Fall 2012 - Now that excavators and dump trucks are gone, and grasses, willows, and trees are slowly taking root, the Milltown Superfund site is looking less like a construction zone, and more like the park it’s about to become. For one hundred years, Milltown Dam straddled the confluence of the Clark Fork and Blackfoot rivers, blocking fish and holding back a century’s worth of polluted mining waste. The 180-acre reservoir behind the dam was full of contaminated sediment—6.6 million cubic yards of it—that washed down from Butte’s copper mines during the record flood of 1908 and stacked up behind the dam. The contaminated sediment, laden with arsenic and copper, poisoned local wells and killed off fish and other aquatic life during high flows and ice jams. Now, thanks to Superfund cleanup, the worst of that is gone. In place of a dam and reservoir, the Clark Fork River meanders naturally across a wide floodplain. What a difference six years has made.
Up next is the building of trails, parking, benches, and river access for the newly designated Milltown State Park. According to the park manager, Michael Kustudia, “the beauty of this park is that there will be numerous recreational opportunities. There will be access for floating, fishing, hiking, biking, and bird-watching. It’s spectacular wildlife habitat already – and it’s still on the mend.” The park includes 540 acres of which over 400 are in the floodplain. That part of the park in the former reservoir area will be developed only with trails to channel foot, bike, and horse traffic on the still-recovering floodplain.
Most of the park’s infrastructure will be built next to the confluence, where the powerhouse used to stand. There will be parking, trails, benches and tables, a stone plaza with interpretive signage, and a walk-in river access. Kustudia says, “What excites me are the interpretive possibilities because there’s so much history here. There are many stories– from the time of the Salish and Nez Perce to Lewis and Clark to the industrialists that dammed the river to the story of the dam’s removal. “ Funds were set aside in the legal settlement (the Consent Decree) for interpretive signage to mitigate the loss of the historic powerhouse, and parts of the powerhouse itself were salvaged so that story can be told.
There are still a few hurdles to overcome before the park is a reality. “Things don’t move as quickly as you or I would like,” Kustudia said. “To develop a park in a former Superfund site is not easy.” He’s encountering red tape in the form of land and railroad access, as well as zoning and floodplain issues. Money is an issue too. FWP received a $1.8 million dollar grant award from the state Natural Resources Damage Program, but after more detailed plans were drawn the estimate increased to $2.8 million. That means plans for a pavilion and large group shelter will be postponed for the time being. And while the grant provided funds for a partial design of a pedestrian bridge to connect the park across the Clark Fork River, the funds to build the bridge will have to come from elsewhere. It would cost anywhere from $2.5 million to $5.4 million dollars.
Kustudia expects that the Blackfoot River, and hopefully the park, will be open to the public by July 1, 2013.