26 October 2009

Balancing Environmental Cleanup with Historic Preservation in Butte, Montana

[note: click on images to enlarge]

Butte America, the world's largest supplier of copper during World War One, is today at the headwaters of the United States' largest Superfund site:

A century of copper mining and smelting produced extensive pollution, but the wealth also built a historic area that is unusually rich for a remote, small city (population peaked at more than 60,000, and today is about 35,000) in the northern Rocky Mountains. The historic district includes thousands of "contributing properties." Some are well maintained, classic fin de si├Ęcle homes like this:

While others are a bit more, ah, neglected:

Historic and diverse as they are, it's not homes alone that make Butte architecturally distinct. It's the industrial landscape, dotted with mining headframes like this one (the Travona) that welcomes you at the exit from Interstate-90 (big "oops" on the ability to read the full spelling):

Today, it seems, we seldom think much about the industrial landscape of old, smokestack America, or of the men who toiled in that economy. But in the 1920s through 1940s, great artists such as Louis Lozowick painted industrial landscapes and workers as symbols of America's might, from the steelworks of Pittsburgh to the mines of Butte, Montana (from US Library of Congress collection):

At the federal level, a number of laws laid foundations for both historic preservation and environmental cleanup in Butte. These played out locally thanks to the amazing activism of grassroots groups such as the Citizens Technical Environmental Committee and the Butte Citizens for Preservation & Revitalization. After the Anaconda Copper Mining Company (ACM) began abandoning underground mining with the opening of the Berkeley Pit surface mine in 1955, traditional neighborhoods were razed to expand the pit. Scenes like this hardened citizens' opposition to the company and garnered support for historic preservation:

Industrial structures as well as homes and churches meant a lot to local residents. Headframes lifted ore from the ground and moved men, mules, and machinery up and down the shaft (Anselmo mine pictured):

Many of them sit in the midst of neighborhoods, serving as a constant reminder of the city's great and tragic past:

Known as "gallows frames" in the local vernacular, these structures also serve as monuments to the dead. Over the years, there were more than 2,300 mine-related deaths in Butte:

Told by an Arco executive (Arco merged with the ACM in 1977) that the company was going to take down the gallows frames, cut them up, and sell them for scrap, retired ACM employee John T. Shea famously replied, "You take down the first one, you'll hang from the second one."--a wonderful phrase with allusions to the "gallows" nature of headrames, traditional union resistance to bad company policy, and the infamous hanging of labor activist Frank Little in 1917.

East of Walkerville, on the hill above Butte, is Granite Mountain. The barren, arsenic & heavy metals contaminated, 350-acre area will be preserved as an authentic mining landscape:

It drains to the Berkeley Pit. The pit is a "waste left in place" Superfund remedy and  the water must be  treated forever: pollution from Granite Mountain will not spread to the rest of the environment. As a memorial area, it serves as a tribute to a violent and dangerous past, where 164 miners perished in a single disaster in 1917:

All history is local. Historic preservation was a way for Butte residents to resist the ACM's and later Arco's efforts to erase history. Citizens' mistrust and antagonism was based on a history of labor strife and examples such as the Berkeley Pit destroying neighborhoods and a long history of company deceipt.

Though residents have a strong historical sense of place as a mining city, “Butte is only 15 minutes from Montana." Since at least the 1970s, there has been strong local activism to restore the environment of the upper Clark Fork River basin and to protect against health hazards.

"Butte America" has found a pragmatic balance between environmental cleanup and historic preservation.  As a practical matter, $1 billion in environmental cleanup has largely replaced mining jobs in what Governor Schweitzer calls "the restoration economy." As economic development, historical tourism has yet to live up to the high hopes some have for it.

This may be in part because historical interpretation at various sites in Butte tends to be lacking. While exhibits tell the tale of industrial might, production of wealth, and human sacrifice, they tell a simple and uncontested story. By largely ignoring labor issues, environmental damages, and the development of a restoration economy, Butte fails to generate interest among history-minded tourists that desire a fuller story about that “little stage where the history of America played” (phrase by Edwin Dobb).

22 October 2009

Skywatch Friday: Red Rock, Antelope Hills, Montana Prairie

At first glance the high, sagebrush prairie of southwest Montana is a vast, featureless wasteland. But take a long cross-country hike and look more closely: the land is dotted with lush springs and handsome rocky outcrops. Overhead, of course, it's a big, Big Sky.

21 October 2009

Antelope Hunt, 2009: Big Hole River Valley, Montana

I seldom hunt the first day of antelope season--there are just too many crazies out riding ATVs cross-country, blazing away at running animals out of range, road hunting/shooting from the truck and doing the other things that give hunters a bad name. And then I missed the the first week or so thanks to the bad timing of two back-to-back professional meetings. After a few days in Pittsburgh, I was aching to get out into the Antelope Hills of the lower Big Hole River country (just over the Continental Divide from Butte, Montana).

