Restoring the Shining Waters: Superfund Success at Milltown, Montana

Restoring the Shining Waters: Superfund Success at Milltown, Montana

by David Brooks Ph.D


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No sooner had the EPA established the Superfund program in 1980 to clean up the nation’s toxic waste dumps and other abandoned hazardous waste sites, than a little Montana town found itself topping the new program’s National Priority List. Milltown, a place too small to warrant a listing in the U.S. Census, sat alongside a modest hydroelectric dam at the confluence of the Clark Fork and Blackfoot Rivers. For three-quarters of a century, arsenic-laced waste from some of the world’s largest copper-mining operations had accumulated behind the dam. Soon, Milltown became the site of Superfund’s first dam removal and watershed restoration, marking a turning point in U.S. environmental history. The story of this dramatic shift is the tale of individuals rallying to reclaim a place they valued beyond its utility.

In Restoring the Shining Waters, David Brooks gives an intimate account of how local citizens—homeowners, university scientists, county health officials, grassroots environmentalists, business leaders, and thousands of engaged residents—brought about the removal of Milltown Dam. Interviews with townspeople, outside environmentalists, mining executives, and federal officials reveal how the everyday actions of individuals got the dam removed and, in the process, pushed Superfund to allow more public participation in decision making and to emphasize restoration over containment of polluted environments. A federal program designed to deal with the toxic legacies of  industrialization thus became a starting point for restoring America’s most damaged environments, largely through the efforts of local communities.

With curiosity, conviction, and a strong sense of place, the small town of Milltown helped restore an iconic western river valley—and in doing so, shaped the history of Superfund and modern environmentalism.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780806144726
Publisher: University of Oklahoma Press
Publication date: 09/24/2015
Pages: 280
Product dimensions: 6.20(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

David Brooks is lead historian and Vice President of the Heritage Research Center in Missoula, Montana. He teaches history of the American West at the University of Montana.

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Restoring the Shining Waters

Superfund Success at Milltown, Montana

By David Brooks


Copyright © 2015 University of Oklahoma Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8061-5249-3


Arsenic in Old Places

Milltown's Path to Superfund Designation

Expect poison from the standing water.

— William Blake

(1) Whenever (A) any hazardous substance is released or there is a substantial threat of such a release into the environment, or (B) there is a release or substantial threat of release into the environment of any pollutant or contaminant which may present an imminent and substantial danger to the public health or welfare, the President is authorized to act.

— Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (Superfund), Section 9604

William Woessner and Johnnie Moore rented a chain saw for twenty-five bucks. Then the two junior professors at the University of Montana recruited some graduate students and drove to the Milltown Reservoir a few miles up the Clark Fork from Missoula. As Woessner remembered it, the saw's fourteen-inch blade failed to cut deep enough into the ice, so they took turns bashing at the frozen surface with an iron bar. Once through, they plunged a grab sampler — reminiscent of a hinged pair of hand-sized excavator buckets — down the hole, scooped a load of reservoir-bottom muck, hoisted it up, sealed it in a plastic bag, and labeled it. Skiing across the groaning surface of the reservoir with their sled of gear in tow, they sawed and bashed and retrieved samples of its silt-covered bottom from four locations. As they went, wind-whipped flurries of snow erased their tracks, and the work kept them warm only so long.

"What in the heck have you guys been doing with this thing?" the man at the tool rental shop asked when they returned the saw with its chain encased in ice. Woessner and Moore explained that they taught in the university's Geosciences Department and that collecting sediment samples from under the frozen reservoir brought them out on that February afternoon in 1982. They were following a hunch that the sediments were the source of the arsenic recently discovered in Milltown's community water wells.

* * *

Residents of Milltown knew their water had problems. For years they had watched the black stains on their sinks, tubs, and toilet bowls grow darker. Clothes laundered at home turned rust red. Cars and houses took on a faint yellowish hue when people washed them. Some grew accustomed to the metallic taste of their tap water without ever growing oblivious to the displeasure. Others had given up drinking the stuff by the time health department officials took samples in 1981. That was when Milltown resident Uuno Hill called the department and asked someone to come out and test his water "because it smelled bad."

Water testing was supposed to be a standard procedure by then. Montana's implementation of the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) in 1974 mandated that such tests occur every three years. The Missoula City-County Health Department had tested the Milltown well that served Hill and other area residents prior to 1981, but only for basic sanitation, not for its chemical properties. When the state laboratory found that the sample taken in May of that year contained levels of arsenic far exceeding federal standards, health department officials returned to Milltown and took seven more samples.

Yet the results of those samples remained undisclosed. Ten days before Christmas, reporter Kevin Miller first broke the news that both state and local health department officials had been sitting on knowledge of arsenic-laced water from Milltown wells for months. An anonymous informant told Miller about the results from the spring inspection. The state lab in Montana, run by the Department of Health and Environmental Sciences, did not analyze the seven additional samples until August because of what the department's director called "a personnel problem." The state lab then delayed informing the state or city health agencies about the elevated levels of arsenic for another month. Adding to this pattern of delays, health officers at both the city and state levels decided to keep the results from the public until they better understood the problem. "I hate to tell people, 'Hey, you've got arsenic in your water and that's all we know,'" said state environmental health officer Joe Aldegarie in defense of his department's decision to withhold its findings.

