Cleanup Begins on Montana's Clark Fork River In western Montana, near Missoula, the EPA is cleaning tons of mining pollution out of the Clark Fork River. Environmentalists are thrilled, but some locals oppose the project.

Cleanup Begins on Montana's Clark Fork River

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In western Montana, near Missoula, work has begun on a huge project to clean tons of mining pollution out of the Clark Fork River. Environmentalists are thrilled, but some locals wonder why there is so much interest in restoring that particular portion of the river.

NPR's Martin Kaste reports

MARTIN KASTE: It's a delicate task, cleaning up a river. Despite all the backhoes and dump trucks here, EPA project manager Russ Forba makes the sound more like plastic surgery.

Mr. RUSS FORBA (Project Manager, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency): We have to reconstruct the floodplain. Put a whole new river in here, with a certain sinuosity, and that will basically look like a natural river, coming down here.

KASTE: They're planning to resculpt almost a mile of the Clark Fork. But first, they'll dig up a couple million cubic yards of mud tainted with arsenic, copper and other chemicals that came down this river during the 20th century from mining operations that are now mostly gone. It all accumulated behind a rickety old dam, and that's coming out, too.

This project has broad support in Missoula, the college town below the dam. But closer to the cleanup site, in tiny Milltown, there's a surprising number of naysayers. The folks bellied up to the bar here at Harold's Club are a chorus of negativity.

Unidentified Man#1: What's the dam hurting?

Unidentified Woman#1: Making a freaking recreation park.

Unidentified Man#2: Yeah, I think the California people ought to go home.

KASTE: California people? What do they have to do with this?

Mr. WILLIAM LOVELL: They want to turn the whole state of Montana into a park.

KASTE: William Lovell grew up here. He says the dam is being removed just to please outsiders who think of Montana as nothing more than a scenic natural playground. Lovell's especially suspicious of Missoula, full of enviros and kayakers and, well, Californians. He says, once the river is restored, the trophy homes will follow.

Mr. LOVELL: It's spreading everywhere, man, especially in Montana. They're going to come in and buy up our trailer homes and our lots, and they're going to make condominiums out of it, like that. Well, you can't blame them. Hell, I want to be a millionaire, too, you know.

KASTE: Daniel Kemmis is former mayor of Missoula and now a senior fellow at the Center for the Rocky Mountain West. He says there is some fear in the community of what might be called environmental gentrification.

Mr. DANIEL KEMMIS (Senior Fellow, Center for the Rocky Mountain West): Let's say that what you encountered at the bar out there is a marginal phenomenon.

KASTE: He says the tension is natural, given the kind of economic shift that's going on in the state. Mining and timber are fading. And they're being replaced by a new kind of economy based on natural scenery. It's been dubbed the restoration economy. And, on balance, Montanans seem to like it.

Mr. KEMMIS: I don't mean to minimize it. It's clearly there, and it's important. And it shows up in politics in Montana, but it's not like it's an open sore.

KASTE: Still, you can't help but notice that the restoration economy has a certain unevenness to it. Kathy Hadley lives about 100 miles up the same river. She demonstrates the effects of mining pollution on the local flood plane.

Ms. KATHY HADLEY (Executive Director, National Center for Appropriate Technology): This is what they call slickens.

KASTE: Slickens?

Ms. HADLEY: Yeah, it's a cool word, isn't it? Slickens.

KASTE: She digs into the soil with her toe.

Ms. HADLEY: You'll see the green in it. That's the copper salts.

KASTE: It is green.

Ms. HADLEY: Can you see?

KASTE: Yeah, it's sort of the copper patina you see on…

Ms. HADLEY: Yeah. And when you look out across from where we are we see big patches of no vegetation and nothing can grow.

KASTE: 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 here 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.

Ms. HADLEY: People in Deer Lodge County, in this county, they're poor. There's no tax base. And, you know, the Health Department has not even two full-time people. When you think about environmental justice, people usually think that's associated with race. But here, it's associated with income.

KASTE: As you keep going upstream, you eventually get to the mines themselves in Butte.

Unidentified Woman #2: Hello, and welcome to the Berkeley Pit viewing stands. By the 1950s, millions of pounds of ore had been extracted from the Butte hills.

KASTE: The Berkeley Pit, right on the edge of town, is 1,800 feet deep, and it's slowly filling up with toxic orange water. The industry has been ordered to treat the water, but there is no talk of resculpting the natural landscape here. Montana may be embracing a restoration economy, but some of the old economy's scars are apparently too big to fix.

Martin Kaste, NPR News.

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