Opportunity's burden

Missoula cheered when cleanup began on the Clark Fork, but someone still has to take the waste



At the turn of the 19th century, Montana exploited the richest copper deposits in the world, fueling the electric growth of 20th century America and building some of the nation's most outlandish fortunes. The toxic by-product of those fortunes—what didn't spill into the Clark Fork—was dumped in a town named Opportunity.

In the 21st century, Montana's draw is no longer metal but landscape. To match reality to myth, affluent exurbanites and well-meaning environmentalists are trying to restore the Clark Fork to its "natural state." In the process, millions of tons of toxic soils are being removed and dumpedo—nce again—in Opportunity.

In his new book, Opportunity, Montana: Big Copper, Bad Water, and the Burial of an American Landscape, former Independent editor Brad Tyer investigates the town's history and wrestles with questions of environmental injustice and the ethics of burdening one community with an entire region's waste. The following excerpt, published with permission from Beacon Press, looks at Opportunity today, and how some residents feel about their downstream neighbors in Missoula.


On November 8, 2011, Connie Ternes-Daniels totaled her Buick Rendezvous on a bull moose. That's how she knows that things in Opportunity, slowly but surely, are getting better. She tells me about it over lunch at Donivan's Family Dining in Anaconda. Connie orders a salad. I have the Miner Burger–a cheeseburger with a slice of ham on top. Donivan's also features an "Opportunity Omelet" on its all-day breakfast menu, filled with sausage and drenched in cream gravy. Connie says she's never tried it.


Connie, the Anaconda-Deer Lodge County planning director, was driving east on Montana Scenic Highway 1, headed from a commissioners' meeting in Anaconda to the 30-acre homestead she shares with her husband in Opportunity. The meeting had ended at 7 p.m. and the road had already grown dark. She had just passed the turnoff to Mill Creek Road, but not yet reached the railroad tracks, when the moose materialized out of nowhere. She was traveling about 65 miles per hour in the 70 mph zone and yanked the steering wheel trying to avoid the animal. The Buick's passenger side plowed into it, knocking it dead into the ditch between the eastbound and westbound lanes. The impact shattered her windshield, but Connie wasn't hurt. The son of Anaconda's sole auto dealer and his girlfriend were driving behind her, thinking about passing, when they saw Connie swerve. They let her wait with them in their truck, out of the cold, while her husband came to pick her up.

A week later, another local resident ran into an elk on the road, and several weeks after that a pilot flying into nearby Bowman Field radioed in a moose browsing in the middle of his runway.

Connie felt terrible about killing the moose.

"It's sort of interesting that all of the remediation has really enhanced wildlife," she tells me. "I just don't want to run into them."

Connie was born in the Deer Lodge Valley, and left to attend Montana State University in Bozeman and then Montana Tech in Butte before going to graduate school at the University of Montana in Missoula. She's lived in Opportunity since 1982, when her husband–an Opportunity native and an electrical engineer on smelter hill when it closed down in 1980–inherited property from his grandfather, who had purchased one of the community's original 10-acre tracts from the Anaconda Company's Deer Lodge Valley Farms development arm. Now they operate a small hobby farm, some cows and horses and hay, and Connie raises miniature horses.

  • Photo by Cathrine L. Walters

"There's always been agricultural use in Opportunity," she tells me. "That was the whole purpose of it from the beginning. It was to show that you could have little agricultural operations under the plume of the big stack."

You could and you couldn't. The local rumor is that the Anaconda Company raised livestock on the upwind side of Smelter Hill, importing healthy animals to Opportunity fairs for show. Now that the stack produces no plume, Connie hasn't noticed any problem.

Gold, her palomino Tennessee Walking Horse, is 34 years old. "He eats the grass and drinks the water. My vet says he's one of the oldest horses he's ever seen, and the horse has lived in Opportunity since he was nine years old"–that was seven years after the smelter shut down.

Which is not to say that Connie thinks everything is peaches and cream in Opportunity. She knows better. She served two terms on the county commission before going to work for U.S. Sen. Jon Tester as his Butte field director. She left that job to come work for Becky Guay as the county's planning director.

"Jon's state director offered me more money to stay. I took a pay cut from what I was making to come over here. I like projects, and I like being able to say, 'Yeah, see what you can do when you work together?'"

She knows what it's like when you don't. Connie was on the county commission on May 5, 2003, when Butte's Montana Standard announced that Sen. Max Baucus wanted to send Milltown's toxic lakebed to Opportunity.

Connie read about Baucus' proposal in the newspaper like everyone else.

"There wasn't a discussion here about that. It was announced in the newspaper and there was no discussion with any public official at the time. We read about it. I was irate about it. I have no proof, but I have to believe that Dennis Washington had a discussion with Sen. Baucus and said, 'This means jobs.'" Jobs, that is, for Washington's Montana Rail Link, which would ship the wastes to Opportunity.

"I firmly believe that that decision was a political decision that influenced the EPA," Connie says.

To add insult to injury, two years later Baucus announced that he had secured a $5 million congressional appropriation to help redevelop the Superfund-affected communities with parks and trail systems. This time, Connie got the news directly from Baucus' state director, Jim Foley.

