A memoir-meets-exposé that examines our fraught relationship with the West and our attempts to clean up a toxic environmental legacy.
In 2002, Texas journalist Brad Tyer strapped a canoe on his truck and moved to Montana, a state that has long exerted a mythic pull on America’s imagination as an unspoiled landscape. The son of an engineer who reclaimed wastewater, Tyer was looking for a pristine river to call his own. What he found instead was a century’s worth of industrial poison clotting the Clark Fork River, a decades-long engineering project to clean it up, and a forgotten town named Opportunity.
At the turn of the nineteenth century, Montana exploited the richest copper deposits in the world, fueling the electric growth of twentieth-century America and building some of the nation’s most outlandish fortunes. The toxic by-product of those fortunes—what didn’t spill into the river—was dumped in Opportunity.
In the twenty-first century, Montana’s draw is no longer metal but landscape: the blue-ribbon trout streams and unspoiled wilderness of the nation’s “last best place.” To match reality to the myth, affluent exurbanites and well-meaning environmentalists are trying to restore the Clark Fork River to its “natural state.” In the process, millions of tons of toxic soils are being removed and dumped—once again—in Opportunity. As Tyer investigates Opportunity’s history, he wrestles with questions of environmental justice and the ethics of burdening one community with an entire region’s waste.
Stalled at the intersection of a fading extractive economy and a fledgling restoration boom, Opportunity’s story is a secret history of the American Dream and a key to understanding the country’s—and increasingly the globe’s—demand for modern convenience.
As Tyer explores the degradations of the landscape, he also probes the parallel emotional geography of familial estrangement. Part personal history and part reportorial narrative, Opportunity, Montana is a story of progress and its price: of copper and water, of father and son, and of our attempts to redeem the mistakes of the past.
“Straightforward, heartfelt, and elegant.” -Ian Frazier, author of Travels in Siberia and Great Plains
“Memoir, history, and the unequal application of economic justice come together in Tyer’s deeply felt and sharply penned nonfiction debut.” -Publishers Weekly, starred review
From this distance it looks almost like a half-buried, old-style Mc-Donald’s: two pale, parallel parabolas arcing side by side in a lateral shaft of sun. Snow clouds roll in behind the wind. The wind stings. Maybe it’s the angle, but the structure appears to be solidly on land, and entirely surrounded by water. Maybe it’s some kind of sculpture or earthwork, something designed for looking at and wondering why. There’s rarely anybody out here to look but maintenance guys in company trucks and duck hunters. Some birders probably. Binoculars would help. I’d like to throw the canoe on the water and paddle over to see, but I hadn’t planned on the ponds being iced over when I drove up here to squeeze in one last late-season paddle. The sheet ice isn’t thick yet, but it doesn’t take much to freeze all the fun out of a canoe. Still, I drove all the way up here. The light is remarkable, with shape and volume, as if it’s displacing the dark air. I’ll walk. Beavers and bobcats and coots and ducks and geese and gray partridges and minks and mourning doves and mule deer and whitetails and muskrats and otters and sandhill cranes and snipes all live here, and in the proper season, with the approved equipment, you can kill them. I don’t see any hunters today, though v´tis the season. The geese are out on Pond 3, standing on the ice, and a few ducks cluster at the outlet pipes that connect one pond to another, where movement keeps the water just a little too warm to freeze. The berms cut out into the ponds at right angles to each other, more or less square to the shores, chopping the water into cells. The berms are flat-topped, with ruts on the flats, where company trucks drive out to open and close the pipes. There aren’t any trucks out here today either. Half a mile out on the first berm I come to a left turn, and the ruts roll off toward an angular rise holding back a higher-elevation cell. I follow the ruts for three-quarters of a mile and they take me right alongside the arched whatever it is. The little dike I’m on dips to a low spit, and on the spit is planted a pole-mounted, quarterfed binocular like the ones at Niagara Falls, except this one’s heavy metal eyepieces are gone, like some monster magpie has pecked the sockets clean. Who knows why it’d been put here in the first place. It wasn’t to look at the bridge, which is what the arched thing turns out to be. A historical marker at the edge of its island says so. The bridge is just a few steps away, across a shallow slip of water. It’s called the Morel Rainbow Arch Bridge. It was built in 1914, in the flush of a national initiative known as the Good Roads Movement, to cross Silver Bow Creek, thus completing the dirt county road that connected a then-thriving town called Anaconda with a now-traceless substation called Morel on the long-defunct Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul, and Pacific line nearby. The Rainbow Arch design had been copied from a similar bridge patented by its builder, Iowa’s J. B. Marsh, in 1912. It’s made of poured concrete: cheap and strong and erectable with no more skill than could be rounded up by a local prison warden. The superstructure isn’t even slightly impressive, maybe twenty feet long and a horse cart and a half wide, hardly more than headhigh. But it was the only one of its style ever built in Montana, and it was decommissioned just two years after the cement dried, so the state got it listed in the National Register of Historic Places and planted a silver metal marker on it: “The bridge was abandoned in 1916 when the Anaconda Mining Company--which owned the surrounding land--built Pond 2, one of a series of settling ponds that separate old Highway 10 and the interstate. Today, Atlantic Richfield, a BP affiliated company, maintains the water treatment facilities and the State of Montana manages the site for wildlife and recreational use.” Even prison labor is too precious to waste hauling away concrete bridges, so here it remains. Over the years sediment piled up like a pearl and turned water and thin air into an island. The graywhite concrete rises out of browned bunches of cocklebur and a wheat-colored carpet of scrub grass emerging from the white down of the season’s first snow. Milky matte-green sagebrush sprouts at either end. A sentinel clump of red osier dogwood glows like backlit rust. A gold-fronded patch of cattails turns black from the frost. The Rainbow Arch no longer spans water to connect land. Now, stranded, isolate, without function--it connects nothing. The creek is long gone too, of course, drowned with water and filled with silt. What a perfectly odd place to be. I’ve given up the prospect of canoeing on solid water to stand on a bridge I had to step across liquid to get to, in the middle of a wetland filled with submerged mine waste, freezing my fingers at the Warm Springs Ponds. This bridge that isn’t a bridge spans two centuries, two kinds of wealth, two ideas of what water is good for. I’m straddling the spot where a river died, looking out across the landscape of its rebirth. On a clear day, I can almost see Opportunity from here
Part 1: Headwater
Part 2: Venus Rising
Part 3: Red Harvest
Part 4: Clark Fork
Part 5: Opportunity
Part 6: Revival
Part 7: Confluence
A Word About Facts
From the Hardcover edition.
- Click here to read an excerpt in Audubon Magazine
- MotherEarthNews.com ran an excerpt of Opportunity, Montana on copper history, usage, and mining, 11/14