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Clark Fork cleanup moves forward after holiday break

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Canada geese perch on ice shelves along the Clark Fork River and fluff up their down jackets against the cold.  

It’s been quieter in recent weeks for geese and men along the stretch of river near Perkins Lane. Phase 3 of Superfund cleanup began there in spring and will move incrementally along the river and eventually end about half-way to the Galen Road. Phase 3 work continued through summer and fall and just recently paused for the Christmas and New Year’s holidays.

The project is said to be ahead of schedule, but with a lot of excavation and hauling remaining.

During summer and fall, trucks fitted with side dump trailers waited as  excavator operators filled the trailers with contaminated soils. The trailer loads were hauled a comparatively short distance and dumped in a repository in the Opportunity Ponds. The company doing the work was Missouri River Contractors and its employees labored long hours during the summer days of prolonged light.

The Montana Department of Environmental Quality is the lead agency for the Clark Fork site. It consults with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and coordinates with the state Natural Resource Damage Program.

Tim Reilly, an environmental scientist with DEQ, is the new project manager for the upper Clark Fork cleanup.

He reported Tuesday that about 260,000 cubic yards of contaminated soils and materials have been transported to the repository in the Opportunity Ponds. Roughly 300,000 cubic yards remain to be removed, Reilly reported.

“The contractor is currently ahead of schedule,” he said.

DEQ anticipates completing Phase 3 cleanup in 2022. 

Longtime DEQ employee Joel Chavez has served as project manager of the Clark Fork cleanup. He also supervised the remediation of Silver Bow Creek west of Butte, a project whose outcome was generally celebrated —transforming a nearly lifeless stream to a recovering ecosystem.

Chavez retired Dec. 31.

There has been controversy about previously completed cleanup work along the Clark Fork River. Some observers have felt the DEQ’s approach has been too aggressive, leading to removal of metals-tolerant riparian vegetation and of stream bank structures favored by the river’s declining population of brown trout.  

The DEQ has responded by saying the agency saves vegetation and river structures conducive to trout habitat when and where it can, noting, however, that its primary mission is to remove contamination.

The EPA’s Clark Fork River Operable Unit stretches from the river’s headwaters near Warm Springs to the former Milltown Reservoir east of Missoula. But the majority of the cleanup will occur from Warm Springs downstream to Garrison — a section of roughly 45 miles referred to as Reach A. Pollutants include heavy metals — cadmium, copper, zinc and lead — and arsenic.

A catastrophic flood in 1908 washed contaminants downstream.

The target is removal of tailings in the streambanks and floodplain that harbor the contamination from historic mining, milling and smelting activities upstream by the Anaconda Company. The tailings and toxic sediments have accumulated along the river for more than 100 years.

Atlantic Richfield purchased the Anaconda Co. in 1977. Three years later, Congress passed the legislation creating the federal Superfund program. And Atlantic Richfield became responsible for addressing the massive pollution left behind by the once-powerful company that mined and smelted ore.  

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