editor's pick

2018's best stories: The Montana Standard news staffers choose their favorites

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Superfund progress, a wolf-tracking range rider, blockchain technology, Butte police officers, a senator's spat with the president, and a much-loved pup that died too soon. These disparate subjects are among those included in the 21 stories judged to be The Montana Standard news staff's favorites of 2018.

Each news staffer was asked to pick three stories from their work from the year. Here are the stories they chose:

Mike Smith

Government reporter


Sailor Man "didn't care where he was, as long as it was with me."

This story had nothing to do with government or politics, but emails, web postings, and personal comments showed it clearly touched many readers:

"After 18 months together, our goodbyes came on quick. He was lethargic for a day and a half and wouldn't eat. He never passed up a meal, so I knew something was wrong.

"An ultrasound found a giant growth in his chest, by his spleen. They were going to do exploratory surgery on him, but X-rays showed internal lesions all over. Too many to count.

"So through my tears, I said goodbye and told him I'd be home soon and we'd never have to be apart again. I truly believe that.

"I had thought for years about getting a second dog, mostly as a buddy for Barklee. It broke my heart to see his sad face looking out the window each morning as I headed to my truck to go to work.

"That didn't quite work out the way I envisioned, because the first morning I left after getting Sailor, I had two heartbroken sets of eyes on me as I left. That never changed. Not once."

After decades of fundraising and volunteer work, the carousel is finally open

Madil McGee, 9, of Butte rides on the Spirit of Columbia Gardens carousel during a soft opening for the long-awaited attraction.

Smith spent weeks cobbling together histories of all the ponies in Butte's carousel, which opened in July after two decades of work and dedication:

"Every horse has a name, every ride is rich in tales and tributes.

"There are testaments to one person — a grandfather, a daughter, a son, a beloved doctor, a great Italian explorer.

"Some pay homage to lots of people — Native American tribes in Montana, graduating classes at Butte High, the Irish past and present, Christians everywhere.

"Two are all about kids from Butte, Divide, Melrose and Ramsay, since they collected millions of pennies to pay for materials that make up their ponies. They named them Penny and Oreo.

"One honors an actual horse — Tammany — a thoroughbred that Copper King Marcus Daly pitted against the favorite horse of the East, Lamplighter, in Guttenberg, New Jersey. Tammany won that legendary 1893 race by four lengths."

Though he normally covers District Courts in Butte, a compelling civil case took Smith to a neighboring county to write about a Whitehall man taking on Wells Fargo Bank:

"BOULDER — A Jefferson County jury told Wells Fargo on Thursday to pay $20,000 to a man who claimed the bank seized his house in Whitehall when he was away in Alaska in 2014 and took other foreclosure actions when it was the wrong house all along.

"But it was a clear victory for Wells Fargo, since Kevin Moore was seeking $600,000 in compensatory damages alone and wanted punitive damages on top of that to punish the banking giant. The bank itself said earlier it was willing to pay $43,000 for 'an honest mistake.'

"After more than two days of testimony, jurors deliberated just over two hours before returning their verdict. They said Wells Fargo should pay Moore $20,000 for being negligent, but the bank did not intentionally trespass or invade his privacy."

Susan Dunlap

Environment and natural resources reporter

This story detailed a startling new health study:

"New research indicates that from 2000 to 2015, adults living in Butte-Silver Bow and Anaconda-Deer Lodge counties died from cancer and several other diseases at significantly higher rates than residents of all other counties in Montana.

"A team of researchers based at the Arnold School of Public Health at the University of South Carolina-Columbia studied death certificates from an online database kept by the Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control last year. They found that among adults in Butte-Silver Bow and Anaconda-Deer Lodge counties, deaths from stroke, heart disease, cancer, and organ failure were elevated.

"Overall, in the two counties over the 15-year period, adult deaths from stroke and heart disease were 36 percent higher than in the other counties, deaths due to kidney and liver failure were 24 percent higher, and cancer deaths were 19 percent higher."

