30 May 2008

The Origins of Opportunity, Montana

In researching the role of citizens in shaping Superfund remedy here in the Upper Clark Fork River Basin of southwest Montana, as background I've been reading Fred Quivik's excellent doctoral dissertaion, "Smoke and Tailings" (University of Pennsylvania, 2000). [Thanks to PhD candidate Stacie Barry for making me a copy of Quivik's dissertation.]

Among other things, Fred provides an excellent glimpse into the creation of Opportunity, Montana. ACM wanted to "demonstrate that families of smelter workers could find healthy lifestyles by living on small plots of land out in the valley, even under the plume of the stack" (Quivik p. 417). ACM employee, H. C. Gardiner, planned it all.

ACM drained a swampy marsh, sold 5- and 10-acre parcels, set up the Mill Creek Irrigation Company to provide clean water, built the Beaver Creek School, established commuter service via the Anaconda Street Railway, and "prohibited establishing saloons or comparable nuisance businesses" (Quivik p. 419).

As an advertisement for parcels in The Butte Daily Post (11 June 1914, p. 13) put it:

"the people of Anaconda can enjoy the benefits of country life while sharing in the activites of the industries located here. [Opportunity] affords a real solution for the high cost of livng [sic]. Little farms, with cows, pigs and chickens; gardens with vegetables, apple trees and small fruits, will supplant the city street and the crowded city lot." [Quoted in Quivik p. 418]

Though we all knew the basic outline of this story, Fred provided and documented the historical details using letters from Gardiner and a wealth of other sources.

Cf. Mary Popovich Blaskovich, "History of Opportunity," In the Shadow of Mt. Haggin: The Story of Anaconda and Deer Lodge County from 1863 to 1976 (Anaconda, MT: Deer Lodge County History Group, 1975): 24-27.

29 May 2008

A Rattlesnake, Trout, Odds & Ends...

A good reader pointed out that I had referred to but failed to post a photo of the hammerstone found in the center of a tipi ring along with a lot of jasper flakes. Here is that milky quartz pebble, shaped so nicely to fit the hand:

Spring on the hills and prairies is simply amazing. I am reminded of that great line from "Night Riders Lament" (sang by Nanci Griffith, Nerissa & Katryna Nields, and others) as an explanation for those who can't understand why anyone would choose the cowboy life: "[But they've] never seen the spring hit the Great Divide..."

The chokecherry, Prunus virginianus, are budded up and promising a gorgeous floral display and abundant fruit:

And there's the hardy carpet phlox, Phlox hoodii, that thrives even among the knapweed and mine dumps of Butte:

Likewise bitterroot or "rock roses," Lewisia rediviva; the rosettes are plush and abundant this rainy, cool spring:

Our little prairie rattlesnake, Crotalus viridis viridis, is also out enjoying green-up, as friends Jeff & Celia Schahczenski will attest. We were out for a Memorial Day hike in the Big Hole hills when Jeff came upon this one. Unfortunately, before I could get there with the camera, the reclusive and gentle creature had slithered under a rock:

Nearby, the fuzzytongue penstemons, Penstemon eriantus, were blooming:

Along with the locoweed (aka silky crazyweed), Oxytropis sericea:

By early afternoon yesterday, I had enough of the office and reading research papers yesterday. Jan had mentioned that maybe a couple of trout would be nice with those asparagus she bought, so RTD and I hiked up to a nearby little lake for a quick trout fishing quest. A few hours later and we're back at the house, tasty orange-fleshed trout in hand:

With asparagus on the grill:

Ten minutes later, done to perfection:

Uncork that bottle of white wine, prop open that front door, and enjoy supper as a big thunderstorm with hail rolls through:

21 May 2008

Howling at the Moon: A Night Out in the Big Hole

[Note: photos follow this essay, unlike my usual style of interspersing them with the text.]

The clamor of voices in my head was getting a little loud, so I followed Thoreau's advice, "In wildness is the preservation of the world." Or of my sanity, at least. To Thoreau's dictum, Leopold added, "Perhaps this is the hidden meaning in the howl of the wolf..." Or of the coyote, at least.

And so I went a camping on the Big Hole River side of the pass over the Continental Divide formed by Mill Creek (a Clark Fork River tributary) and Deep Creek. It is a special place, with the steep West Slope contrasting with the gentle East Slope. It was a traditional route for Native Peoples between the summer hunting grounds of the Big Hole and the pleasant wintering grounds (and warm springs) of the Deer Lodge Valley.

Walking this ground, you feel the footsteps of people long ago. Tipi rings, hunting trails, a jasper mine, tremendous views to both sides of the valley. Before I know it I sense it: I am standing in the center of a tipi ring. At my feet, a large milky quartz pebble that fits perfectly the palm of my hand. A hammerstone. And on the frost heaved ground, flakes of red jasper.