Yesterday, I had a few hours free. My first year or so in Montana, I avoided the prairie. Having grown up in heavily forested Allegheny hills, the vast wide open windy Big Sky sagebrush country gave me the heebie-jeebies. But I soon came to love the great "empty" desert spaces for their beauty and unique ecology. What's not to love?

Every encounter with Nature is an exercise in Shoshin. There is no book to overdetermine the experience, and each time you step out you & the world are all coming together for the first time. I occasionally find elk sign on the prairie miles from the nearest forest cover, but still think of them as a forest animal. I was agape yesterday to watch a large herd cross a coulee and bed on a nearby ridge (photos taken through binoculars, so they're a bit fuzzy):

My first hike turned up no glimpse of antelope, so I drove to a higher area and parked near a small circular butte that is like a collapsed volcano cone ringed with rock outcrops. Sometimes there are antelope hiding there. Yesterday, there were not. But I hiked up and over the outcrop ring, glassed the surrounding area, and found a herd bedded a half-mile away in a remote spot hidden from view of the roads that crisscross the area. I backtracked over the ring and down another place to approach more closely, and after several hundred yards of stalking across the open, rocky, cactus-laden ground I was within shooting range. A little further than I like to shoot (it was about 300 yards), but with a good rest the little 257 Roberts rifle is accurate at this distance. From the herd of a dozen or so does and fawns, with one nice buck with horns of about 12 inches, I chose a mature doe:

Pronghorn antelope (Antilocarpa americana) are marvelously adapted for life on the sagebrush prairie. They eat a broad range of grasses, shrubs, coarse forbs, and even cacti. Their highly efficient digestive system makes the most of whatever is available. They are fleet of foot, and can sustain high speeds (more than 40 mph) longer than any living land mammal. A herd flows like a stream of living water over the roughest of ground. The fleshy hooves, without dewclaws, help make this possible:

 The antelope's vision is remarkable. I was once stalking a herd and peeked over a rocky outcrop. From a half-mile away, several spotted me instantly. I've since learned to use cover and move very slowly--even sparse vegetation will break up your outline if you stay low and go slow. (But watch out for that cactus--I seldom come home from an antelope hunt without prickly pear cactus spines in my hands, knees, elbows, and butt.) Look at the large eye in relation to the size of an antelope's head, and you get some idea of how sharp their vision is:

I'll spare blog readers pics of a blood-covered me, but after field dressing this doe it was a half-mile back up and over the rim of the butte, and another half-mile to the truck. It is far easier to carry an 80 or 90 pound animal over snowless ground than to drag it. Sort of like backpacking, but messy. We are grateful to this doe antelope for providing us with meat, including some choice steaks and enough Italian sausage (Alex Schneider, a wildgame butcher here in Butte, Montana, wins awards for his sausage) to get us through another year.

Antelope 2007

Antelope 2008

08 October 2009

Skywatch Friday: First Snow

Butte America's first snowfall usually comes in early September in Montana at 6,000 feet above sea level. The new snow seldom lasts as sunny warm days come and go, interspersed with snowstorms until we settle into true winter from late-November to early-March. This year our first snow held out until this past week. Combined with daytime highs in the 20s deg F and overnight lows of 0 or colder, it feels like winter! Not a bad thing for an EcoRoving elk hunter and skier, but a shock nonetheless.

During the snowstorm--Big Butte, the town's landmark hill:

The morning after, looking south to the Highland Mountains (with fall aspen colors on Timber Butte in lower right):

And looking west to the Pintler Range:

07 October 2009

Stumbling Toward Mindfulness: the beginner's mind

It's been a busy few weeks on life's Zen River:

(1) The US Fish & Wildlife Service settled with us in our court challenge of the agency's decision that Big Hole River grayling (aka Montana fluvial Arctic grayling) were "not significant" and therefore did not merit protection under the Endangered Species Act. Along with getting the word out about this, it's time to decide "where to next." [see separate post, below]

(2) Superfund is in a demanding 5-year review process on several key sites in the upper Clark Fork River Basin of western Montana. It is amazing how much a handful of volunteers and a few overworked technical staff accomplish for the two EPA Technical Assistance Grant groups, CTEC & CFRTAC. [see separate post, below]

(3) Two conferences are coming up, and I'm working on papers about the unexpected connections between environmental activists that promote cleanup and historical preservationists that value industrial artifacts. Stay tuned on this one--I'll be posting some pics and an outline of what I've found.