Anaconda Stack 1976

This photograph of the Washoe Smelter Stack was taken in 1976. The smeltermen who worked at the now-defunct Washoe Smelter, which closed in 1980, have been studied for decades.

This story commemorated the 100th anniversary of the Washoe Smelter stack:

"It was hot. It was dirty. It was dangerous. But it was a job for thousands.

"Anaconda's smelter was a lifeline to immigrants and the lifeblood of a town that depended on the jobs it provided — even as the toxins it produced shortened some workers' lives.

"The smelter was shut down in 1980, and the few smeltermen who are still around to tell their stories remember a different time and a very different Anaconda. One after another, the former workers of the Anaconda Company sat down with us on their front porches, on their lawns and in their living rooms and told stories of an idyllic time — kids running freely, neighbors drinking beer on the hood of their cars together, homes with huge families, and a place where people knew who lived in every house all the way down the block. A place where everybody looked out for one another."

Benevento, Restore our Creek

Former EPA Regional Administrator Doug Benevento exhibits a book about a proposed Silver Bow Creek Headwaters Park compiled by the Restore Our Creek Coalition during a presentation in Butte in 2018 at which he announced the "agreement in principle" reached in secret negotiations on the Butte cleanup. Working through local group CTEC, Restore Our Creek Coalition received news today it got a $50,000 grant from EPA to test the theory that nothing in that agreement will prevent a fully restored creek sometime in the future.

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This was a momentous day for Butte:

"The Environmental Protection Agency has reached a milestone agreement with all the parties on the Butte Hill Superfund cleanup, it announced Friday.

"EPA has set a goal of having all the work on the nation's largest Superfund site complete by the end of 2024. That would initiate the delisting process from the National Priorities List.

"The most notorious part of the larger Silver Bow Creek/Butte Area Superfund site — the Berkeley Pit — is included in that plan. That will 'lift the stigma' of being a Superfund site, EPA Regional Administrator Doug Benevento said before a packed house Friday at the Butte-Silver Bow Public Archives.

"EPA and the state are also working to bring 'sunshine' to this week's agreement on the Butte Hill. Because of a federal court gag order, the 12 years' worth of talks over the Butte Hill have all taken place behind closed doors."

Tracy Thornton

News clerk, reporter, and archivist

For 82 years, Butte residents shopped at this Hennessy's location.

The closing of Herberger's spurred Thornton to take a look back at Butte's vivid department store history:

"When Herberger's closed its doors this past Wednesday, it marked the end of an era for Butte residents.
"For 24 years, the Butte Plaza Mall was home to the 65,000-square-foot store. But more than that, the Mining City has not been without a major department store since about 1874, when Edward L. Bonner set up shop.

"Back in the day, the place to go was the Bonner Mercantile. With Bonner stores already in Missoula and Deer Lodge, it quickly filled a niche the growing mining town desperately needed, selling everything from ladies' furs to wallpaper to seasonal fruits.

"As Bonner's prospered, so did its owner. E.L. Bonner would venture into building railroads and presiding over one of America's largest lumber mills, located — of course — in Bonner, Montana."

2. 100 years ago: 'Spanish flu is epidemic in Butte and drastic measures must be taken ... ' (Nov. 4)

Butte may be famous for some fiery disasters, but those death tolls weren't the only ones in the city's history:

"Imagine waking up feeling like a million bucks but by nightfall finding yourself at death's door.

"That was the reality 100 years ago. The world was still at war, but unfortunately, another war was rearing its ugly head in the form of a deadly virus. The Spanish flu spread like wildfire through Butte and throughout the globe. While the majority of its victims survived, many did not.

"The death count was catastrophic. The pandemic killed more U.S. soldiers than died on the battlefields of Europe. In Butte, more than 1,000 people perished. Worldwide, it has been estimated that more than 50 million people died in the pandemic. Some experts have even put the death count closer to 100 million."

