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Cleanup Begins on Montana's Clark Fork River
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Cleanup Begins on Montana's Clark Fork River

Environment

Cleanup Begins on Montana's Clark Fork River

Cleanup Begins on Montana's Clark Fork River
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Clark Fork River i

Mining pollution has left bald spots, known as "slickens," along the banks of this part of the Clark Fork River. Courtesy of Clark Fork River Technical Assistance Committee Michael Kustudia hide caption

toggle caption Michael Kustudia
Clark Fork River

Mining pollution has left bald spots, known as "slickens," along the banks of this part of the Clark Fork River. Courtesy of Clark Fork River Technical Assistance Committee

Michael Kustudia
Milltown i

This section of the Clark Fork River, in Milltown, Mont., will be resculpted after the dam in the foreground is removed. Courtesy of Clark Fork River Technical Assistance Committee Michael Kustudia hide caption

toggle caption Michael Kustudia
Milltown

This section of the Clark Fork River, in Milltown, Mont., will be resculpted after the dam in the foreground is removed. Courtesy of Clark Fork River Technical Assistance Committee

Michael Kustudia
Berkeley Pit i

Upstream from the Clark Fork River is the old mining center, Butte, Mont. This is an aerial view of one remnant of the mine, known as the Berkeley Pit, which is slowly filling up with toxic orange water. Courtesy of NASA hide caption

toggle caption
Berkeley Pit

Upstream from the Clark Fork River is the old mining center, Butte, Mont. This is an aerial view of one remnant of the mine, known as the Berkeley Pit, which is slowly filling up with toxic orange water. Courtesy of NASA

It's a delicate task, cleaning up a river. At this huge project in western Montana, backhoes and dump trucks have begun the massive task of cleaning tons of mining pollution out of the Clark Fork River. EPA project manager Russ Forba makes the cleanup sound as if it's plastic surgery.

"We have to reconstruct the floodplain," Forba says. "Put a whole new river in here, with a certain sinuosity, and that will basically look like a natural river, coming down here."

Decades of Arsenic and Copper

The project will resculpt almost one mile of the Clark Fork. But first, Forba's crew will dig up a couple million cubic yards of mud tainted with arsenic, copper and other chemicals that flowed down this river during 20th century mining operations that are now mostly gone. The mud accumulated behind a rickety old dam—and that's coming out, too.

In the college town of Missoula, below the dam, there is broad support for the project. But closer to cleanup site, in tiny Milltown, there's a surprising number of naysayers.

The folks bellied up to the bar at "Harold's Club" are a chorus of negativity, with comments like: "What's the dam hurting?" "Making a frickin' recreation park!" and "Yeah, I think the California people oughta go home!"

'Trophy homes will follow'

What do California people have to do with this?

"They want to turn the whole state of Montana into a park!" William Lovell says. Lovell grew up here. He says the project is just to please outsiders who think of Montana as nothing more than a scenic playground. Lovell is especially suspicious of Missoula, full of enviros and kayakers and, well, Californians. Once the river is restored, he says, the trophy homes will follow.

"It's spreading everywhere, man," Lovell says. "Especially in Montana. They're going to come in and buy up our trailer homes and our lots and build condominiums and like that, and—and you can't blame 'em! Hell, I want to be a millionaire, too!"

'Environmental Gentrification'

Daniel Kemmis, the former mayor of Missoula calls the reactions of those bar patrons a "marginal phenomenon." Kemmis is now a senior fellow at the Center for the Rocky Mountain West. He says there is some fear of what might be called "environmental gentrification."

"I don't mean to minimize it," Kemmis says. "It's clearly there, and it's important. And it shows up in politics in Montana and so on. But it's not like it's an open sore."

A Restoration Economy

Kemmis says the tension is natural, given the economic shift that's going on in this state. Mining and timber are fading, and being replaced by a new economy based on natural scenery. It has been dubbed the "restoration economy." And, on balance, Montanans seem to like it.

But you can't help but notice that the "restoration economy" has a certain unevenness to it. Here, about a hundred miles up the same river, Kathy Hadley shows off the bald spots along the bank.

"This is what we call 'slickens,'" Hadley says. She digs into the soil with her toe. "You'll see the green in it. That's the copper salts." Hadley points to big patches where there's no vegetation. "Nothing can grow," she says.

For 20 years, Hadley has been fighting to get this part of the river cleaned up, too. It has been declared an EPA Superfund site. But while the government has forced the mining industry to pay for restoration down by Missoula, up at this part of the river, things are still bogged down in negotiations. Hadley says that's partly because this cleanup will be more complex, but she also points out that this part of the state does not have the benefit of so many rich newcomers.

Scars of the Old Economy

"People in Deer Lodge County, in this county, are poor," Hadley says. "There's no tax base, and the health department doesn't have two full-time people. When you think about environmental justice, people think it's usually associated with race. But here, it's associated with income."

If you keep going upstream, eventually you get to the mines themselves, in Butte, Mont. At the Berkeley Pit viewing stand, a voice welcomes visitors, recounting historical details: "By the 1950s, millions of pound of ore had been extracted from the Butte hills," it says.

The Berkeley Pit is right on the edge of town. It's 1,800 feet deep, and slowly filling up with toxic, orange water. The industry has been ordered to treat the water, but there's no talk here of resculpting the natural landscape.

Even in Montana's "restoration economy," some of the old economy's scars are apparently too big to fix.

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