30 November 2007

Giving Thanks for Environmental Activists

A version of this commentary aired on KUFM, Montana Public Radio, as part of a regular series I do for the Clark Fork River Technical Assistance Committee (www.cfrtac.org).

Elk season is over. It’s time to clean and put away the rifles. The snow is calling. Purple wax on those cross country skis will be about right.

Give thanks for Pilgrims and Indians and turkeys and elk. And thank the activists that helped bring environmental remedy and restoration to the Clark Fork watershed. Without activists, Arco-British Petroleum would have held even greater sway over the Environmental Protection Agency, and Montana’s Natural Resource Damage suit against Arco-BP might have died for lack of legislative support (i.e. funding).

Instead, Montana obtained 215 million dollars nearly a decade ago as a partial settlement. If we can believe a recent Missoulian newspaper editorial, Montana and Arco-BP will soon resolve remaining claims. Now that’s a holiday present!

The money we have received has done some good. A recent Fish, Wildlife & Parks electrofishing survey of Silver Bow Creek found significant numbers of trout. Most – including a few native westslope cutthroat trout – were found near the confluence with German Gulch. A few were found closer to Butte. Good on the Montana agencies and citizen activists that helped make this possible.

Butte’s George Grant Chapter of Trout Unlimited played a critical role, working with the Butte-Anaconda Greenway Board, insisting that the recreational project include riparian and stream enhancements. Furthermore, George Grant TU’s restoration project along German Gulch Creek – a Natural Damage Program funded project – enhances the overall restoration of our Silver Bow Creek watershed. Again, thank these activists. This stuff doesn’t just happen unless a whole lot of volunteer citizens put in a whole lot of hours at meetings, in writing grants, and on managing projects.

I’m an environmental philosopher, and believe "the glass is half full and the glass is half empty.” Retired FWP fisheries biologist Wayne Hadley cautions that we should not expect too much, too soon, of Silver Bow Creek. After all, there is a tremendous amount of toxic mine waste outside of the flood plain that is not being cleaned up, and that material may re-pollute much of the creek.

We’re in this for the long haul. I don’t reasonably expect to have good fishing in Silver Bow Creek within my lifetime. If, however, my daughter doesn’t enjoy good fishing in the creek by the time she’s my age, then my ghost will be seriously pissed. We don’t have to accept environmental degradation as "the price of progress," and we can make the world a better place.

The Natural Resource Damage Program will likely sprinkle more fairy dust around the Upper Clark Fork River Basin–about 14 million dollars worth in the coming year or so. Projects include the usual Butte and Anaconda waterline work, but also: more funding for the Silver Bow Creek Greenway; a trail and outdoor education center near Deer Lodge; and restoration work for a public park on Forest Service land near Butte.

Near Missoula, the Clark Fork Coalition should receive nearly three million dollars to remove additional contaminated sediments from Milltown–an amount over and above what the EPA requires under remedy. Ideally, the agency would have made Arco-BP pay for this. Instead, we must spend precious and limited Natural Resource Damage dollars. Still, it’s money well spent. Removing additional mine waste from Silver Bow Creek improved the creek’s environmental future, and removal of additional sediments at Milltown will do the same.

It’s not all clover and roses here in upper end of the Clark Fork River superfund site.

Those contaminated sediments from Milltown? Yep, they go to the Arco-BP waste repository in Opportunity’s backyard. Milltown sediments are a drop in the bucket compared with what’s already there. Still, how happy would you be living with a backyard toxic waste repository of 160 million cubic yards, extending over an area of more than five square miles?

There are no easy answers for questions about environmental justice at Opportunity.

A group of my students in the "Politics of Technical Decisions" class have a novel approach to this problem. They plan to stage a play using techniques developed by Brazilian, Augusto Boal. His "theater of the oppressed" is a popular tool for political dissent and public education in South America and Europe (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Augusto_Boal).

The production is titled, "Too Late for Opportunity?" The short, two-act play will be staged at the Venus Rising CafĂ© in Butte, from 3 - 5 p.m., on Monday, December 10th. To help resolve problems posed in the play, audience members are invited to participate by taking the place of an actor and redefining that actor's role. We’re inviting representatives from Arco-BP and the EPA, as well as Opportunity residents and the general public.

For more news about Anaconda, Opportunity, and other Superfund issues, please check out CFRTAC’s website at hyperlink www.cfrtac.org.

From Butte to Missoula, we deserve a clean, healthy, and accessible Clark Fork River. It’s your river. Wade in, and help make the future.

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