3. Uniforms are back in style (Aug. 26)


Tracy Thornton 

The return of school uniforms to Butte Central brought back memories for Thornton:

"When Susie Hogart, principal at Butte Central Elementary, called a few weeks ago to tell me the elementary was going back to uniforms, it sparked long-forgotten school-day memories for us both.

"We laughed as we talked about our own grade-school uniforms — I went to St. Mary's, Susie went to St. Patrick's. Mine was a blue and white, hers was green and white. Naturally, we argued over which one was better. Not to brag, but I believe I won that debate.

"I don't remember a whole lot about my two years at St. Mary's, but I do remember the statue of Mary being at the end of the long hallway.

"As a second-grader, I was on my hands and knees one afternoon scrubbing with a toothbrush because someone (I'm sure it wasn't me!) had crayoned a good portion of the classroom floor. At recess, it was a shoving match as my classmates and I argued over who got to play tetherball first.

"Most of all, though, I remember my uniform — a jumper with a white blouse that included a Peter Pan collar. That particular collar must have been a popular style, as Susie remembers it well, too.

"'God love our moms," she said, laughing, "They worked hard to keep those blouses clean.'"

Annie Pentilla

Business and general assignment reporter
1. Local tech professionals say blockchain is the main event, not bitcoin (July 15)

This story was an up-to-the-moment analysis of the blockchain industry and what it might mean to Butte:

"After CryptoWatt Mining LLC turned on its first servers in the MSE complex south of Butte, there has been a lot of talk about what bitcoin might mean for the Mining City.

"However, some folks in the technology sector say the greatest asset in the bitcoin phenomenon isn't the cryptocurrency itself. Instead, it's the underlying technology supporting it called blockchain.

"Considering this, perhaps the better question to ask is: what might blockchain mean for Butte?

"Phillip Curtiss, assistant professor of computer science at Montana Tech, says he's been educating students on blockchain since 2016. The decision to add the technology to the curriculum, Curtiss said, came from a desire to keep students up to date with emerging technologies. Plus, it's a great way to keep students engaged. Incidentally, a few of his students have gone on to apply the technology outside the classroom, setting up their own mines or dabbling in cryptocurrency exchange."

Butte's first Serbian festival

Dancers from Salt Lake City last year performed the traditional Kolo dance to music performed by Krisko's Polka Band from Anaconda at Butte's first-ever Serbian Festival.


This was an exploration of an event that celebrated Butte's Serbian culture:

"Standing inside Butte's Holy Trinity Serbian Orthodox Church on Continental Drive, one gets the impression of being transported to a place where human history isn't measured in centuries but rather thousands of years.

"Elaborately rendered frescos line its walls and ceilings. Thirty-foot windows feature hundreds of pieces of stained glass while two 650-pound doors stand like sentinels at the entry, sturdy enough to last for decades, maybe even centuries into the future.

.."Butte's Serbian Orthodox community has been with Butte almost from the beginning, and that's a history that members of the community plan to celebrate Saturday with Butte's first-ever Serbian Festival."

3. Butte airport officials look to the future (Feb. 25)

New Bert Mooney Airport terminal

The exterior of the new Bert Mooney Airport terminal is pictured here.

This story explored the challenges Butte's Bert Mooney Airport faces, even with a brand-new terminal coming online:

"It's Wednesday morning at the Bert Mooney Airport in Butte.

"Amid below-zero temperatures and under a blue, cloudless sky stands the airport's new $10.5-million terminal.

"Inside the terminal, where the walls are lined with timber woodwork and a sprawling stained glass window spans a northern wall, airport manager Pam Chamberlin stands behind the check-in counter readying the terminal for its first passengers, which are anticipated to pass through the airport in little more than 24 hours.

"Chamberlin says the new terminal — funded by a combination of $1 million from the county's Hard Rock Mine Trust, federal funding, and a loan guaranteed by the USDA — is a project nearly 10 years in the making.

"And now the day is finally here. The passengers are coming.