Walking this ground, you feel the eternal beauty of things long dead and forever coming to life. Petrified wood from a forest long ago, spring blossoming of wild flowers, elk on their calving grounds, meadows lush and wet and greening, cycles ancient and repeated since the Pleistocene.

The sun set into the mountains, the moon rose through a bank of clouds, the coyotes howled. They woke me up. RTD is even deafer than I am, these days. She slept soundly until I crawled past her to step out of the tent, take a piss, and join the song dogs for the chorus. A bull elk joined in with a long, lilting whistle (yes, they do whistle in the spring, maybe in response to all those new calves?). We even stirred a sandhill crane, though from its cries I think it was telling us to shut the hell up and let it sleep.

A chill dawn, hands wrapped around a hot cup of coffee, a long hike up the valley, catch a mess of trout for lunch, I'm ready to go home. Well, not ready. But it's time to go home. Time.

Thankfully this holy ground has become public land, and not fallen into the hands of developers and McMansionites like the piece just down the valley. Here, a failed ranch built up by pioneering homesteaders, our white forefathers who seemed to know only how to take from the land and not how to live sustainably with it. Like the new trophy homes down the valley that will rot away with time and the high price of fossil fuels, this old homestead was a mere flash in time's pan.

What am I saying, "this old homestead?" It was established barely a hundred years ago and is now long gone. Four generations from rags to riches to rust. And in the brief time they were here, they were hard as hell on the land.

The Native Peoples walked this ground for ten thousand years. Four hundred generations, maybe longer. They didn't leave things so bad. What will our children, ten thousand years hence, say about us?

What a view from camp! Pintler peaks from Saddle Mountain (East/West Goat) on the left to Mt Haggin on the right:

Elk on calving grounds:

Curious antelope come over to check out our camp:

Big mosquitoes, first of the spring:

Sunset into the Pintler peaks:

Petrified wood (this specimen is chalky, unlike the usual glassy specimens found here--must be like the transformation of chalk to chert/flint):

Mountain buttercup (Ranunculus nivalis):

Pretty shooting star aka "Roosterheads" (Dodecathon pulchellum, though this could be the related desert species), purple:

And white:

Spring beauty (Claytonia spp.):

Wyoming kittentails (Besseya wyomingensis):

Biscuitroot (Lomatium cous), and important food of Native Peoples:

Milky quartz hammerstone, from a tipi ring with a views to both sides of the broad valley:

Red jasper flakes from tool making/sharpening:

A mess of brook trout for lunch:

RTD cooling her belly while I fish:

Remnant of a not-so-old homestead:

Sunset behind the Anaconda smelter stack on the way home:

Yankee Doodle Tailings Pond: Another Mine Waste Site near Butte

Below Butte's Moulton Reservoir and above the Berkeley Pit/Continental Pit area lies the Yankee Doodle Tailings Pond. It is formed by a tailings dam more than six hundred feet high. I am not certain when this area was first used for tailings disposal, but the Anaconda Copper Mining Company concentrator built in 1964 was a significant contributor. Today, Dennis Washington's Montana Resources. (MR) operation discharges its slurry waste onto the Yankee Doodle pond.

Here's a map of the roughly one thousand acre (nearly two square miles) tailings pond:

And here's a Continental Divide view of the Berkeley Pit (left) and tailings pond (right); (photo by Todd Trigsted):

You can visit the Yankee Doodle Tailings Pond by driving north on the Moulton Road from Walkerville. Watch for a user-created ATV troad after you pass Butte's municipal water treatment plant, about a mile north of town.

When MRI shutdown in July 2000 due to high electricity prices brought on by deregulation (interestingly, MR/Washington had lobbied for deregulation, believing it would lower prices), the tailings pond went dry. When wind conditions were right, Butte suffered from duststorms like this (photo by Derek Pruitt, Montana Standard newspaper):

Citizen complaints and a $121,200 fine forced MR to treat the dry pond surface (beginning with pumping water over them and ending with capping) to prevent blowing dust. To help poor Dennis Washington resume mining operations, Butte gave MR a $2 million loan and reduced taxes. By December 2003, MR was once again pumping its 25 cfs slurry onto the Yankee Doodle Tailings Pond (photo by Stephen Jennings, Montana State University):

The upper end of the tailings pond, where water rushes down from Yankee Doodle Creek, is an unearthly blue color:

Like many people, I had assumed this color was from copper sulfate and other heavy metals salts. My colleage, Chris Gammons, in Geological Engineering has done some testing, however, and he tells me the color is primarily from suspended clay sediments. You can see the color nicely in this shoreline view:

The mine waste slurry discharged by MR is very high in lime (which MR uses to precipitate and recover metals). The lime, and resulting high pH, causes the water in the Yankee Doodle pond to be low in metals (Chris did point out that it might be high in metalloids such as arsenic or selenium). The non-toxic nature of the water in Yankee Doodle Tailings Pond explains why it is used so heavily by waterfowl, and why one doesn't find dead ducks floating on the surface:

Still, there is a million yards or more of mine waste stored behind the Yankee Doodle tailings dam. Though it will probably end up being capped and vegetated if and when mining ceases, that is a decision that will have to be made in the future--perhaps as yet another Superfund site is added to the Upper Clark Fork River complex.

