02 April 2008

Opportunity, Respect, and Environmental Justice

A recent article by Missoulian newspaperman John Cramer about the end of Milltown Dam celebrated an important moment in the environmental restoration of the Upper Clark Fork River watershed. The century old dam just upstream of Missoula blocked bulltrout and other fish migrations, and by trapping about 6 million cubic yards of mine waste it constituted a serious human and environmental health threat. Dam removal is just one part of the $120 million Superfund remedy, with much of the cost going to haul about 2.2 million cubic yards of contaminated sediments away while stabilizing the rest in place.

Here's a historic photo of the dam, from its glory days generating electricity for the Anaconda Copper Mining Company's mill (used to make mine timbers etc) at Bonner (photo from Montana Environmental Information Center):

And here's a more recent photo (Clark Fork River Technical Assistance Committee):

Yes, the dam had to go, and it's a good thing to clean up the mine waste.

Unfortunately, Cramer’s article also showed callous disregard for the residents of the town of Opportunity. Forty-five railcars per day of mine tailings from Milltown are being moved upstream and are being dumped on the Arco-British Petroleum waste repository in town of Opportunity’s backyard. They are not, as Cramer stated, “being deposited … where the pollution originated.” That would be the Butte hill and the Berkeley Pit, after all.

As a source quoted in the article and speaking of Milltown said, “I don’t think you should keep a Superfund site in your backyard.” In the name of justice, why is it any more right to dump these tailings in Opportunity residents’ backyard rather than in Missoulians’ backyard?

Here's a photo by Todd Trigsted of the Arco-British Petroleum repository. It's a nasty wasteland of more than 5 square miles:

Similar to Cramer’s piece, a recent article in the Missoula-based Clark Fork Coalition’s newsletter characterized the Milltown waste as "metals-soaked muck the EPA has targeted for removal," stating, “the floodplain [near Milltown] isn’t exactly the ideal location for building a waste repository to hold arsenic- and copper-soaked sediments.”

But by moving more mine waste to the Arco-BP dump near Opportunity, we are simply creating a problem for future generations. This dump is located on the broad valley at the Clark Fork River headwaters where it will pose a perpetual threat. A more ideal solution – though one the EPA refused to consider – would be to dump the mine waste into the Berkeley Pit.

There is hope that the Milltown waste will be somewhat cleaner than the current repository waste, and therefore able to support vegetation. That would help with the dust storms that blow off the Arco-British Petroleum waste repository, plaguing the citizens of Opportunity (George Niland/Clark Fork Watershed Education Program photo):

Opportunity is a nice little town. Tidy houses, green lawns, and good people that deserve better.


More information:

Opportunity Citizens Protection Association blog by George Niland: http://opportunitycpa.blogspot.com/

On Milltown, see http://cfrtac.org

John Cramer, "Milltown Dam comes down," Montana Standard 29March08: http://www.mtstandard.com/articles/2008/03/29/state/hjjbjghajjhajd.txt


Nick said...

As one more likely to have educated opinions thank I, what is a equitable and sensible solution for relocation of mining wastes? Thanks.


Pat Munday said...

Nick, I can't speak for the citizens of Opportunity or know the "best" solution (since that entails political as well as technical realities), but I do have an informed opinion.

Priority one, as expressed by Opportunity residents, is a guaranteed clean source of potable water. Residents currently rely on wells, and test wells along the Arco-British Petroleum ponds have shown increased arsenic levels. When this happened at Milltown, EPA/Arco-BP replaced their wells with a water system.

Priority two -- and very long term -- is getting rid of the Arco-BP waste repository. It simply should not be there. The EPA/Arco-BP plan is to put down some sort of soil cover that will grow grass, and to maintain it perpetually. Presumably, the contaminated soils from Milltown will be the soil cover. More ideally, Arco-BP should have to clean the site permanently. This could be done by hauling all the tailings to the Berkeley Pit. That costs more than a cover up, and thus far EPA has been sympathetic to Arco-BP's desire to get out of this as cheaply as possible.

Guhn said...