23 January 2009

A New Year for America's Largest Superfund Site: Montana's Clark Fork River

[This blog entry is adapted from my commentary for Montana Public Radio on behalf of the Clark Fork River Technical Advisory Committee, an EPA-funded "TAG" group.]

It’s a new year in the Upper Clark Fork River Basin and change is in the air. The biggest change may be that conservatives who feared President Obama would promote a radical environmental agenda will be seriously disappointed. Two of Obama’s appointments are especially important for environmental issues here at America’s largest Superfund site.

Lisa Jackson, former head of New Jersey’s Department of Environmental Protection, will head the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Her appointment raises some concern, given her close ties to industry and failure to fix New Jersey’s broken state superfund program. Still, Jackson pledges to “administer with science as [her] guide,” and this pledge seems targeted particularly at global warming and greenhouse gas emissions. Anyone that doubts the looming impact of global warming for Montana should consult the Clark Fork Coalition’s website, “Low Flows, Hot Trout.”

Ken Salazar, former U.S. Senator from Colorado, will head the Department of the Interior. In the recent past, Salazar’s strong ties to industry and bias toward agriculture allowed special interests to trump science. It appears he would have fit nicely into the recent Bush cabinet. Still, Salazar now claims to be a reformer who will put law and science above special interests and clean up the mess left by the Bush government.

Neither Jackson nor Salazar are the environmentally progressive appointments we might have hoped for. However, if they follow through on their newfound respect for science, it will put Obama light-years ahead of the environmentally bankrupt Bush administration.

As we float down the river of a new year, we look to future change but we also carry a lot of history with us.

The PBS documentary film, Butte, America: The Saga of a Hard Rock Mining Town, premiered last week. It tells the story of "the most important city between Chicago and Seattle" from the rise of copper mining in the late 19th century to its decline in the postindustrial era. The film is representative of the United States during this era and the broader themes of American history that played out on "that little stage" called Butte. Capitalist greed, the human health & environmental consequences of industrialization, the rise of labor unions, women's history, and European immigration are some of the primary themes woven into the fabric of this great film. See it when you get the chance.

Like a revisionist version of Humpty Dumpty, the pieces of the Clark Fork Superfund megasite are slowly coming back together. At Milltown, along the Clark Fork River, around Opportunity and Anaconda, through the Silver Bow Creek corridor, and on up to the Butte Hill there remains much to be done.

When it comes to unresolved environmental issues at the headwaters of the Clark Fork River, here’s a short list of resolutions for 2009:

1. Clean up the Butte Hill so that polluted storm run-off stops recontaminating the restored Silver Bow Creek. EPA’s current timetable for stopping the recontamination problem is 20 years, but do we really want to let this problem go on for so long that we compromise a remedy that costs several million dollars per mile?
2. Monitor and report to the public the cleanup and restoration of Silver Bow Creek—including how well we are meeting aquatic life standards, revegetation goals, and soil chemistry standards.
3. Control nutrient discharges from Butte’s Metro Sewage Treatment plant. Currently, nutrient levels are so high that they create a “dead zone” extending far below the point of discharge.
4. Reduce action levels in Butte/Anaconda/Opportunity for lead, arsenic, and other metals that impair human-health. Currently, the action levels for these contaminants in our communities are an order of magnitude higher than at other Superfund sites around the nation.
5. Remove the toxic waste buried in the old Silver Bow Creek channel that flows through Butte. So long as this waste remains in place, an industrial water treatment facility will be needed to protect the Clark Fork River.
6. Collect and review biomonitoring data for birds at Warm Springs Ponds. Initial data suggests biomagnifications of toxic metals is a problem for predatory birds such as ospreys.
7. Develop a public access plan for the Clark Fork River so that access sites can be integrated with remedy and restoration.

For news about America’s largest Superfund site, please check out CFRTAC’s website.

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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