In the days following Miller's December news story, details about the state's mishandling of the inspection and the contamination itself became clearer. Aldegarie apologized for the delays and hinted at a shake-up in the management of the state's lab. He and Missoula health officials turned their attention to Milltown's water. Four of the seven Milltown water samples registered up to 370 micrograms per liter (µg/L) of arsenic, which is roughly equal to the sweet content of a gallon of pure water with one and a half grains of sugar added to it. When the SDWA became federal policy in 1974, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) deemed 50 µg/L the temporary "maximum tolerance level" for arsenic, pending more conclusive research about its effects on human health. By 1981 the EPA was considering lowering the standard to 10 µg/L. Meanwhile, Milltown's wells were registering seven times the federal limit of 50 µg/L. How those levels of arsenic-contaminated water might affect the people drinking it remained, as Aldegarie implied, poorly understood.

Poor understanding bred caution and more than a little confusion. The day after the first story about arsenic in Milltown water appeared, local health officials delivered letters to thirty-three residences connected to the four contaminated wells, recommending that people quit drinking or cooking with the water in their homes. That day's local paper reported that research correlated skin cancer with significantly lower levels of arsenic than were present in the Milltown case. In contrast, the same paper also noted that a city-county health official recognized studies showing that it takes much higher levels of arsenic than Milltown water contained to cause acute health problems. A day later another round of letters strengthened the warning about not consuming water from contaminated wells. In a follow-up news story, Aldegarie called the second letter "a stronger statement because we can't take any chances." Local health officials warned that the levels of arsenic in Milltown water posed "long-range health hazards for residents." By day three of the story's unfolding, the newspaper's editorial page struck a more fearful tone, reporting that arsenic is "pretty deadly stuff." In addition to eating away at internal organs, the paper warned, arsenic could cause nerve damage, skin cancer, and a panoply of symptoms such as "vomiting, diarrhea, muscle pain, headache, weak pulse and, to cap the climax, coma and death." But, it concluded, since levels of arsenic in Milltown were lower than those known to induce such problems, "there seems to be no reason for panic." A week after the story got out, follow-up well tests produced a water sample that had ten times the federal limit on arsenic. Missoula health officials announced plans to test Milltown residents' hair and fingernails for long-term arsenic accumulation beginning the first of the New Year, 1982. Even with limited and sometimes conflicting information about arsenic at hand, health officials were erring on the side of caution. In the public perception, precise measurements and conflicting research on arsenic mattered less than arsenic's infamy: it had become synonymous with toxicity. And, the EPA hinted at getting involved at Milltown.

At first, it seemed that locals were taking the bleak news in stride. Referring to the possible danger of drinking her water, one woman said, "My hair seems to be getting darker instead of whiter, so I don't know." Joking aside, Milltown residents began grappling with the problem of finding safe drinking water, and they were not alone. Besides attracting the local university's scientific community, the issue induced local politicians as well as state and federal officials to take up the cause. As the political sphere of involvement grew, Milltown gradually became a national toxic landmark. Milltown residents had to come to terms with the idea that their environment, the place where they worked and their children played, was contaminated and potentially deadly.

Just as Milltown residents were aware of their daily domestic exposure to less than perfect water, they understood their industrial surroundings. For almost a century, the local lumber mills had embedded Milltown in the nexus of natural resource extraction that characterized the West. Rail traffic had stopped in Milltown since the completion of the Northern Pacific's transcontinental route in 1883. Throughout most of the twentieth century, one of the world's most productive copper mines operated about a hundred miles upriver from Milltown in Butte. For the decade prior to the arsenic discovery, Bonner — Milltown's next-door neighbor — was home to the region's largest plywood mill. People intuited that the water contamination stemmed from this industrial heritage, but they were unaware of the extent or the exact source of the problem. Solving those mysteries would take years.

And the solution would soon put Milltown on the EPA's National Priorities List (NPL), the queue to Superfund designation. In fact, by 1983 arsenic contamination of a few dozen Milltown wells had earned the town's reservoir a place on the federal government's first NPL and its subsequent designation as one of the first Superfund sites in America. What began as a local need for uncontaminated water became a national project to restore a major western watershed. The earliest advocates for what became the nation's largest Superfund site were not environmental groups but local residents acting on intimate health concerns and awareness of the industrial past of their surroundings.

With the number of Superfund sites growing every year, it is worth thinking about how Milltown's designation evolved at the local level. The story of Superfund designation at Milltown offers some unique perspectives on ways in which the law has played out. Congress passed the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act in 1980 in response to a social justice movement led by Lois Gibbs and the Love Canal Homeowners Association in New York. CERCLA capped two decades of the nation's most vigorous environmental lawmaking. Precipitated by highly publicized hazardous waste emergencies at places like Love Canal, New York, and Valley of the Drums, Kentucky, the law aimed to identify, contain, and potentially clean up hazardous waste sites. Specifically, as a citizen's guide to CERCLA put it, Congress established the law, which quickly gained the nickname "Superfund," to clean up "uncontrolled or abandoned hazardous waste sites." The story of Milltown demonstrated how that definition was stretched from the outset of the law's implementation to include hazardous waste repositories and places where waste collected unintentionally, such as behind a dam more than one hundred miles downstream from the origin of the waste.

