"I remember Rick Bass in Missoula, talking about this Montana, the one that most people never see. "The poison hasn't gone away," he'd said. "It's simply redistributed. We need new stories to tell this truth, new stories built with old words." -- p. 23
A dozen or so years ago my wife and I had the great good fortune to take our one and only trip out west. We spent an exciting ten days exploring Utah, Idaho, Wyoming and Montana. Not nearly enough time to be sure but we got a taste of life out there in the wide open spaces. Or so we thought. One of the highlights of our trip was an unscheduled stop in the town of Anaconda, Montana. We were thoroughly impressed with the town itself and with the Jack Nicklaus-designed Old Works Golf Course that was built on top of a former Superfund site. In retrospect, we bought all of the Chamber of Commerce hype and really had no idea about the grave environmental issues still plaguing this area. When I had a chance to grab a copy of Brad Tyer's new book "Opportunity, Montana: Big Copper, Bad Water, and the Burial of an American Landscape" off the Amazon Vine I simply could not resist. Brad is a transplanted Texan who moved to Missoula just about the same time we were out there. He fell in love with the rivers but quickly discovered that all was not as it appeared to be. Being a journalist he decided that this was a story that really needed to be told. The tale he tells proves to be a real eye-opener.
The tiny berg of Opportunity, Montana is a rural suburb of the town of Anaconda founded by the Anaconda Copper Co. back in 1912 as a garden community for retired smelter workers. For nearly a century it was used as a dump for Butte's mine tailings and Anaconda's smelter waste. And now to add insult to injury the waste from the cleanup of the Clark Fork River downstream in Missoula is being hauled here. This is the disturbing story that Brad Tyer relates in his book. And while the decision to haul this waste here may be a perfectly logical one it has devastating consequences for the people who live and work here. Where is the economic justice? I suppose someone must pay the price for the industrialized world's dependence on copper. Did you know that the average American home is laced with 439 pounds of copper wiring and plumbing, with another 100 pounds embedded in various household appliances? I had no idea! In "Opportunity, Montana" you will learn the sordid history of the mining and smelting that occurred in the area and meet many of the people who must now deal with all of the fallout. You will be introduced to the copper barons who made it all happen including William Clark, Marcus Daly and George Hearst. You will also discover the role that politics has played in all of this over the past century. It is not a pretty picture.
As far as I'm concerned one of the most poignant moments in "Opportunity, Montana" was Brad Tyer's interview with 56 year old George Niland who has spent his entire life living in this community. Tyer reports that "Two of George's sisters died of cancer. Two of his mom's dogs died of cancer. He says he could name fifteen neighbors in Opportunity who have died of the disease. When he was forty-nine George himself was diagnosed with a cancerous tumor on his spine." What's more, it turns out that George's dad, a crane man with the Anaconda Company, died of kidney failure when he was just 32 years old! There is highly toxic waste just about everywhere in this town and no one has ever offered to buy these folks out and relocate them. These folks are paying the price for so many of the creature comforts that the rest of us enjoy.
After reading "Opportunity, Montana: Big Copper, Bad Water, and the Burial of an American Landscape" I have come to the realization that the Montana that my wife and I experienced all those years ago was in a great many ways just an illusion. In our travels we have driven through the mountains of West Virginia and have experienced first hand the devastating impact of mountaintop mining removal. The damage in many areas of Montana is much less apparent. Tourists have no clue. As the industrialization of the Third World accelerates these problems are only going to become more acute. Brad Tyer's brief reference to the heavy metal pollution in the Xiang River in China will make your hair stand on end. There are tens of thousands of smelters along that river! Reading "Opportunity, Montana" is a great way to get up to speed about these extremely important environmental issues. It kind of makes me wonder if each and every one of us could make do with just a bit less. It is something worth thinking about. This is an extremely well-written book by a very talented writer who cares deeply about his subject matter. Highly recommended!
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