16 May 2008

Superfund Connectedness: If Butte doesn't flush, Missoula doesn't drink...

When it comes to America's Largest Superfund Site here in the Upper Clark Fork River Basin of Montana, we are all together in a very big lifeboat. By "we," I mean residents of Butte, Anaconda, Opportunity, Deer Lodge, Bonner/Milltown, Missoula, and surrounding areas. It's like the traditional union slogan, "An injury to one is an injury to all." This is also true in an environmental sense, of course. As some like to say in Butte, "If Butte doesn't flush the toilet, then Missoula doesn't get a drink of water."

Lately, I've been staying out of the springtime blizzards and reading through hundreds of pages of monitoring reports on Silver Bow Creek—that little stream that flows from Butte at the headwaters of the Clark Fork River. Silver Bow Creek -- technically known as the Stream Side Tailings Operable Unit -- was one of the first sites to be addressed by Superfund in the Upper Clark Fork River Basin. Furthermore, Silver Bow Creek is an excellent example of Superfund remedy integrated with restoration, with the state of Montana (rather than the EPA) taking the lead.

Thanks to Montana’s Natural Resource Damage Program, the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) is spending several million dollars per mile to cleanup and restore 24 miles of Silver Bow Creek. The flood plain is dredged to remove stream sediments high in arsenic and toxic heavy metals, the stream is reconstructed to function as a stream should, clean soil is spread along the corridor, and the area is revegetated with native plants and shrubs.

To the eye, the area looks pretty darned good, especially when you compare the "before:"

With the "after:"

It's disturbing, though, to learn that the remedied and restored creek is being recontaminated.

Initially, when I heard about the recontamination of Silver Bow Creek, I thought it might be an ephemeral problem stemming from recent work along Butte’s old Metro Storm Drain. The DEQ site supervisor assured me it's not a big problem.

Data show, however, that this recontamination has been occurring since monitoring began in 2002. And it sure looks like a big problem, with contaminant levels far higher than threshold levels that indicate impairment of aquatic life. For example, the threshold for copper in sediments is about thirty parts per million. Contamination levels routinely exceed this threshold by a factor of ten, and occasionally by a factor of one hundred. Geez, if Denny Washington hears about this, he’ll start mining Silver Bow Creek!

After five years of reports confirming recontamination, you’d think DEQ and EPA would do something. Data indicate that recontamination is steadily occurring. Yet, each year, the annual review concludes with the recommendations: collect more data; try to identify the source; wait and see.

What, exactly, are we waiting for? We know that under remedy many sources of contamination on the Butte hill will remain. Furthermore, completing that remedy is some years in the future. Finally, a solution to this recontamination problem is already on the table: EPA included treatment ponds as an option in the Butte hill remedy. Let’s build that treatment facility now, and stop the madness.

In a very real, physical sense, the headwater stream of Silver Bow Creek is connected with the main stem of the Clark Fork River. Water flows down hill.

Every clean up has its price: sometimes in dollars and sometimes in human terms. With the clean up of Silver Bow Creek, Milltown, and other Superfund sites in the Upper Clark, let’s not forget where all that toxic mine waste goes. No, it doesn’t magically disappear.

Here we have a case of social (and environmental) effects moving upstream.

The toxic mine waste from Milltown is hauled up river to the vast Arco-British Petroleum waste repository near the town of Opportunity. Charlie Coleman of the EPA conducted a group tour of CRTAC and Opportunity activists on the repository last week. It was formerly known as the Opportunity Ponds, and for many years the Anaconda Copper Mining Company dumped waste there from its Anaconda smelter.

Tour group at the Arco-British Petroleum waste repository near the town of Opportunity:

It’s a big site: four thousand acres; more than six square miles. To date, the Arco-BP waste repository has been a big problem for nearby residents. Much of the waste was so phytotoxic that it would not support ground cover. Arsenic and heavy metals were carried off by wind and water erosion. Huge dust storms still occasionally engulf the town of Opportunity.

The day we visited, Arco-BP’s waste repository was a beehive of activity. Dennis Washington’s Montana Rail Link hauls waste by the trainload from Milltown, and Washington’s EnviroCon company spreads this waste as topsoil and undertakes revegetation. The 2.2 million cubic yards from Milltown – that’s about a million pickup loads – will cover a third of the waste repository.