The image of a community battling to redress its unwitting exposure to toxic contamination by a malevolent corporation, as Love Canal exemplified, does not fit Milltown. The contamination at Milltown certainly resulted from a combination of the legacy of industrial extraction methods and natural systems. Superfund designation was less a fight than the outgrowth of a functioning municipal regulatory system (water sampling), public comment and concern working in the usual avenues of participatory government, and cooperation between the local, state, and federal government, the public, and private business. The curiosity, concern, and efforts of local citizens shaped implementation of a remedy at Milltown, especially toward restoration. Their involvement went beyond CERCLA procedures for evaluating and choosing a cleanup plan. As an analysis of the original law put it, those procedures were written such that the "definition of 'remedy or remediation' establishes a preference for on-site management of hazardous substances." Congress crafted Superfund to encourage containment of hazardous substances, keeping them in place. The law considered even moving people away from Superfund sites to be potentially more feasible than moving the contamination.

In addition, Superfund at Milltown came about in the absence of any organized environmentalism such as the established national groups or radical fringe — the personality split of environmentalism in the 1980s. Environmentalism, even in its local, mostly cooperative, and practical form, appeared in Milltown only after the Superfund designation. In the beginning the situation unfolded mostly via routine governance and the actions of individuals within the community and within the agencies involved.

* * *

Two rivers meet next to Milltown. Yet for most of the town's history the union of rivers was hidden.

In Milltown one engine of industry was a dam built in 1907 to impound the confluence of the Blackfoot River and the Clark Fork. One of the many new hydroelectric dams being built in the new century, it powered the region's largest lumber mills, including those of the Western Lumber Company (owned by the dam's builder, mining magnate William A. Clark) and the Blackfoot Milling Company (owned by the Anaconda Company) in the town of Bonner less than a mile east of Milltown. The dam's generators also powered a streetcar line that ran between Milltown and Missoula, seven miles downstream, and another that traveled up and down the Bitterroot Valley, south of Missoula. Electricity from the dam lit Missoula's main streets and well-to-do homes and businesses.

In addition to electrifying the region, the dam and the milling that it powered brought people to Milltown, most of whom were young men in search of work. With Milltown lumber, railroad crews tied the tracks that connected the forests to the mills, the mills to the mines, the mines to the smelters, the smelters to wire manufacturers, and the manufacturers to retailers. Builders used Milltown lumber to construct homes and businesses in Montana and wired them with Butte copper. In 1920, when the three Dufresne brothers moved to Milltown to work in the mills, the Anaconda Company, which owned the Bonner mill, had more than doubled the previous year's production, and the value of its lumber nearly equaled that of all other manufacturing in the county.

Those who came for jobs were following a westward movement of the lumber industry. Many French Canadians and Norwegians left logged-out areas of New Brunswick and the Great Lakes for the prospect of work in western Montana's robust timber industry. Finns and Swedes tended to make their way to western Montana as first-generation immigrants who had lost their farmland, timberland, or artisanal businesses as industrialization and industrial-scale agriculture marched northward and eastward across Europe. Swedes tended to come as bachelors, the Norwegians and Finns as families that organized readily around social activities like saunas and churchgoing. For a few years before the establishment of the post office, in 1912, Milltown went by the name Finntown. By the time the Dufresnes arrived, World War I had dampened immigration. For the increasingly stable population in Milltown at that time, wages and work were good. Like many others, the Dufresne brothers used the opportunity to start families.

Leo Dufresne was born in Milltown in 1923. He grew up in his parents' company house and became accustomed to the ethnically distinct bars and neighborhoods that defined the town. The summer after finishing high school, Leo started working at the Bonner mill. At that time, the company rented the modest clapboard houses around town for about twenty dollars a month. Even after Leo retired from mill work the company subsidized his rent. After Champion Lumber bought the mill from Anaconda in 1972, the company supplied workers with firewood for the winter. With the abatement of most labor issues following the World Wars, Leo Dufresne, like most of his fellow mill workers, appreciated his employer and the lifestyle afforded by working in the area. He especially enjoyed watching his sons grow up in the same environment he had.


Excerpted from Restoring the Shining Waters by David Brooks. Copyright © 2015 University of Oklahoma Press. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA PRESS.
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Table of Contents


1. Arsenic in Old Places: Milltown's Path to Superfund Designation,
2. Floods of Change: From Tainted Wells to Threatened Watershed,
3. Placing the Blame: Liability at Milltown and the New Superfund,
4. Seeing the River As Resource: Suing for Damages,
5. Another River Runs through It,
6. The Campaign: "Remove the Dam, Restore the River",
7. The Three Rs of Superfund: Remediation, Restoration, and Redevelopment,

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