Back to Montana River Action
Montana River Action
Search This Site
Home Email
Join MRA

Clark Fork of the Columbia

Silver Bow Creek / Smurfit - Stone Container Corp. / Rock Creek Mine / Subdivsions / Milltown Dam

Early settlers were impressed by the crystal clear waters and the abundant native trout of the Clark Fork, but in the 1880's, Marcus Daly discovered the purest deposit of copper sulfide in North America. The mining and smelting were originally generated by the Amalgated Copper Company, later known as Anaconda Copper Mining Co. (ACM), whose economic copper collar was locked tightly around the throats of Montanans from the 1880s to the present day with the collapse of the Montana Power Company. Toxic sediments from 160 years of mining and smelting at Butte and Anaconda are deposited in the river for 120 miles downstream. The Clark Fork River at Deerlodge is also seriously dewatered by irrigators.

After living with ACM’s toxic inheritance for 120 years, Montanans deserve to have the Clark Fork River cleaned up thoroughly and permanently. The barren, ruined wetlands between Warm Springs and Garrison must be restored to improve fish and wildlife habitat. The economic benefits of having a free flowing, unpolluted river running between Opportunity and Missoula and to the many communities downstream would be considerable. With a clean river, spawning of native bull, brown, rainbow, brook trout and whitefish would be restored, as well as our integrity, and history would come alive.

Silver Bow Creek

Butte’s Silver Bow Creek is the headwaters of the Clark Fork of the Columbia River. The creek has been heavily impacted by mining since 1841 when gold was discovered, by 1875 silver and copper were mined and smelted in Butte and by 1881 five railroads serviced the area. By 1888 a workers union was started and by 1916 14,500 underground miners were employed. Water and air pollution were uncontrolled and arsenic and sulphur compounds poisoned the landscape. Copper companies in Butte processed ore by roasting it in open-air heaps, creating dense clouds of low-lying, noxious smoke. In 1885, Granville Stuart and a friend visited and made their way to Butte’s train depot, its lights barely discernible through the dense, yellowish smoke thick with the fumes of arsenic and sulphur. Granville said they could not see and could scarcely breathe in broad mid-day. “What is this to which you have brought me?” his friend exclaimed.

Eventually the Anaconda Mining Co. (ACM) was formed from all the individual ambitious empire builders. Mining was all done underground with drift and stope tunneling and during WW II underground cave block mining became the standard mining method. When ACM abandoned its underground mining, it quit pumping water out of the mine and the underground works immediately filled up with 432 million cubic feet of water over the next 19 months. In 1955 underground mining was phased out and the Berkley open pit was started. The large machinery digging and hauling ore to the weed concentrator created this 1,000 ft. deep pit at 4,320 ft. above sea level.

In 1977 Atlantic Richfield Co. (ARCO) purchased the mine from ACM, immediately inheriting all of the pollution liabilities of 160 years of mining and smelting. An ambitious ARCO vice-president probably went down the road after negotiating this sour transaction. The pit is expected to cost ARCO more than $1 billion by the end of its saga.

In 1982 ARCO closed the Berkley pit which began to fill up with 4,500,000 gallons per day of highly toxic, deep-brown water, saturated with arsenic and heavy metals, creating a deadly ending for migrating waterfowl. The pit continued to fill at an alarming rate threatening to overflow into Butte’s down-slope aquifer and pollute wells and soils in the city below the mine. In March, 2002 ARCO and five other mining companies agreed to a $87 million settlement to build and run a plant to treat the rising, highly toxic water in the pit and control the overflow of the 30-billion gallons of toxic water. The companies will pump and treat the acid mine water and hopefully prevent it from seeping into Butte’s groundwater aquifer, Silver Bow Creek and the Clark Fork River. The treatment agreement leaves the Butte community with concerns that it won’t be safe and strict enough to ensure all the necessary work will be done.

In 1980 the Superfund Act was passed by Congress. Formally known as the “Comprehensive Emergency Response Compensation and Liability Act”, it initiated a series of public reclamation water projects on Silver Bow and Warm Springs Creeks which drain the Anaconda smelter site. From Warm Springs Creek down to Drummond soils and streambed are contaminated with cadmium, arsenic, lead, copper and zinc. In some places plants will not grow and the lack of cover causes excessive erosion which increases the contamination of the river during high water. The 7 square miles of tailing ponds associated with the old Anaconda smelter have yet to be fully reclaimed and during periods of heavy rain the entire Clark Fork River is still threatened by acid run-off. The area is covered with millions of cubic yards of tailings slag, soils mixed with flue dust and billions of gallons of arsenic-laden ground and surface waters.