"'The outcome couldn't be any better,' said Chamberlin, referring to the completion of the terminal construction.

"But the ultimate outcome of Butte's new terminal hasn't been determined yet."

Ted McDermott

Assistant editor and general assignment reporter

1. Big Hole range rider tracks wolves toward middle ground (Aug. 2)

Working with wolves and ranchers in a vast Montana landscape

Range rider Chet Robertson stands on an island in the middle of Miner Creek in August in a remote corner of public forest west of the the Big Hole River, spreading his arms wide as he describes the 200-square-mile area he covers for the Big Hole Watershed Commission.

A portrait of a disappearing way of life:

"JACKSON — Chet Robertson found the spot he was headed to on a recent morning by doing what he's done six hours a day, July through September, for the last eight summers: following wolves.

"The wolves that led Robertson here, to a little island made by the braiding of Miner Creek, on the west side of the Big Hole, had cornered some elk and wounded one of them.

""But they headed right down this trail here," Roberston says, "so off I go."

 "A range rider hired by the Big Hole Watershed Commission, a Divide-based conservation nonprofit, Robertson's job is, at its core, profoundly simple.

"'I want the wolves to know I'm here, and I want them to know I'm here because of them,' he explains. ...'It just makes them freak out, and they move. They never stay anywhere very long.'

"That's important, Robertson says, because when the wolves are harried, they are less likely to prey on the cattle that graze on the seven Forest Service allotments that he's tasked with riding and which span an approximately 200-square-mile area."

2. Comeback tale of the westslope cutthroat trout (May 27)

Cutthroat Controversy

From left, Jim Olsen, Fish, Wildlife & Parks fish biologist, and Pat Clancey, retired FWP fish biologist, search for westslope cutthroat trout in Cherry Creek in May. Under FWP, Clancey worked with biologists from Turner Enterprises and the National Forest Service to clear the Cherry Creek drainage and Cherry Lake of Yellowstone cutthroat trout and restock the streams with westslope cutthroat trout. That project started in the late 1990s and wasn’t complete until 2012. Olsen is heading a similar project on French Creek near Wise River.

As a controversial plan to poison the fish in the French Creek drainage and replace them with native trout progressed, McDermott took a look at the results of a similar program:

"As mist moves over the foothills of Ted Turner's Flying D ranch, the bison that linger and roam in the rain stand out as an obvious indicator that this native species has found a refuge on this 175-square-mile spread southwest of Bozeman and northeast of Ennis.

"It takes a little more effort to discover that another native Montana species is inhabiting this massive — and private — landscape: westslope cutthroat trout.

"To find them, you have to follow a pair of fish biologists to the high and fast waters of Cherry Creek in the midst of spring runoff, where one biologist wades in with a backpack shocker and the other follows behind with a net, scooping up the briefly disabled fish and dropping them into a pickle bucket."

3. Parrot project discovers more extensive contamination (Sept. 24)

Rapidly moving dirt, clay, slag and tailings

Crews from Lewistown-based MK Weeden Construction move dirt, clay, slag, and tailings in September during the first phase of the two-phase Parrot project. Water and Environmental Technologies Senior Engineer John Trudnowski said the landscape of the Parrot project changes daily as crews work through the phases of cleanup.

This story was validation to many who had advocated for the Parrot Smelter waste removal project:

"Overlooking the massive, tiered hole in the earth near where the Parrot smelter once stood and where a fleet of heavy equipment was rapidly moving dirt, clay, slag and tailings on Friday morning, Water and Environmental Technologies Senior Engineer John Trudnowski explained the scene below in the most understated of terms: 'What you're seeing right here is more or less a backfill operation.'

"That might technically be true, but what was actually happening was a major environmental cleanup that has been in the works since at least 2006, when the state of Montana began pushing the Environmental Protection Agency to remove the buried contamination to protect Blacktail and Silver Bow creeks.

