The Clark Fork River winds through the heart of western Montana; carrying more water than any other river system in the state. It is a hard working river that has contributed to the prosperity of mining, ranching, logging and tourism. However, some endeavors injured the precious resource that flows like a life-giving force through our valleys and communities. In 2013 a historic cleanup of the upper Clark Fork began at its headwaters below Warm Springs Ponds where the waters from Silver Bow, Mill, Willow and Warm Springs Creeks join to form this mighty river. The Montana Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ), the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and the Montana Natural Resource Damage Program (NRDP) have joined forces with conservation groups and contractors with the common goal of restoring the Clark Fork.
The first area to be cleaned up was fittingly dubbed Phase 1 by DEQ, the lead agency responsible for the cleanup. Phase 1 consists of the first 1.75 river miles of a project that stretches 43 river miles from Warm Springs to Garrison. 2013 saw the successful removal of 100% of the targeted contaminants on Phase 1 as 330,000 cubic yards of contamination were removed. Governor Steve Bullock visited the site in July of 2013 and provided a powerful visualization of how much contamination that is when he stated that, “If you stacked the waste onto a 100-yard football field it would be 50-feet high.”
Brian Bartkowiak, DEQ Clark Fork River Project Manager, oversees the project, and has been pleased with its progress, “Phase 1 operated on or ahead of schedule,” he informed us. Helena Sand and Gravel was contracted to complete the construction and their work operated on or ahead of schedule. Phase 1 is 99% complete with only some minor site work planned for completion of the project in the spring of 2014.
The Clark Fork River’s designation as a Superfund site came in 1992. It is important to remember that taxpayers are not providing funding for the cleanup. The money for the work is the result of a lawsuit won by the State of Montana against BP- Atlantic Richfield.
Remediation is the term for removing the mining waste that has contaminated the river for over one hundred years. Restoration is the term for restoring the environment to past glory. One of the main components of restoring the system is planting vegetation along the stream banks. The stream banks are a crucial part of the clean up as contamination has made banks unstable and incapable of maintaining a healthy growth of vegetation.
In 2014 the cleanup moved downstream onto private lands as Phase 5 and 6 began on the Clark Fork Coalition’s Dry Cottonwood Ranch near Galen. A final design was approved by DEQ, the Design Review Team (which CFRTAC holds a seat), and the landowner. Work will continue through spring 2016.
Those involved in the cleanup have kept faith and cherished hope that someday we would see the Clark Fork returned to former glory. The cleanup on Phase 1 is a first step in a larger process that will take over a decade of remediation, followed by years of natural healing. The process has required patience, acceptance and understanding. Further cooperation will be crucial in creating the best cleanup possible. With the great success that we saw in the cleanup of Phase 1 much of our pessimism and cynicism can become optimism as we look to a future of prosperity and a return to greatness by the Clark Fork River.
For more information regarding the Clark Fork River cleanup please call Darryl Barton, CFRTAC Coordinator, (406) 846-1628.