View of Granite Mtn memorial overlook, a historic mining landscape in Butte, Montana:

(4) Classes. Teaching seems to run in some mysterious cycle driven by the moon's orbit, sunspots, and gravity waves sloshing around from the Big Bang. At any rate, I am more excited about teaching than I have been in many years. This is primarily because students in several classes are so incredibly good this year, particularly the sophomores in Technology & Society and a couple of grad candidates. Makes life worth living. Thank you, students!

(5) Personal Stuff. Wish this was on the same high point as teaching. In life, most everyone we deal with is positive, happy with who they are, and supportive of others. But somehow it only takes a few who, perhaps because of their own personal unhappiness, dedicate their life to causing problems for others. One, let's call him "Pardner," even connived a way to create legal problems for a friend who has moved from the area. It cost Friend some money. Pardner had nothing to gain from this and he had even been befriended by this guy in various ways. This kind of Stuff makes the Zen approach of the beginner's mind [Shoshin] more difficult some days than others.

On that note, however, I will end with a story from Karma 101: Old Pardner was disturbed when someone drove up a road (legally) below where he was hunting. On the way down, Pardner rolled large rocks into the roadway. Several weeks later, Pardner drove up that road himself, broke an axle on a rock: expensive tow & repair. Recently, Pardner caused a friend of mine some legal trouble. Cost Friend a few bucks. Can't wait to see how this one turns out.

Feds Must Reconsider Status of Big Hole River Grayling

[This post was adapted from a guest opinion for the Montana Standard newspaper, "Grayling may gain protection after all," 03.Oct.09]

To settle a legal challenge, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (FWS) has agreed to consider the Montana fluvial Arctic grayling – a.k.a. the Big Hole River grayling – for protection under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). [settlement document here]

Montana FWP grayling photo:

Nearly two years ago, I joined the Center for Biological Diversity, the Federation of Fly Fishers, Western Watersheds Projects, and a few other individuals in this lawsuit challenging the Bush administration’s finding that Big Hole River grayling were “insignificant.” The finding was contrary to the agency’s own scientists, a peer-review by professional fisheries biologists, and the law. Bush appointee Julie MacDonald resigned after a federal investigation found she had “bullied agency scientists to change their conclusions and improperly released internal documents to industry lobbyists and attorneys.”

In a separate court settlement, the Obama administration agreed to reconsider dozens of other Endangered Species decisions made by the Bush administration.

The wrangling over Big Hole River grayling goes back to 1982, when FWS first agreed that the fish might be endangered. Since that time, listing has been delayed by one excuse after another, including “we don’t have enough information” and “we have other, higher priorities.” Meanwhile, grayling slipped ever closer to extinction.

There is now abundant evidence that the Big Hole River grayling is on the brink of extinction and merits ESA listing. The population has declined by more than half since 1990. A recent genetics study demonstrates that Big Hole River grayling are truly a unique fish—different from grayling found in lakes or in Alaska and Canada. The study, by FWS biologists Doug Peterson and William Arden, concludes that “Big Hole River [grayling] should be a high priority for protection and restoration.”

Anglers are often confused by the difference between river and lake grayling. Though they look alike, lake grayling cannot survive in a river. Something happens when grayling adapt to lake conditions: a genetic switch is flipped and the fish do not hold their position in flowing water. Lake grayling are also in trouble, with populations in Red Rock Lakes nearly extinct. It is possible that the agency will list all grayling in Montana as an endangered species.

How sad that a fish once common throughout the Missouri River watershed above Great Falls is now nearly gone from the face of the earth. Our power to build dams and irrigate crops has been very great, but our will to allow native life to flourish has been very weak.

Cattle stand in an irrigated pasture while the river is dewatered, 21.June.2007:

While I applaud state and federal efforts to restore river grayling habitat, it has been a matter of "Too Little, Too Late." For example, the small Steele Creek (named for homesteader Mike Steele) restoration project is a "showcase" restoration project. In 2008, 13.5 grayling per mile (GPM) were found in Steele Creek. But in 2007 there were 23.0 GPM and in 2006 36.1 GPM. In 2003, before restoration even began, there were 27.4 GPM. Efforts like this are important and I do not mean to disparage what has been done. However, the effort needs to be much grander to connect isolated reaches of habitat and provide sufficient habitat.

I also admire the small handful of Big Hole ranchers that voluntarily decrease water use to help grayling. The simple fact is, however, that Big Hole irrigators as a group consistently dewater the river: year, after year, after year. Voluntary efforts have failed to maintain the minimal river flows needed to sustain grayling. In some years of extreme drought, the Big Hole Watershed Committee has decided not to implement its "emergency drought management plan." Why? Well, because there was a severe, emergency drought. So much for voluntary plans.

The lesson: until Montana's fluvial Arctic grayling is listed as an endangered species and greater restoration efforts are brought to bear – especially when it comes to keeping more water in the river – Big Hole River grayling will continue to decline. We've tried everything else, now let's quit fiddling around and try the law.