"When excavation finally began on Aug. 7 of this year, engineers for the Parrot Tailings Waste Removal Project weren't sure exactly what they would find as they started digging into the site. But now that crews from the Lewistown-based MK Weeden Construction have been moving and removing huge amounts of dirt as part of the first phase of the two-phase project, a more complete picture of the extent of the site's contamination is coming into view.

"...Jim Ford, the project manager for the Montana Natural Resource Damage Council, presented an update on the removal work at a meeting of the Butte Natural Resource Damage Restoration Council (BNRC). There, Ford described the various layers that exist between the surface and the groundwater on the site. He also told attendees that groundwater contamination at the site is more extensive than many experts had previously believed.  

'Everywhere we're digging down to the groundwater, we're finding blue water,' Ford said."

Maddie Vincent

Safety, education, and general assignment reporter

1. Meet the Butte police: Three shifts, three officers, one day in the life (Aug. 5)

Vincent went on ride-alongs around the clock to draw a picture of the daily challenge of law enforcement in The Mining City:

"It's just after 2 a.m. outside of the Party Palace on a Saturday night. Dozens of people sway through the sidewalk, mingling with drinks in hand. The Butte police are there, too, steadier than but just as amused as the partiers they're asking to find safe rides home. Officer Bryce Foley surveys the Palace from the middle of the street. Two women blow kisses at the young man, but he either doesn't notice or ignores them. A few minutes pass. He consults with another officer then says, laughing, 'All right, let's leave these people alone.' He gets back into his patrol car and begins circling the Butte bars, a common theme that guides most of his late-night shifts.

"'I am a firm believer that having a presence makes people think twice about committing a crime,' Foley said.

"Foley has been with Butte law enforcement for eight years, first at the detention center and now with the police. He and most of the other police officers are from here. His older brother is a police officer in Bozeman, and Foley doesn't know how he does it.

"'Not to sound corny, but I can't imagine being a police officer for any other place,' Foley said. 'Butte is the city I care about, am proud of, and am invested in.'"

2. Breaking the cycle: Grant will aid addicted pregnant women and new mothers (Nov. 4)

Making it through dark days, pregnant mom overcomes addiction

Josh Chiasson, 32, cradles his 3-month-old baby Jordynn as his wife Leslee looks on at their home on Friday afternoon in Butte. Leslee Chiasson was addicted to pain medication while pregnant, but with the help of medical professionals at St. James Healthcare, she and Jordynn came through the pregnancy safe.

Addiction is a curse for anyone, but for a pregnant woman or new mother, it's far worse:

"Before Nov. 29, 2017, Leslee Chiasson considered herself "normal": a military wife who loved to ride dirt bikes and four-wheelers with her husband and who had a job as a housekeeper at St. James Healthcare.

"But on that day, Chiasson's life as she knew it changed. She had surgery to fuse two vertebrae after injuring her back at work. A few weeks post-operation, she realized she was pregnant — and addicted to her prescription pain medication.

"'I was taking the pills as prescribed,' Chiasson said. 'Next thing I knew, I was physically addicted.'

"Chiasson soon became one of many pregnant women struggling with addiction on Dr. George Mulcaire-Jones's patient list — one of many the St. James Healthcare obstetrician knew about, at least.

"Mulcaire-Jones said because there isn't a universal or standardized screening to identify addicted pregnant women at St. James, he and his colleagues identify only about one in three that come through their doors. And even if they are identified, Mulcaire-Jones says, most mothers continue using and discontinue treatment as soon as their baby is born.

"'About 57 percent of women in Montana stop using during their pregnancy because they have the opportunity to,' Mulcaire-Jones said. 'But relapse rates are high, and many of these kids end up in foster care.'

"But by the beginning of next year, Mulcaire-Jones has reason to believe these circumstances will change for his patients. His hope is due to a $150,000 Montana Healthcare Foundation grant."

