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A Big Day on the Long Haul to Publication…

September 19, 2011

Please allow me to steer your attention to the fine magazine of western environment and culture, High Country News, which today published my story on Opportunity, Montana, as the cover of its annual essays-and-books issue. The essay isn’t an excerpt from the book per se, but it gives a pretty good preview. Also, the photos are mine!

Here’s an excerpt:

I spent last summer and fall floating down the country’s largest Superfund site in a canoe. I was living in a borrowed cabin near Georgetown Lake, about 20 miles from the headwaters of Montana’s Clark Fork River. I wanted a closer look at a disaster before it was undone.

Speak the words “Montana river,” and you generate images of stone beds and trout redds, splashy creeks and browsing moose, translucent clarity and glacial cold. Montana’s rivers, any fly-fisher will tell you, are everything a real river should be.

Not the upper Clark Fork. Not yet, anyhow.

My meanderings were marked by pink golf balls and green cattle bones. The golf balls washed into the river from Anaconda’s Old Works golf course — a pretty green bandage stuck on part of the town’s razed smelter complex — via Warm Springs Creek. Or they were shanked from the aspirationally named Anaconda Country Club, in the rural burb of Opportunity, into Mill Creek. You see them nestled in the brown sand of shallow bars miles downstream, sunlit dimples winking under the water.

The cattle bones are covered in blue-green copper sulfate. I find them scattered by coyotes and lying in broad scabby swatches of riverbank called slickens, dead zones where flood-borne mine tailings from the old copper boomtown of Butte, upstream, have settled in deep drifts and choked the roots of the few silvery sun-bleached ghost willows still standing. Slicken soil is sulfurous gray and scummy, frosted with pimply eruptions of mineral salts — copper, arsenic, zinc, cadmium — that tinge the dead zone with rimes of green, blue and white. It’s not your typically scenic canoeing view. The salts leach out of the wet soil to coat the bones. I keep a cardboard box full of them in my garage, on a shelf where the dogs can’t reach them.

The state of Montana and the Environmental Protection Agency will spend the next few years making the slickens go away. From the Warm Springs tailings ponds across Interstate 90 from Opportunity down to the prison town of Deer Lodge — the same 40-odd-mile stretch I’ve spent the last year paddling — contractors will cut roads through mostly private ranchland to reach the river, divert its water into a ditch or pipe, then dig out the banks and bed to depths of five, 10 or 15 feet, and haul it away. They’ll re-grade the banks with “donor soil” and route a new channel, using dirt wrapped in tubes made of coconut matting imported from Sri Lanka. Then the water will be steered back in.

The green bones and the soils that stain them will be gone. Trout and golf balls will return.

When I wasn’t paddling one Superfund site, I was walking another one, part of the same puzzle, about seven miles up Warm Springs Creek from the river, through a succession of former copper smelter sites studding the hills flanking Anaconda’s northern exposure. They’re gorgeous, especially in fall, when the slopes are painted with saffron outbursts of stunted aspen and streaked rusty red with relic brick.

Across the valley to the south is the rise where the Anaconda Company’s last smelter, the Washoe, sat from 1919 to 1980. Its smokestack dusted the Deer Lodge Valley with tons of arsenic, every day. There’s no hiking on that side, even though the site is technically a state park. It was handed off to the state in 1986, when proud locals balked at plans to tear the 585-and-a-half-foot-tall Washoe Stack down. Poisoned soils and the prospect of bricks falling from the sky create untenable liability. The public can stare at the eminence through a pole-mounted binocular a mile away, installed on a plaza modeling the stack’s massive footprint.

When the EPA took me up the smelter hill on a media tour last year, we parked right under the stack. They made me wear a hardhat. Nobody explained how a hardhat was supposed to help if a brick fell 58 stories onto my head.

The entire story is available here.

If you’re not a subscriber, you can get a free 30-day trial subscription here.

 

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