Our children and grandchildren may have to venture to Alaska in order to catch a grayling. We should not squander their natural heritage.

US FWS map of upper Missouri River watershed, showing dams and the Big Hole River (far left)--last tributary with native grayling:

Remedy & Restoration in Reverse? (CFRTAC commentary)

[This post is adapted from a Montana Public Radio commentary for the Clark Fork River Technical Assistance Committee, 01.Oct.09]

September’s bluebird weather couldn’t last forever. Snow came just in time to dampen forest fires and raise river flows. Soon, winter end the construction season here on America’s largest Superfund megasite.

Sadly, there is no uniform approach to cleanup. At one extreme is Silver Bow Creek: a removal remedy that will result in a self-sustaining ecosystem with public access. At the other extreme is the Berkeley Pit: to protect human and environmental health, it requires expensive water treatment and a secure fence in perpetuity. Somewhere in the middle, there’s uptown Butte: toxic waste treated in place, requiring maintenance and institutional controls – that is, limited public access and use – in perpetuity.

A great Superfund lesson: get cleanup right the first time. Ten years ago, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency identified areas along Deer Lodge’s East Side Road where an irrigation ditch spread polluted river water. Arsenic levels – including soils around residential dwellings – were sky high. EPA ordered Arco – the responsible party – to clean it up. Some landowners allowed access for emergency removals, some did not.

CFRTAC technical advisor Jim Kuipers and I visited one property last week where the landowner had allowed clean up. John Inkret, a plant restoration scientist, also experimented with revegetation. Bottom line: his property supports healthy vegetation and – at least in the recent past – was not hazardous to his health.

Some neighbors denied access. One adjacent property has a rental unit let to families with small children that play in a yard where – in many areas – even knapweed can’t grow. Bare soil on another adjacent property indicates serious overgrazing. Windblown soils can spread pollution and cause “remedy and restoration in reverse.”

Photograph of adjacent rental unit:

Photograph along fence line between Inkret property (health vegetation) and overgrazed pasture:

Contamination around Mr. Inkret’s property is scientifically confirmed, including analysis of his dog’s hair. Arsenic levels were literally off the chart. Dogs are an excellent biosampler: arsenic and metals levels in hair tissue indicate exposure over a period of months. Contamination in yards and homes correlates well with data from residential pets. This is confirmed by EPA-funded studies in Butte and Anaconda.

Luckily, Montana’s Department of Environmental Quality is now lead agency on the Clark Fork. Crews are sampling residential yards. Where arsenic exceeds the action level of one hundred and fifty parts per million, yards will be cleaned up next summer.

While this problem should have been dealt with years ago, it is – finally – getting fixed.

Mr. Inkret’s case and the general failure of EPA and Arco to protect human and environmental health served as an instructive example for DEQ:
• The arsenic action level is more protective of human and environmental health than higher levels set by EPA in Butte and Anaconda;
• Soils are sampled to a depth of eighteen inches rather than the superficial two inch depth used by EPA;
• A simple one-page access agreement for landowners replaces complex and confusing paperwork used by EPA and Arco; and
• Sampling data will be coordinated with county planners and health officers instead of buried obscure files.

A few additional suggestions for DEQ:
• Educate landowners that do not allow cleanup about legal liabilities they incur;
• Work with counties to make sampling data available to tenants and prospective buyers; and
• Utilize biomonitoring – that is, hair clippings from pet dogs – to measure the extent of pollution and the efficacy of cleanup.

Moving upriver, five-year reviews of Superfund remedy are underway. Butte’s EPA-funded TAG group, the Citizens Technical Environmental Committee, is actively involved.

The Silver Bow Creek remedy – with DEQ as lead agency – generally looks good in terms of water quality, soils, and revegetation. DEQ utilizes an aggressive “monitor and fix it” approach to problems such as patches of contaminated soil missed in the initial cleanup. Many aspects of the original remedy were vague, but DEQ is developing practical performance standards. For example, the goal for metals levels in stream sediments is guided by new research on probable and threshold effect concentrations—levels at which there are measurable effects on aquatic organisms.

On the Butte hill, EPA is developing a Residential Metals Abatement Plan. We applaud the agency for taking a multiple-pathway approach toward assessing the many ways in which residents can suffer toxic exposure in a complicated, urban Superfund site. There is, however, reason to believe that arsenic and metals action levels are set too high. Socioeconomic factors raise concerns about environmental justice. In light of community criticism, it might be advisable to amend the original Record of Decision and implement a more protective remedy.

For more news about the Clark Fork River, Milltown, and other Superfund issues, please check out CFRTAC’s website at hyperlink http://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.