3. Butte support group for parents of special needs kids spreads across the state (Dec. 9)

A local support group for parents of special needs kids is spreading to other cities in the state:

"In the basement of the Butte 4-C's building, a support group met. They grabbed snacks off of a table near the door, shared the highs and lows from the previous month, and offered each other advice based on their shared experiences.

"The group members were parents with kids at different ages who go to different schools or who have graduated high school and are living on their own. All of these kids have different special needs or mental health issues, ranging from autism to ADHD. 

"Called the Circle of Parents, this group has met monthly for over three years at the Butte 4-C's, a private nonprofit organization that offers a variety of services related to the well-being of children and their families. 

"'We cry a lot, and we laugh a lot," said Heather Stenson, the group's facilitator. "It's truly a safe, non-judgmental place to vent.'" 

David McCumber


1. Tester says he's 'not worried' about feud with Trump (May 4)

In order to get this interview, McCumber had to climb into Sen. Jon Tester's tractor cab:

"BIG SANDY — Spring in northern Montana is an eye-blink of time between snow and dust.

"It came late this year, which means farmers have precious little time to get their fields planted.

"So no way was Jon Tester going to leave his tractor just to talk about the little spat he's having with the president of the United States.

"I went to him Thursday for his first interview on the subject — sharing his tractor cab as he worked on getting seed in the ground on his 1,800 acres.

"'We've got pretty good moisture now. But it better rain in July,' he fretted. 'Otherwise, as late as we're getting the seed in the ground, we're not going to have much of a year.'

"In fact, Montana's senior senator sounded a lot more concerned about the weather come July than about the prospect of an enraged President Trump campaigning against him in the fall.

"'I'm going to do what I'm supposed to do, and the president is going to do what he's going to do,' Tester said. 'I'm not worried about it.'

2. Glenn Brackett's Sweetgrass rods are a fly fisher's dream (March 21)

Sweetgrass Rods

Expert bamboo fishing rod maker and owner of Sweetgrass Rods, Glenn Brackett uses a specially designed maul to split a piece of bamboo in April in his shop in Butte.

The story of Glenn Brackett and his craft practically wrote itself:

"It is a mix of aromas, each one faint, together producing a powerful sensation: Green tea, steeping. Hints of wood glue and spar varnish. And the unique waft of recently heated bamboo.

"It is the smell of history, tradition, craftsmanship. And integrity.

"For a fly fisher, even a clumsy one like me, sitting in Glenn Brackett's modest Sweetgrass Rods shop — a converted garage in Uptown Butte — sipping the tea, breathing that mélange of pungent molecules, and listening to his soft, wise words is a serenity treatment superior to any aromatherapy on the market.

"Still, like the bamboo itself, so perfect for rod-making because of the reserve of power in the long cellular structure of the wood, there is power lurking in this peaceful place. Hold a Sweetgrass fly rod in your hand and it's as though you've been plugged into a 220 outlet. Move the rod a little, let it flex, and suddenly you can see the cutthroat trout inhale the tiny bug you've just landed on the surface of the stream, feel his pulsing weight, the spray from his jump, the throb of his belly in your hand for a few moments, the swish of his tail as he darts free."

Cleanup workers keep the soil wet

Cleanup workers keep contaminated soil wet while it is removed from a residential yard in Libby in September to prevent dust from carrying asbestos into the air.

This story was a follow-up to the reporting in "An Air That Kills," a book about the Libby asbestos tragedy by Andrew Schneider and McCumber:

"LIBBY — The houses and yards and businesses are cleaned up. The so-called stigma of Superfund designation is fast fading. The Cabinet Mountains and the crystalline waters of the Kootenai River beckon visitors and even new residents. And if not for the slow-motion horror of the plague on this place, Libby, self-titled City of Eagles, would be soaring.

"Instead, this beautiful town, doused every day for more than six decades with tons of asbestos-laden dust from a nearby vermiculite mine, still suffers the unthinkable — a steady stream of the sick and the dying.

"Thanks to the latency period of asbestos-related disease, that won't change any time soon."

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