14 July 2008

Silver Bow Creek & Superfund: Past, Present, and Future

It’s been an amazing summer here in the heart of America’s largest Superfund site. Presidential candidate Barack Obama and his family spent Independence Day with us, first at Butte’s parade and then at a holiday picnic in his honor. Of all places, Butte America is ready to hear and believe messages about change.

Yesterday, the 3-day National Folk Festival finished in Butte. The Original Mine Yard was a prime venue for the event and yet another example of cultural restoration despite or perhaps even because of Superfund. Twenty-five years ago Butte suffered the double blow of a general mining shutdown and becoming a Superfund site. Who then would have thought we’d be hosting presidential candidates and national festivals?

As part of my research on the role of citizens in shaping Superfund remedies, I’ve been reading local newspapers from the 1980s. Unlike many communities elsewhere in America, Butte did not oppose Superfund listing. In fact, Buttians embraced this change.

With good reasons. Clearly, citizens were fed up with the deceptions handed them by Arco and its subsidiary, the Anaconda Company. “No, we have no intentions of halting mining in Butte.” Then Arco stopped mining. “No, we have no intentions of shutting off the pumps that dewater the underground mines and Berkeley Pit.” Then Arco shut down the pumps. “No, we have no intentions of selling the Anaconda Company.” Then Arco sold its subsidiary.

Buttians were also becoming increasingly aware of and concerned about the human health effects of toxic metals—especially on children. A survey of children in the nearby smelting town of Anaconda showed high arsenic levels, and high levels of lead in Butte posed a definite risk that citizens wanted addressed.

Furthermore, Superfund meant money to clean up the environment, and clean up meant jobs. Thanks to Montana’s U.S. Representative Pat Williams and U.S. Senator Max Baucus, funding was soon on its way.

It wasn’t easy. Williams and other liberal Democrats were up against President Ronald Reagan—the second most anti-environmental president in the history of the United States. Historians remember Reagan for a debacle at the Environmental Protection Agency that included the resignation of Administrator Anne (née Gorsuch) Burford and felony convictions for some of her staff.

Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill – who called Reagan “an amiable dunce” whose presidency was “one big Christmas party for the rich” – accepted Williams’ invitation to visit Butte. When he realized the dangers posed by mountains of poisonous mine waste, O’Neill helped speed Williams’ appropriation request. Butte’s Irish working class culture probably didn’t hurt O’Neill’s sympathy for the city, either.

Superfund has been good for Butte. I thought about this as I floated Silver Bow Creek in my little inflatable kayak. Twenty-five years ago, the creek was a lifeless, industrial sewer.

The upper reaches of Silver Bow Creek have been cleaned up and restored thanks to environmental laws and a raft of concerned, activist citizens. The riparian zone is lush with willows and various native grasses. The creek, a pleasant blend of riffle-pool habitat, and every pool holds schools of longnose suckers. While no trout, the longnose sucker is not overly pollution-tolerant. I take their presence, like the increasing numbers of bluebirds in Butte, as a hopeful sign of ecosystem recovery.

The remedy and restoration of Silver Bow Creek is not all clover and roses, as I’ve addressed in previous blog entries and Montana Public Radio commentaries. There are serious issues with recontamination by metals-laden sediments from the Butte hill. Still, compared with unremediated reaches, it looks pretty good.

As I floated through an unremediated reach of Silver Bow Creek that included Durant Canyon, I was reminded of how bad things can be. Although the canyon is a beautiful, scenic, and secluded place with sheer lava cliffs, it was hard to keep my mind on the beauty. Eroded banks barren of vegetation, thick deposits of green copper salts, and dead stands of ghostly willows line the creek. Though I have biked through Durant Canyon on the old Milwaukee Road, looking down at the creek from the abandoned railway is very different from a stream-level view.

I was able to float Silver Bow Creek thanks to Montana’s stream access law, which includes access wherever a public road crosses a stream. As we clean up and restore Silver Bow Creek, the Clark Fork River, and other portions of America’s largest Superfund site, let’s not forget the importance of public access. Public parks, fishing access areas, historic sites, biking and hiking greenway trails—all are crucial components of the restoration process. It is important that you and I, our children, our grandchildren, and all future generations can enjoy our abundant natural resources.

For more news about Silver Bow Creek 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. Thank you.


[An earlier version of this was broadcast as a commentary on Montana Public Radio.]


Fishy Girl said...

What do you think of the public being denied access to National Parks? It is happening here as a result of special interest groups suing and, for now, controlling the Parks in our area. Check out islandfreepress.org for info on what is happening here. I would love to hear your feedback.

Pat Munday said...

Hi Fishy, I checked out the IslandFreePress link and articles, but without living there and knowing more about the situation, it’s hard to figure out just what’s going on.

In Montana, the high water mark of our rivers & streams is a public right-of-way, much like the beaches in states such as Oregon. However, the public right-of-way is not an absolute right, and our uses are limited. Some examples: on lots of rivers, no motorized boats are allowed; no big game hunting or camping are allowed in places where the river passes through private property; motorized vehicles (e.g. ATVs) may not be operated in the river corridor (this is for resource protection—as you can imagine, off road vehicles would really tear up the riparian habitat). Also, we can access the river corridor only through public property or where a public road intersects the river. As you can imagine, this means that some very long reaches of certain rivers are closed to access unless one floats or hikes in for some miles.

Similarly, we can't hunt or operated Off Road Vehicles in Glacier or Yellowstone National Park. YNP does allow some snowmachine use, though they had to curb it since unrestricted use was harming wildlife, habitat, air quality, etc.

If your beaches/Parks are closed without some good reason, I wouldn’t just get angry, I’d get organized. Nothing like a well organized group of people with a common cause to help change things. Good luck. – Pat