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'Opportunity, Montana'

By Brad Tyer


"Opportunity, Montana: Big Copper, Bad Water, and the Burial of an American Landscape"

Beacon Press


In her short story “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas,” science fiction master Ursula Le Guin imagines a society magically prospering because one child is locked in a closet, forced to eat garbage, beaten and otherwise neglected. In the saga of Montana mineral extraction, Missoula is that prosperous society, Opportunity the sacrificial child. With competent, even excellent prose, journalist Brad Tyer’s "Opportunity, Montana: Big Copper, Bad Water, and the Burial of an American Landscape" relates this second, sordid, real-life tale of injustice.

An avid canoeist and Texan by birth, Tyer navigates effortlessly through a veritable river of data. While some information, like the brief biographies of the three Copper Kings, William A. Clark, Marcus Daly and F.A. Heinze, is far from new, it is presented so smoothly that as facts accumulate the story of corruption and fantastic wealth becomes ever more compelling. Even the social history of copper whisks along at an entertaining pace.

Appreciating that history is, of course, essential to understanding the basic irony of the book, a theme Tyer puts succinctly and vividly: “Copper kingdoms had given way to a corporate fiefdom that turned raw dirt into a ransom in mineral wealth. The cash draining out of Montana’s valleys left a ring made of poison.” What enriched such luminaries as the Rockefellers left the Clark Fork River and the tiny town of Opportunity awash in arsenic (judged “sweet” and “delicious” by one resident), beryllium and other hazardous substances.

The Superfund designation of the Clark Fork has meant a reengineering of the entire drainage, benefiting Missoula and present-day mogul Dennis Washington’s companies Montana Rail Link and Envirocon. It has brought to Opportunity only more hazardous waste, an incomplete cleanup with inadequate “healthy” soil coverage and an incongruously beautiful golf course, once touted as the centerpiece of the town’s renewal. Through it all, ARCO’s government watchdog — the EPA — has been, according to Tyer, a puppy that “rolled over.”

Aesthetically, the cleanup is something of a success, as Tyer recounts from his first-hand experience. He describes canoeing a stretch of the Clark Fork near Deer Lodge amid “a plenitude of splashing fish” and is almost able to forget the “banks striated with rusty chemical orange slumping over eroded undercuts.” He even admires how “bright light gives depth and volume to (the hills’) monochromatic swell.”

Such cosmetic improvement is, after a fashion, what the Superfund cleanup has been all about, and, indeed, it has improved the river. But left behind have been residents of Opportunity, who remain unsure of their community’s safety though many of them profited from their work in copper mining and smelting, and still speak with reverence of Marcus Daly. Are they victims or perpetrators? And what of the Missoulians who enjoy their spruced-up river while the people of Opportunity experience an overabundance of kidney and nerve disorders?

"Opportunity, Montana" compassionately presents this tangle of pain and wealth. Throughout, Tyer blends nature writing and memoir, focused on his estrangement from a perfectionist father, with cultural history and journalistic reporting, including interviews with a variety of local players. The mix can seem a bit unwieldy. But the result is an engaging, almost breathtaking bit of nonfiction.

The unanswerable question underlying the entire project is whether some damage — personal, physical, or social — simply cannot be undone. Perhaps all Montana-style restoration projects from individual to countywide have come to resemble the Berkeley Pit “environmental protection strategy” of “shooting fireworks at birds” who might stray onto contaminated waters. And what waters, Tyer makes us wonder, are not contaminated? Where should the contaminants go? What birds do we save and which do we sacrifice?

Cara Chamberlain teaches at Rocky Mountain College and is the author of "Hidden Things," a collection of poetry.

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