March 9, 2010

Superfund cleanups in the upper Clark Fork River Basin were a substantial focus of the 6th Clark Fork Symposium held last week at the University of Montana.

The two-day event, held every five years since 1985, kicked off with a state of the Clark Fork River by UM professor Vicki Watson. Dr. Watson offered an overview of current conditions, trends, challenges and actions. The river is showing some encouraging signs of recovery, such as a 2009 sampling of macroinvertebrates ( e.g. aquatic insects like stoneflies) that showed the stream, with 10 years of cleanup and restoration work behind it, moved from a severely impaired to moderately impaired category. Still plenty of challenges remain aside from the cleanup. Among them are climate change and population growth, both of which place demands on the river's water. Some 87 miles of the upper Clark Fork are considered chronically dewatered.

Dr. Watson nonetheless found encouragement in the amount of resources dedicated to restoring the Clark Fork River. The EPA and NRDP (and BP-ARCO) alone account for more than billion dollars in funding for the river. Numerous other agencies are involved as well. And, she pointed out, it's a long term commitment. "Watershed keeping is like housekeeping, it's never over."

Joel Chavez from the Montana DEQ talked about the ongoing cleanup and restoration work on more than 21 miles of Silver Bow Creek. That effort, led by the state with EPA oversight, began in 1999 involves removing and shipping more than four million tons of floodplain contamination to BP-ARCO's repository. The agency is also building a new stream, one that will be allowed to move naturally across the floodplain. It's an example of integrated remediation and restoration, and one that's come in under budget. (An estimated $30 to $50 million will be returned to the NRDP and spent elsewhere.)

The upper reaches of Silver Bow Creek, now a decade into recovery, look like a stream on the mend. The creek has seen the return of some early pioneer trout, including a 13-inch cutthroat. Wildlife, from bears to bighorns, and some 70 bird species have made use of the restored sections of the stream. Chavez said the work and the recovery will be monitored for at least 20 years. "It doesn't take very long to make a big mess but it takes a long time and a lot of money to clean it up," he said.

On the Clark Fork River, Chavez said the cleanup is "a little bit different" given that many of the sites are private, productive ag land. Early success will help convince landowners about the cleanup. Fortunately, the cleanup will largely start on the uppermost reach of the Clark Fork on land owned by BP-ARCO. "The first one you do has to be the best."

Once in full swing, Chavez said there will be two to three major construction projects ongoing along the river per year.

Carol Fox of the NRDP gave an overview of the state's lawsuits against ARCO that created the fund and highlighted the cooperation among agencies, calling it an "intricate spider web." The program has seen success in the upper river, particularly the Milltown and Silver Bow Creek projects.

Pat Saffel, fisheries biologist with the FWP, said the agency's vision for the Clark Fork is "an ecologically restored river that is a source of enjoyment for the people, economic growth and pride." The agency is working the NRDP to prioritize projects and have done fishery and habitat assessments on 120 upper Clark Fork tributaries. Priorities for projects will be to restore the mainstem, improve the tribs, and enhance native fisheries.

Butte legislator Jon Sesso recounted the history of the five square mile Butte Superfund site. Focused on soil and water, goals in Butte are to eliminate human contact with contaminants for residents, to remove or cap contaminated soils and to control contaminated runoff. Sesso described numerous cleanup efforts throughout the city, in places such as East Butte, Timber Butte and Missoula Gulch over the last two decades. And some sites have been redeveloped with energy-efficient affordable housing, ball parks and trails.

And for lessons learned about 25 years of Butte Superfund effort, Sesso turned to the Laws of Ecology from famed biologist Barry Commoner:

  • Everything is connected to everything else.
  • Everything must go somewhere.
  • Nature knows best.
  • There's no such thing as a free lunch.

For additional coverage, see the Montana Kaimin and the Missoulian.

Go to top