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Meanwhile, Back at the Superfund Site…

November 11, 2010

The Washoe Stack of the Anacaonda smelter.

Last week I got to go where not many people get—or want—to go: the access-restricted cores of the Anaconda-Opportunity Superfund complex.

An engineer with the Environmental Protection Agency’s Region 8 office in Helena agreed to spend a few hours showing me around before the snow falls and covers everything up. When I showed up to meet him at the McDonald’s parking lot in Anaconda he had two more guys with him to help answer questions, one from the state Department of Environmental Quality and one from the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation. I’ve never been in one truck with so many engineers.

Under the circumstances, I asked them to show me around the places I couldn’t get to on my own, the places with no public access, the places I’d be arrested for trespassing if I just walked there. That led immediately to Exhibit A: the Anaconda smelter stack.

The stack was built by hand in 1900 out of locally fired bricks, and was used to vent all sort of badness into the atmosphere from the world’s largest copper smelter at its base. The smelter was dismantled and buried or sold for scrap in the mid-1980s, but the people of Anaconda, whose skyline and civic definition had long been dominated by the stack—at 585.5 feet, the tallest freestanding brick masonry structure in the world even today—argued to leave it standing. So ARCO, which bought the smelter from the Anaconda Company in 1977 and shut it down in 1983, donated the land to the state, which designated it a State Park. Only it’s closed, presumably permanently, to visitors. That’s because much of the site has yet to be reclaimed.

The signs at its base warn of falling brick. My tour guides told me that’s liability-driven overcaution, that the structure’s actually pretty sturdy.

The view with the stack at your back looks like this. You’re looking down, i.e. north, across Deer Lodge Valley. The Clark Fork River runs downvalley on a not-here-visible line across the top of the “Opportunity, Montana” text. For scale, that black slag mountain in the relative foreground is half a mile long. The Opportunity Ponds in the relative distance cover seven square miles.

Following the shit downhill, that’s where we went next.

Surfactant containers and fill dirt at the BP-ARCO tailings ponds.

It should be stated here that while the 5,000-acre Opportunity Ponds complex has been known both colloquially and formally by that name since the early 1900s, the site’s official nomenclature has recently been officially changed to BP-ARCO Waste Repository Site. Missoula newspapers continue to refer to “Opportunity Ponds,” as, here, a bit guiltily, have I. On one hand, I respect that the citizens of Opportunity don’t care to be saddled with the stigma that comes with being the namesake of the sprawling toxic dump next door. And I get that it’s an environmental justice issue, that what we call a thing can contribute to its burden. On the other hand, the same Anaconda Company named the ponds and the town simultaneously, and it is what it is.

One of the things it is is hard to see, at least with any perspective. Most of “it” is waste rock and smelter slurry that got funneled out to the ponds—which were originally wetlands—where it piled up over the course of 80 years into a slightly terraced topography 50 feet high. So it’s flat land, more or less. The land is organized into “cells”—A, B, C and D—that roughly stair-step downgrade across the valley toward the Clark Fork River.

The last cell of the ponds that's still bare tailings, untreated.

Let’s pause a moment to recap: The wetlands at the headwaters of Montana’s largest river were filled in and piled high with millions of tons of arsenic and cadmium and lead for the better part of a century. They’re still sitting there, and they will always sit there.

Driving in we passed one of several storage sites for fill dirt and surfactant. The fill dirt, or “donor soil,” is brought in from wherever ARCO or the state can find it, and tilled into contaminated soil, which is all of it, and with maybe some manure and/or lime as well, depending how contaminated it is. The surfactant is a gluey liquid that supposedly helps prevent the dust of thousands of acres of bare dirt from flying into the windows and lungs of Opportunity. And they’re in the process of planting the site, which is apparently the best way to keep rain from running off and to keep dust from blowing around.

Flags on stakes mark the spread-level for new treated soil over tailings. Six to 18 inches of "growth medium," depending on subsoil toxicity, seems to be the standard target depth for remediation.

It’s called treatment-in-place, and it’s all the remediation the Opportunity Ponds complex is going to get. It would cost untold billions to move it all somewhere else, and even then: where would you move it?

The planting part is kind of a big deal. Topsoil is hard to find and expensive to haul. 120 miles downstream at the Milltown Dam removal, the toxic sediments piled up behind the dam in Milltown Reservoir were dug up and trained here to the ponds, where, ARCO thought, they would make a serviceable topsoil on which to plant a vegetative cap of grass and brush. The Milltown sediments were spread on top of a portion of the ponds site last year and planted. It’s been recently acknowledged that nothing’s growing. ARCO’s apparently going to have to find another source of soil and cap the cap.

Decanting tower in lower ponds.

About the only thing vertical on the landscape was a smattering of “decanting towers.” These were concentrated in the lower sections of the ponds, portions of which are, at least in terms of elevation, more or less original wetlands. They haven’t been filled. Excess capacity, I guess. The towers have pumps to move pond water uphill to the smelter for industrial use (see the stack in the far-distance center) as they were filled in with industrial byproduct. The vertical scaffolding is so the water pump can be raised within the framework as the pond fills in and solidifies around it.

View across the interception trench toward Interstate 90 and Warm Springs Ponds.

The view at the right is instructive. This is on the ponds site. In the foreground is an “interception trench,” which captures and maybe filters ground water seeping out of the “ponds.” The muddy reddish stain is iron, I was told. The blue water immediately beyond is “wetlands.” You can see the semi on I-90. The blue water beyond that is part of Warm Springs Ponds, which is itself full of the same toxic tailings.

This is as accurate a picture of the headwaters of the Clark Fork River as you’re ever likely to see.

The official consensus seems to have somehow concluded that Opportunity Ponds, aka BP-ARCO Waste Repository, aka these wetlands, now that they’re full of toxic metals instead of ducks, drain their plume of poison away from both the river and the underlying aquifer.

That may be true. I’m no engineer. But I don’t get it.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Lily permalink
    November 12, 2010 9:48 am

    Wow, great access. This was really interesting to read. And I can see by the post heading that you’ve found another possible title for the book.

  2. May 29, 2011 8:32 am

    I’m so jealous! And thanks for the tip about the controlled access. I was just there yesterday, puzzling if I could figure out how to get up to the stack, and didn’t discover the road called “Anaconda Smelter Road” until after I was home. Was planning on possibly trying again later this summer. But if I’m going to get arrested, maybe not!

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