Opportunity's burden

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



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"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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