"I'll never forget that call," Connie told me. "He said, 'Max has got $5 million for redevelopment. Four point eight million is going to go to Missoula and 200,000 is going to go to you.' I think my statement was, 'Over my dead body.' I was incensed. We have had to scrap and fight for every little pittance. What the hell are we going to do with that? I mean seriously?"

Ultimately Connie fought and scrapped and got the appropriation halved between Missoula and Anaconda-Deer Lodge County; $1.3 million went to remediation and redevelopment of Opportunity's Beaver Dam Park.

Workers haul waste in Opportunity. - PHOTO BY CATHRINE L. WALTERS
  • Photo by Cathrine L. Walters
  • Workers haul waste in Opportunity.

Beaver Dam Park is named for the fenced-off Beaver Dam School. The Beaver Dam School itself is named for the valley's once prodigious beavers. The water-slowing dams they built meant that more mine tailings settled out here, on the valley floor, than anywhere else in the watershed.

Connie is happy about the park. She fought for years to get it. It's something. If nothing else, it cleaned up a contaminated and blighted block. "The fact remains, if it wasn't used as a school or park ground, it would have reverted back to Atlantic Richfield. There are lots of reversionary clauses on a lot of company ground. If it wasn't used for its original intention, then it would revert back."

Even once she secured the money for the park, she had to fight to get the property's soil tested before construction began. EPA and ARCO were willing to presume the ground was nontoxic enough for Opportunity's children. It wasn't. Contractors conducted a removal action—stripping contaminated soil and replacing it with clean donor soil—before work could begin.

Some of the donor soil came from the Stewart Street "borrow area" on the other side of the interstate, across from Opportunity, but there's not much soil left there.

Nine months after EPA's initial deadline, EPA and ARCO finally announced a plan to cap the Milltown section of the Opportunity Ponds. The compromise calls for 12 inches of new "vegetative growth medium"—topsoil, that is—on top of the Milltown sediments. The county had wanted 18 inches. The modern national standard for reclaimed mining sites is three to four feet. If forced to find more dirt, ARCO publicly threatened, the company would dig up the grassy, tree-crowded strip of buffer that partially obscures the treeless ponds from Opportunity's view. It's company property, after all.

In short, ARCO, with EPA approval, is digging up dirty dirt, diluting it, calling it clean dirt, and mixing it into more dirty dirt to dilute that. Require anything more thorough and the company stands ready to cannibalize this "garden community" of a company town for dump cover. It boggles Connie's mind.


Connie says "anyway" a lot, usually as a way to trail a thought off, sometimes apologetically, as if she's gone on too long. It's an enormously confusing patchwork of projects to keep track of, and she has developed pet peeves, but she doesn't want to dwell on her frustrations.

"I don't think running around screaming about 'it's contaminated' and blah blah, and going on about every negative thing under the sun is ever going to get you out of it," she says. "I would rather focus my personal energies, and my professional energies, on trying to do something constructive and positive to make some sort of an impact to change things to some degree, to the best of our abilities."

The return of wildlife, evidenced by the tracks, is a positive sign for Opportunity. - PHOTO BY CHAD HARDER
  • Photo by Chad Harder
  • The return of wildlife, evidenced by the tracks, is a positive sign for Opportunity.

What she wants to change is what Opportunity has already become: a ghost town whose ghosts haven't left yet. She is encouraged by the new START–Sanction, Treatment, Assessment, Revocation and Transition—adult–correctional facility recently constructed just across Highway 48 from the ponds, and the Anaconda credit union's new office in the old company train yard, and the newish $200 million NorthWestern Energy power plant and transfer station just up the Mill Creek Road, each of which required pre-construction soil remediation. But she knows that's not enough. Neither is the park.

"The park is wonderful, it's a great little thing, but really, for this community to recover, it needs a lot more. I think you need to put something back here. People still live here, there's still businesses here, so what can we do to help them? I've lived here my entire life and I can do things every single season of the year. I was out cross-country skiing yesterday, I horseback ride in the summer, you can go to Georgetown Lake. There needs to be some investment back in it to help these areas recover. I think it's only fair."

Connie is one of the few people I've talked to who seems comfortable talking about Opportunity in terms of bald fairness. It is conceivably logical to dump an entire river restoration's waste at an already dumped-upon site, but is it fair?

Is it fair that the EPA's national safety standard for arsenic in soil is 150 ppm, while the standard applied in Anaconda and Opportunity is 250 ppm? Is it fair that ARCO's thousands of acres of dumpsite are taxed as agricultural land, the state's lowest tax bracket? Is it fair that in calculating the resources lost to the state through a century's worth of mining and mining waste, the state Natural Resource Damage Program discounted Anaconda-Deer Lodge County and the Opportunity Ponds entirely, never to be compensated for? The place was too fucked-up to make amends. Connie has tried to find out who made that decision, but no one will say.

Is it fair that Missoula gets it river cleaned up at Opportunity's expense?

