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'Restoring The Shining Waters' Chronicles Milltown Dam Cleanup Efforts

"Restoring the Shining Waters" chronicles efforts to clean up the Milltown Dam Superfund site in Montana.

For 75 years, arsenic-laced waste from some of the world’s largest copper-mining operations accumulated behind Milltown Dam, located a few miles east of Missoula. Then in 1983, the dam, along with 120 miles of the Clark Fork River, was designated as a Superfund site. The 30-year saga of dam removal and clean-up is the focus of a book by David Brooks:  Restoring the Shining Waters: Superfund Success at Milltown, Montana.

I asked Brooks why he chose to write about the Milltown Dam.

“So many of our histories are about exceptional things and I thought, well, I want to write a story about something that maybe everybody can relate to in some way. Everybody’s near a Superfund site, whether they know it or not. Everybody’s near a dam. Most Superfund sites have this contamination, and these pathways, and so on.”

Although the size of the dam and its contamination are, sadly, a common story in the U.S., the tenacity of the people of Missoula County was not common. A long list of individuals and organizations powered through the paperwork and bureaucracy of the Environmental Protection Agency to push the Milltown site to the top of the Superfund list.

"What I’m arguing in the book is that it was local people who pushed all of this. The EPA doesn’t go swooping around the country looking for Superfund sites. It takes local government, local people identifying problems and reaching out to the EPA."

As to what motivated people to get involved, Brooks believes it had a lot to do with Montana’s abundant recreational opportunities.

"I think a lot of people got involved in Missoula because the contrast between Superfund-level contamination in ground water and our surrounding environment that you can walk out the door and see as being fairly pristine. Not untouched by human history and human hands, certainly, but still functioning in a very natural, grand way. And so that motivates people to be involved when there’s major, toxic pollution right in the midst of the Hellgate Canyon where you have beautiful mountains and the rivers that come into and out of the confluence there. People fish them, people raft on them, recreate around them, and so they’re in touch with what it can be, what it is in its natural state. And I think that motivates people."

I asked Brooks how the fish are doing these days.

“It depends on what you mean, how are they doing. Fish still are bio- accumulating toxins, to a level that there are warnings about only eating one of the more predatory fish a week. For example, the pike that are still in the river, that were introduced and really did well when the reservoir was there. Some of the native fish, cutthroat trout, particularly, they bio-accumulate far less of the toxins because they’re not eating other fish, as commonly, or at all, like a bull trout would do. And so those individual fish are probably doing better. They have less arsenic in them, copper in them, cadmium in them. Populations are doing well. I mean, anecdotally, I’ve got plenty of friends who guide flyfishing and flyfish these rivers below the dam and above and they all say that the fishing is great. That removing that dam, within a year or two of it coming down, because fish were able to migrate back up to their spawning grounds and reproduce in much greater numbers, fish numbers are up and fish are healthy.”

And what about the rivers?

“The rivers, over time, have a naturally cleansing effect on themselves, right? I mean, water’s consistently moving through, things are flushing through. Unfortunately, they’re flushing through and getting backed up by the next dam down the river. But in terms of water through Missoula coming from the Blackfoot and its tributaries, and the Clark Fork and its tributaries, studies show it’s getting cleaner. But there will continue to be releases from old sediments from along the banks, and those are things we just have to keep watching.”

David Brooks is lead historian and Vice President of the Heritage Research Center in Missoula, and author of, Restoring the Shining Waters: Superfund Success at Milltown, Montana.

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