Missoula whitewater rafter Daniel Berger (at rear) and friends float past three airliner fuselages dumped in Montana's Clark Fork river by a train derailment last week. (Courtesy Chuck Irestone)
The picture probably showed up in one of your feeds. It fit all sorts of algorithmic criteria for viral interestingness, shapes and colors and scale otherwise unseen in nature: The steep bank of a Montana river littered with the bare fuselages of three Boeing airplanes spilled from a train track above like oversized logs swathed in aquamarine-colored protective wrap. Or maybe not logs, but uniformly skinny whales beached far from any ocean. Either way, an eye-grabbingly irresistible curiosity. In the foreground, always, whitewater rafters taking selfies.
The river is called the Clark Fork. And I’ve paddled that stretch in canoes and rafts with some of the rafters who showed up in some of those pictures. It’s a section about 40 freeway minutes downstream of Missoula called Alberton Gorge, named for nearby Alberton, Montana—an off-Interstate mountain town of four or five hundred people. Within roughly seven easily accessible river miles are five major rapids that, depending on the flow, range from Class II to Class IV. The last of these is called Fang, and it was just downstream of Fang that the planes were tossed down the bank, coming to scattered rest with their snouts or tails in the water.
The Gorge is a fun stretch to run, but it makes you pay attention. While drownings are infrequent, substantial injuries are hardly unheard of. Boats are flipped all the time in Alberton Gorge, spilling bodies and gear that is later recovered or washed downstream to the intake grates of the next dam, at Thompson Falls, and trucked off to a landfill.
You wouldn’t know it from rocky Alberton Gorge, which is host to an almost constant stream of kayakers and rafters during the temperate months, but the Clark Fork is one of the most badly abused rivers in the United States, and simultaneously one of the luckiest.
A memoir-meets-exposé that examines our fraught relationship with the West and our attempts to clean up a toxic environmental legacy
In 2002, Texas journalist Brad Tyer strapped a canoe on his truck and moved to Montana, a state that has long exerted a mythic pull on America's imagination as an unspoiled landscape. The son of an engineer who reclaimed wastewater, Tyer was looking for a pristine river to call his own. What he found instead was a century's worth of industrial poison clotting the Clark Fork River, a decades-long engineering project to clean it up, and a forgotten town named Opportunity.
At the turn of the nineteenth century, Montana exploited the richest copper deposits in the world, fueling the electric growth of twentieth-century America and building some of the nation's most outlandish fortunes. The toxic byproduct of those fortunes-what didn't spill into the river-was dumped in Opportunity.
In the twenty-first century, Montana's draw is no longer metal, but landscape: the blue-ribbon trout streams and unspoiled wilderness of the nation's "last best place." To match reality to the myth, affluent exurbanites and well-meaning environmentalists are trying to restore the Clark Fork River to its "natural state." In the process, millions of tons of toxic soils are being removed and dumped-once again-in Opportunity. As Tyer investigates Opportunity's history, he wrestles with questions of environmental justice and the ethics of burdening one community with an entire region's waste.
Stalled at the intersection of a fading extractive economy and a fledgling restoration boom, Opportunity's story is a secret history of the American Dream, and a key to understanding the country's-and increasingly the globe's-demand for modern convenience.
As Tyer explores the degradations of the landscape, he also probes the parallel emotional geography of familial estrangement. Part personal history and part reportorial narrative, Opportunity, Montanais a story of progress and its price, of copper and water, of father and son, and of our attempts to redeem the mistakes of the past.
Brad Tyer is the managing editor of The Texas Observer in Austin. His writing has appeared in Outside, High Country News, the New York Times Book Review, the Houston Chronicle, the Drake, Texas Monthly, No Depression, and the Dallas Morning News. He's been awarded a Knight-Wallace Fellowship, a Fund for Investigative Journalism grant, and a Fishtrap writing residency.
Today is World Water Day. Observed every March 22nd, World Water Day reminds people around the globe about the importance of freshwater and urges them to advocate for the sustainable use of freshwater resources.
