Publisher: Beacon Press
Publication date: 3/26/2013
Avid canoeist and journalist Brad Tyer joined a gathering of people who walked onto a snowy bluff above the old Milltown Dam near Missoula, Montana to witness the successful restoration of a contaminated river in December 2011.
Eight years earlier, the Environmental Protection Agency had approved a plan to remove 3 million tons of contaminated sediment from the reservoir bed. Copper, arsenic, cadmium, lead and toxic heavy metals in the sediments threatened to seep into area wells and Atlantic Richfield Company (ARCO) needed somewhere to dump them.
Tyer writes about the Clark Fork Superfund cleanup in Opportunity, Montana: Big Copper, Bad Water and the Burial of an American Landscape. The book reads cohesively like a bound set of stories part mining history, part canoe memoir, part protest song.
“One of those stories is about Opportunity. It’s also about a wastewater engineer and his son, a mineral and its mess, and the connections forged by water. It’s a buried history of Americans’ attachment to progress, and estrangement from consequence. The only way to read it is through a lens made of metal.”
An émigré from Texas, Tyer took a job editing the weekly Missoula Independent. He covered the restoration of the 120-mile river and saw firsthand how cleanup plans had disadvantaged the small community of Opportunity. The sediments were certainly not welcome elsewhere.
Tyer’s narrative never labels the injustice delivered upon Opportunity and mostly attempts to deconstruct Montana and its contradictions.
“Radicalism at either end tends to make for crappy writing. I tend not to trust extremists and ideologues. On a river, you can’t afford to hug strictly the right or left bank and still hope to arrive downstream.”
Tyer questions whether the story of Opportunity warranted telling and suggests the rural outpost of 500 near the town of Anaconda wasn’t all that impressive. He admits that the river restoration project put people to work and repairing damage done in the past seemed like an admirable plan.
Tyer also speculates why a comprehensive health survey was never done on the community since the transport of contaminated sediments to the ponds. He is quite philosophical.
“Opportunity was born so that Anaconda could live, and now it’s dying for Missoula’s sake. Every success requires a sacrifice. The death of Opportunity is Missoula’s cost of living.”
The Anaconda Copper Company had dominated Montana’s copper history since the early 20th century and would plague the state with the largest “Superfund footprint” in the nation.
ARCO scrambled to mitigate its regrettable decision to buy the company in 1977. Suspending operations because a drop in the price of copper, ARCO would become liable for the costs of cleanup and secretly closed a deal with Envirocon to dam and dredge the reservoir and deliver the waste upstream to Opportunity’s already compromised wetland ponds.
“It’s a common story in Montana, one of those American states that exert a magnetism, and inspire a loyalty far out of proportion to any sober appraisal. People move to places like Houston to make money. Once they’ve made it, if they have any sense, they retire to places like Montana. They are not drawn by Superfund sites.”
Opportunity, Montana by Brad Tyer is a worthwhile read for a canoeist/journalist’s take of the community sacrificed for the remediation, restoration and redevelopment of the Clark Fork River.
Category: Nonfiction, Conservation