Opportunity, Montana 

Copper Mining's Complicated Legacies Get a Hard Look in Opportunity, Montana

With their storm-swallowing massiveness and veined, granitic peaks, Western landscapes invite a comforting lie: Theirs is a resilience no species so thin of skin, so vulnerable to cold wind and sharp rock, could sap.

Nobody believes this lie anymore, if we ever did. What contemporary environmentalists believe in is redemption; that we can undo harms levied in a previous age of resource exploitation.

Brad Tyer's Opportunity, Montana (Beacon, 2013) is a meticulously researched, entertaining rant of nonfiction that targets with bullseye precision contemporary environmentalism's faith in redemption.

Tyer, a native Texan and longtime journalist, relocated to Montana more than a decade ago. His book is part love letter to Montana rivers and part exploration of his toxic relationship with his father. But mostly, it's an examination of the legacies of Montana copper mining. According to Tyer, copper made a few horrendously rich, created jobs for a region, wired a nation and will sicken a landscape for generations.

At the book's heart is a tiny town with an irresistibly ironic name: Opportunity. Opportunity was built in the 20th century for employees of the Anaconda Mining Company, which owned copper mines in and around Butte, Mont. Since the company also owned the land surrounding the town, nobody complained when staggering quantities of toxic smelter residue and mine tailings were dumped onto adjacent wetlands and even used as construction fill.

Fast forward to the age of redemption. A decade ago, activists began pushing hard for commencement of a long-promised Superfund cleanup of the Clark Fork, a pretty, poisoned river near Missoula, Mont. They won. Trainloads of toxic soil and residue from those same Butte area mines would be excavated from the riverbed and banks and moved. To Opportunity.

Tyer doesn't say this is wrong. Cleaning up the Clark Fork, he says, is clearly right. But it would be deeply wrong to pretend that the only costs of the cleanup are financial. It would be wrong to pretend, for instance, that the now twice-poisoned town of Opportunity doesn't exist.

Jo Deurbrouck is the author of Anything Worth Doing, winner of a 2012 National Outdoor Book Award. She lives in Idaho Falls.

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