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Opportunity Knocked (Out): How Freeing a Montana River Buried a Town

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Although I have walked the trails that hug the Clark Fork River as it flows through Missoula, Montana, I've never canoed those cold waters. If I ever did, I'd want Brad Tyer in the stern as my guide, showing me how to navigate its boisterous length, how to read the complex natural landscape and built environment as we floated by.

That he knows where to pull out would be another plus.

After a 2011 run down the powerful snow-melt-pushed river, in which he and his fellow travelers barreled downstream so fast that they covered in "twenty minutes what usually takes an hour," the flotilla swung on to a gravelly beach. This was not just any rest-stop: Above them was the wide and welcoming deck of one of the Garden City's best watering holes, the Finn and Porter Restaurant; beer awaited. "Missoula is nice like that."

That much I knew.

What I had not known until reading Tyer's unsettling, page-turner of a new book, "Opportunity Montana: Big Copper, Bad Water, and the Burial of an American Landscape", was the complicated past and present of the Clark Fork -- and why we should care about its turbulent history and contemporary dilemmas.

Consider the reason he and his canoeing colleagues had shot down the river so quickly. Some of their speed was attributable to a higher-than-normal volume of water, a rush that was also the result of the river's upstream undamming.

The decommissioning of dams along the west's many rivers and streams is a furiously debated issue. Taking down these bulwarks is the key to restoring anadromous fish populations such as the Steelhead trout that once nosed up the rivers of Southern California and salmon that in vast numbers once spawned along the extent of the Columbia River watershed.

In the Pacific Northwest, this decided environmental good is up against the keep-the-dams demands of Big Ag for irrigation and barge transport and of Big Hydro and its downstream consumers of electricity.

The fight in Missoula over the pulling down of the Milltown Dam offers a variation on this theme. It pitted upriver copper-mining interests that had no interest in paying to clean up the toxic byproducts of their manufacturing processes piling up behind the century-old structure against those local environmentalists who believed that removing this earthen-filled straightjacket would liberate a once free-flowing river, restoring its pristine nature.

Tyer, a veteran journalist and managing editor of the Texas Observer, neither disputes this restorative impulse nor its whitewater consequences; neither does he doubt that the years of protracted negotiation that led to the elimination of the Milltown Dam was worth the effort. He just asks some hard questions about who gained and lost when the dam came down, about whom and what suffered so that Missoulians, including himself, could paddle down the Clark Fork in thrilled delight.

The biggest losers were the residents of a town called Opportunity, located within the river's upper reaches. In 1983 the EPA anointed the landscape they inhabited as the nation's largest Superfund site in the western region (there is plenty of competition for that dubious honor), a watershed laced with chemicals leaching out of the millions of tons of copper ore that have been mined there.

To be sure, this mineral wealth had its upside. "Butte copper had wired America," Tyer writes, and was "strung across the country to deliver residential electricity and telephone connections, feeding power to unbridled industrial growth and cladding the bullets that won two world wars." Contemporary consumers have been woven into its web as well: "That copper was in my cellphone and my laptop and my refrigerator. It wired the pickup I drove upstream to launch my canoe."

Yet even as local copper was spun around the globe, its lethal waste had a devastating impact back home. In 1908, a terrifying flood swept millions of tons of toxins into the Clark Fork River, but this was not the last of the industry's depredations. Mining copper blackened the lungs of those who dug it out of the ground, its piled-high tailings poisoned the land and the people built their homes on it, and the rust-red effluent that seeped from smelters lining the Clark Fork seriously damaged groundwater supplies and riparian ecosystems.

Remediation work at the Milltown Reservoir Superfund Site.
Remediation work at the Milltown Reservoir Superfund Site. | Photo: M Kustudia/Wikipedia/Creative Commons License

No one knows these unjust and deleterious consequences better than those residing in Opportunity, a small "garden suburb" of Anaconda that has long been a sacrifice zone. For years, the 4000-acre Opportunity Ponds had been the dumping ground for tailings, ash, and sludge, a witch's brew that cut lives short.

Naturally, this tortured legacy made it the perfect place, according to the EPA, the state government, and many Missoulians, to absorb another three millions tons of deadly sediment -- arsenic, cadmium, copper, lead, and zinc -- lying beneath the waters of the Milltown reservoir. Why destroy a cleaner site when this place already had been decimated?

So it was that twenty-five years after the EPA declared the area a Superfund site, after the river was temporarily rerouted, the dam torn down, and the contaminated spoil dug up and hauled to Opportunity over two years by train (a daily run of 45 cars each loaded down with 100 tons of sediment), the town effectively was no more.

In bringing to life this "buried history of Americans' attachment to progress and estrangement from consequences," Tyer makes it clear that the "slow death of Opportunity is Missoula's cost of living," an unequal power dynamic that has been applied as well to communities surrounding other Superfund sites, among them California's Stringfellow Acid Pits, Tar Creek, Oklahoma, and New York's Love Canal.

Yet Tyer never shies away from probing his complicity in this disturbing tale from the Big Sky State. Floating down the Clark Fork River in the immediate post-dam era, he recognizes how easy it has become to "take the poison part for granted and ignore it in favor of the more immediate sensory experience. The distinct but conjoined sounds of rippling water and wind gusting dry grass is momentarily exquisite," a lull that intensified when Tyer notices that the nearby "hills, starting to close in here at the tail end of the valley, are arranged in soft undulations and shadowed with the contours of weathered mudslides. Bright light gives depth and volume to their monochromatic swell, and for a minute I entertain the fancy that I could grab the hills' skin like the hem of a bedspread and unfurl it into the sky, snapping off the slickened soil and toppling the dwarfish pinyons, and let it waft back to rest refreshed."

Redemption cannot be won so easily; Tyer is too close an observer, too self-aware to want to rearrange the past to suit the modern hunger for a redemptive finish.

Like a thick snag and the treacherous waters that whirl around it, he confronts a tangle of conflicting emotions flowing through the very story he has narrated: "Being in love with Missoula, I'm in debt to Opportunity, but blaming Missoula doesn't make sense. Missoula just wanted the best it could get, and got it. Opportunity sought the same, and failed. We're all guilty of something."

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