"Do you think for one second that Missoula would take one drop of contaminated soil from this area down there?" Connie asks me. "Absolutely not." She's finished her salad, and periodically checks her watch. Her mother has been ill, and she's expecting an update from her brother. I've told her that I've felt almost guilty, as a Missoulian, at the way Opportunity has been steamrolled, the way it's been taken out of the equation.

"Don't think we haven't noticed," she says. "It's really hard for a little town like this with pretty limited resources to fight this. It is a community. It's a great little community. It has survived the smelter closure. It has survived all these things. I don't have any regrets. I don't want the legacy of this community to be the waste repository of the Clark Fork, and that's it. I live here. I don't have any plans on moving. Maybe that's part of our generational attachment here. Our son is fourth generation on his [father's] side of the family, and I'm second. I like Missoula, but I'm not moving down there."


There's a voice that says: So what? Who cares? A little out-of-the-way town got shat upon. Opportunity's fate is logical, politically convenient and advantageous to several generations of billionaires. The world has bigger problems. Massacres, genocides and epidemics. Collapsing economies and murderous fundamentalisms. East European sex slavery and Mexican drug violence. China rises and America flails. The oil is running out. The sun will explode. So what if Opportunity got thrown under the bus. Besides, big good did come of it. Industry, wealth and convenience, lives extended and improved by mineral-aided comfort, communication and speed. There are harsher fates afoot in the world than a quiet life in Opportunity, worrying, or not, about the dust in your lungs and the dirt in your yard and the water in your well. Where's the crime, right?

As crimes go, the cleanup of the Clark Fork, the failure to fix Anaconda, and the sacrifice of Opportunity belong firmly in the category of First World Problems. I remember describing the story to a fellow journalist, an opposition reporter in Russia, a woman whose closest colleagues had been murdered for speaking truth to power. She looked at me for a long time, trying to gauge if I was serious. When she realized I was, she said, of my country, "You are so far ahead of us."

Is it really an injustice? Does an injustice require someone to blame? Who do we blame for Opportunity? The mining company that industrialized a nation and collaterally despoiled a landscape, or the state of Montana that rolled over for it? Blame ARCO, which has done almost nothing to the site but spend money, however variably effective? Do we acknowledge that the residents of Opportunity are fully accessory to the crime? Men who raised families in Opportunity worked on the smelter in Anaconda. They produced the copper and they produced the poison. They drove company trucks to tailings dumps and poached the stuff to fill low spots in their yards and muddy driveways. Theirs was no paradise lost.

Maybe Opportunity is just a cost of doing business. Something we had to do. Something we chose to do and wouldn't, on balance, choose to undo.

  • Photo by Chad Harder

The concept of necessary sacrifice strikes at the core of the deal that modern America–and the increasingly modern world–has struck with itself: we'll write this one off, and we'll move along, not looking back. It's the deal that meat-eaters make with themselves even after they've toured the abattoir. It's the deal that dedicated smokers make even after the cancer has been diagnosed. It's the deal that love-it-or-leave-it patriots make to embrace American exceptionalism without regard to the global sweatshop that supports it. It's the deal copper king William A. Clark struck when he conflated personal profit with American dominion and left future generations to fend for themselves.

It's self-imposed blindness, failure to recognize, the discomfort of acknowledgment, that's erasing Opportunity. EPA, the state Department of Environmental Quality and the Clark Fork Coalition have all published maps of the Superfund stretch from Butte to Missoula. Not one of them marks Opportunity.

The country's largest Superfund site proffers no shortage of hooks upon which to hang complaints. Industry has too little motivation to do the right thing, and too much power to be forced to. Cleanup of the watershed has been enacted out of any logical order, downstream first, exhibiting political favoritism toward the already relatively powerful. It's taking entirely too long: Three decades in, Butte doesn't even have an encompassing Record of Decision governing the work still to be done. And if you believe cleanup consultant Jim Kiupers and others, even the revised remedies in Anaconda are inadequate. Nothing has been done to prepare for the day when the Opportunity Ponds turn acid and start pumping heavy metals into the river, potentially undoing hundreds of millions of dollars' worth of restoration already accomplished.

Opportunity is a sacrificial landscape that allowed America to become what it is, and that is now enabling the restoration of a river and the betterment of Missoula. The Clark Fork's total restoration bill will come in around $1.3 billion–a dollar for every man, woman and child in China. Opportunity got 0.01 percent of that–$1.3 million–—for a mothballed schoolhouse in a token park. Residential Opportunity will never not be next door to 4,000 acres of tailings piles.

Waste doesn't just disappear. Excepting an eruption of the Yellowstone caldera that would vaporize much of the Rocky Mountain West, it cannot be made to go away.

We carry our disappointments, the failures we've inherited, with us. We are uneasy with those we owe, so we look away. Better to just bury the debt under four feet of clean, fenced-off soil and walk away. You can't save everything.

Yet we owe Opportunity something. You could argue we owe Opportunity everything. The least a beneficiary can do, and more than we've done, is say thanks.

Brad Tyer will read from Opportunity, Montana: Big Copper, Bad Water, and the Burial of an American Landscape at Shakespeare & Co., 103 S. Third Street W., Tuesday, April 2, at 7 p.m.


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