoke, purchased in the early 1950s for $2,000. As a younger man, he worked on the railroad and as a guard at the Anaconda smelter. Now he's on disability and repairs computers as a hobby. He's got three children and six grandchildren scattered in Great Falls, Anaconda and Bozeman. A brother-in-law works for Jordan Contracting in Anaconda, driving trucks across the ponds. Niland says he'd leave Opportunity if it weren't for his mother, but she's not going anywhere.

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.

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 Association, 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."

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