This year’s theme is water cooperation, a rallying cry to recognize water as a resource that we are all entitled to and for which management responsibility is shared. On the surface, coming together as a global community for the good of water sustainability seems simple. But freshwater is becoming a scarce resource—one that is not evenly distributed around the world. And, with climate change shifting growing seasons and sea levels, our understanding of water’s boundaries and availabily is becoming even more muddled. To ensure a viable future, water must be a shared, not bought and sold to the highest bidder, not polluted and ignored at the detriment of our communities.
In addition to the small steps towards water conservation that people
can take each day, World Water Day asks us to look toward the future,
understand the realities of the water crisis that we as a planet are
facing, and take steps to change it.
At Beacon Press, we have published a number of books over the last decade that explore water usage and sustainability concerns from a variety of perspectives. Below are six titles that focus on the many ways access to water affects our lives, and uncover how the lack of collaboration by individuals, corporations, and government agencies has put us on a perilous path towards international water shortages.
The first book to call for a national water ethic, Blue Revolution is a powerful meditation on water and community in America. The book combines investigative reporting with solutions from around the globe to show how local communities and entire nations can come together to stretch vanishing water supplies and protect themselves from increasingly devastating floods. Barnett challenges the conventional wisdom that the United States can build its way out of water crisis and argues that no solution would be more powerful than an ethic for water—embraced not only by citizens, but by government and major water users including the energy and agricultural sectors.
Journalist Brad Tyer moved to Montana looking for big skies, clear waters, and change of scenery. But, soon after he arrived he discovered that “the treasure state” had buried secrets. Opportunity, Montana explores how a century of copper mining devastated the Clark Fork River, which runs through the state of Montana, as it took on the bulk of the pollutants and industrial waste. In the 1980s the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) designated the river as a Superfund site in need of environmental clean-up—one of seventeen in the state. It took twenty years for the EPA and the responsible parties to agree on what to do about it, and another ten before any change would be seen. How do you fix a broken river, Tyer asks? The financial implications, estimated to be 1.3 billion dollars, were just the beginning. First, 400 acres of toxic sediment had to be dug up and disposed of, and as Tyer discovered, mining waste doesn’t go away, it just gets moved and covered up. For the second time in Montana’s copper history, that burden would fall on the small town of Opportunity.
In the last decade, the inventory of dams in the United States has been reduced by nearly 500. Though many of those have been small, privately-owned ventures, the positive impact has led to proposals for larger dam removal projects nationally. In Recovering A Lost River, Hawley advocates for the removal of dams and the restoration of the rich and thriving environments that can be found in and around free flowing water. Assessing the current state of freshwater ecosystems nationally, he reports that a third of freshwater species are threatened or endangered, forty percent of freshwater bodies in America are too polluted for swimming or fishing, and half of the nation’s wetlands are gone. This book is a call to action for overcoming corporate and federal obstacles in order to restore free flowing waterways and reinvigorate long suffering wildernesses.
In 2007, When the Rivers Run Dry was a groundbreaking exploration on the state of water sources around the world, and the looming possibility of a world-wide water shortage. It is now considered to be required reading for anyone looking to understand the water crisis.
In 2012, Fred Pearce revisited the issue of water sustainability in The Land Grabbers, exploring how the need for abundant water in industrial agriculture has resulted in wealthy countries and powerful corporations in need of water seeking to obtain it, while impoverished countries with access to water are looking to profit from it. These practices have led to the exploitation of vulnerable land, people, and water, with the potential for devastating consequences.
In 2001, at the age of twenty-two, Rajeev Goyal joined the Peace Corps. Assigned to teach English in Nepal, he found himself in the remote mountain town of Namje where villagers spend most of their day walking to and from a far-off stream to fetch water. Goyal sets out to create a water project that would pump water directly into the town, in hopes of improving every part of village life, from health and prosperity to education. With the support and dedication of the villagers, the mission is successful, but the long-term consequences of development go beyond anything Goyal could have imagined. The Springs of Namje explores how water can hold back or propel a community forward.