EPA believes that the arsenic and metals levels of the Milltown waste, while high enough to classify as toxic waste, are low enough to support vegetation at a highly toxic waste repository currenlty devoid of vegetation.

Toxic mine waste being offloaded from the train to haul trucks:

Haul truck spreading the toxic mine waste as topsoil:

Area recently seeded:

Much of the waste repository has already been revegetated using contaminated soils from Silver Bow Creek. For the most part, says Charlie Coleman, the vegetative standard of 30% cover appears to have been met [see note, below]:

Some areas are pretty sparse, and if necessary will receive additional topsoil and reseeding:

Hopefully, this vegetative cover will end the dust storms, erosion, and further contamination of the groundwater aquifer.

Opportunity is a beautiful little town, and residents worry about being so close to a corporate waste dump. Some are more than a little skeptical about EPA assurances that this toxic waste in their backyard will be safely contained. They also do not trust EPA assurances that the arsenic action level of 250 parts per million is safe. Ninety Opportunity residents recently filed a lawsuit against Arco-British Petroleum, claiming that the corporation has “recklessly jeopardized their property, health, and welfare.”

The lesson here is that in Superfund, as in all things, we are connected. What happens along Silver Bow Creek will affect the Clark Fork River, and what happens at Milltown will affect the town of Opportunity. Let us all praise the Milltown Dam removal and cleanup, but let us also support Opportunity in its quest for environmental justice.

For more news about the recontamination of Silver Bow Creek, the Arco-British Petroleum waste repository, and other Superfund issues, please check out CFRTAC’s website at hyperlink www.cfrtac.org.


Note: I readily confess that I do not know my butt from a hairy hole in the ground (sorry for the unfortunate analogy, but we are talking about a toxic mine waste site here!) when it comes to revegetation standards. Charlie Coleman, EPA, explained that they are using a Montana State University-Bozeman yardstick called "LRES Standard." The 30% goal must be met within ten years.

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

14 May 2008

Ecorover in the Queen City: Helena, Montana

There I was in Helena, Montana's capital, for two days. As a representative for the faculty union at My College, I engaged in pre-budgetary negotiations (along with reps from other faculty unions) with represenatives from our Office of the Commisioner of Higher Education. The sessions went very well and were cordial & collaborative--a welcome relief after having engaged in contract bargaining sessions with some of the same management folks.

And there are worse places in world to spend two days. First of all, Helena is just one hour from Butte, and it's a scenic trip over the Continental Divide at Elk Park and across the Boulder hill. Elk Park is aptly named, for sure enough there was a big herd or two out on the greening meadows. Still lots of snow back in the trees and on north faces, though, and I think the elk are about a week late returning to calving areas.

Helena is home to the Sleeping Giant Brewing Company/Brewhouse Bar & Grill. For years, the Brewhouse served the best barbeque ribs in Montana. I'm not so sure about that, now, for the latest batch of raspberry chipotle was wimpy at best. The ribs themselves had their usual succulent, slow smoked, texture & flavor. And they go well with the truly excellent Tumbleweed IPA. Let's not forget the fully ripened and smoked jalapenos in the sauce next time, though!

The MEA-MFT put us up at the Wingate near the airport. It's an interesting neighborhood, with modest homes on small, grassy lots and a sort of anything-goes approach to things like putting your truck up on blocks for curbside repairs and erecting huge amateur radio antennae towers:

There are some real gems in the 'hood, like this classic little "dollhouse:"

The neighborhood is very flat, so I put in a couple of brisk miles without ever raising my heartbeat, and before I realized I should get back to the hotel for my usual early bedtime. In walking around uptown Butte, you KNOW when you've walked a mile or so, given the steep hills and 6,000 foot elevation. Still, a pleasant walk. Early the next morning I repeated a shorter version of it and was pleased the notorius mule deer of Helena's residential streets were out and about:

That day's negotiating session was in the Capitol Building (constructed 1896-1902). The Irish revolutinary and early Montana governor Thomas Francis Meagher (bronze, 1905) greets you as you approach the statehouse:

Inside, there is lots of art, including a few bronzes of Montana's finest, including Jeanette "I cannot vote for war" Rankin (1880-1973), a pacifist that served Montana in the U.S. House of Representatives and voted against U.S. involvement in both World War I and II:

And Maureen and Mike Mansfield (U.S. Representative 1943-53; Senate 1953-77):

The high, stained glass windows of the cupola (i.e. dome) is breathtaking:

And the murals decorating four sides of the cupola's base tell you a lot about how early 20th century Montanans felt about the role of Indians, Frontiersmen, Cowboys, and Miners in the formation of the young state:

Helena, Montana: a nice place to visit.