Upper Clark Fork River Cleanup Work Begins

December 12, 2010

With little fanfare but long anticipation, cleanup work at the Clark Fork River Superfund site began in October with the excavation of contaminated soil from residential areas in Deer Lodge and along the Eastside Road.

The event marks the start of the Superfund cleanup more than 20 years in the making, one that will see the removal of historic mining waste from the river banks and floodplain over the next decade or so at a cost of $123 million.

"I am excited that actual cleanup work has begun," says Brian Bartkowiak, operations manager for Montana Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ), the agency that leads the project. Bartkowiak says that DEQ contractors cleaned up five of six properties before hard freeze occurred, and that another 12 properties are on deck for early 2011.

The 18 residential properties slated for cleanup lie either along the banks of the Clark Fork River in Deer Lodge city limits or on the Eastside Road, where many decades ago a historic irrigation ditch flooded fields with contaminants such as arsenic, copper, cadmium, zinc and lead.

Historically, the Eastside Road properties were owned by the Montana State Prison Ranch. In those days, ranchers in the area typically shut their head-gates to stop river water when the Clark Fork was running red with mining contamination. But the inmates who operated the prison's ranch were reportedly less vigilant in keeping contaminated water from reaching these fields. The use of the ditch was stopped entirely when it was realized how much harm the water was causing to crops, but by then the damage was done.

Over the years, the land was sold and homes were built along the Eastside Road. Today shallow layers of mining contamination remain, usually at a depth of 6 inches although as deep as 18 inches in some places. For the cleanup, contaminated soil will be removed (up to two feet in gardens) and replaced with clean soil (from a borrow area the state owns on the west side of I-90). The soil will be amended with certified weed-free compost and then seeded. Residential yards will be replanted with fresh sod. Water trucks will keep dust under control through the duration of the project.

Next up on the cleanup horizon is the Trestle area in Deer Lodge. SeeClark Fork River Cleanup Work On Tap for 2011.

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