EPA's plan to clean up the Clark Fork River at a cost of $100 million will take ten years to complete and involves:
  • Cleanup of 120 miles of the upper Clark Fork River by removing polluted soils
  • Stabilization of 56 miles of stream bank against erosion causing additional heavy metals to get into the river.
  • Removal of 167 acres of polluted soils, taking out the worst of the worst.
  • Treatment of 700 acres of polluted soils in place, using a conservation treatment on the rest.
  • Establishment of 50 feet of riparian vegetation on each side of the river.
  • Disposal of contaminated soils into ponds — contamination is widespread throughout the flood plain.
  • Planting of native willows

The 60 miles above the dam need to be left alone, since a low contamination is spread across such a wide riparian area making cleanup unreasonable. Some day the Clark Fork will once again be a true Montana River.

Smurfit - Stone Container Corp.

Smurfit is located at Frenchtown, a few miles downriver from Missoula. DEQ monitoring of Smurfit's wastewater discharge showed dioxin was being dumped. EPA regulations required the corporation to make an expensive retrofit at the bleaching plant which produces "skywhite lineboard" for pizza and fruit boxes. In order to comply with a DEQ discharge permit, Smurfit-Stone Container Corp. decided to discontinue the production of dioxin-bleached paper at its mill. This is a giant step toward protecting the river from the industrial poison dioxin which has been linked to cancer, reproductive abnormalities, impaired immune systems and behavioral disorders in humans, mammals and fish. Dioxin is so toxic that no level of exposure is safe. The company has made a good decision to keep deadly organochlorine compounds out of the air and river. It can now recycle its wastewater and bring its operation to a closed loop with little or no wastewater discharge.

Rock Creek Mine

On the lower Clark Fork at the confluence with Rock Creek, near Noxen in the Kootenai National Forest, the Sterling Mining Company proposes to mine copper and silver, tunneling 3 miles under the Cabinet Mountains Wilderness. One million tons of paste tailing sludge will be produced and stored within one third of a mile from the banks of the Clark Fork River. Western Montana’s Cabinet Mountains are soaked with coastal moisture. Up to 3 million gallons a day of wastewater will flow from the mine and seepage will continue indefinitely – long after the mine ceases its operation. Hundreds of pounds of waste containing nitrogen, phosphates, arsenic, copper, lead, zinc and other heavy metals would be discharged daily.

Rock Creek and the Clark Fork are a state designated, core recovery area for the threatened bull trout. Over the years, the Clark Fork water quality has slowly improved with Missoula and Washington Water Power Dams cleaning up their effluent, only to make room for Sterling to pollute the river again. The mine’s effluent will increase nutrient-loading into Idaho’s Lake Pend d’Oreille and increase harmful heavy metals into the Clark Fork within the mixing zone that the Montana State Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) authorized in their permit. Seepage from the massive tailings pile could flow to Rock Creek where bull trout now spawn. Rock Creek is one of the last bull trout strongholds in the lower Clark Fork drainage and is vital in recovering this native fish from its threatened status.

In September, 2001 a final EIS was issued for operations of Sterling’s Rock Creek Mine. It identifies a preferred alternative that dangerously indicates business as usual for mining in Montana. In January, 2002 the Kootenai National Forest and the DEQ approved the operating plan. The Sterling Mining Company and its shareholders are using the outdated 1872 Mining Law – which has not changed in 130 years – as a lever to exploit the Kootenai National Forest’s mineral resources. This same mining company was involved in the Zortman Landusky mining debacle, resulting in the mine’s bankruptcy and taxpayers picking up the $24 million reclamation costs for what Zortman Landusky deposited in their reclamation bond. An additional cost of $11 million for long- term water treatment makes it a total liability of $35 million for taxpayers.

Conservation groups sued in July 2001 on the grounds that grizzly bears and bull trout, both on the federal threatened species list, were not studied adequately. Recently the USFWS withdrew its clearance of the Rock Creek mine on the grounds that the impacts on grizzly bears and bull trout merit further consideration. Although the Kootenai National Forest and Montana State DEQ already issued permits for Sterling to do exploratory work in December 2001, they have now withdrawn their approval because of water quality, visual concerns, impacts to wildlife and social changes. Now other clearances could be affected by the withdrawal of approval by USFWS, U.S. Forest Service and DEQ. DEQ said a reclamation bond from Sterling has not yet been posted. This mine should not be permitted.

Revett Silver Co., now owning the prospect beneath the Cabinet Mountain Wilderness Area, is actively contesting U.S. District Judge Donald Malloy’s ruling that the USFWS inadequately weighed the possible effects on grizzly bears and bull trout, both listed under ESA. Revett and the USFWS appealed Judge Malloy’s ruling so now, December 2005, it will go before the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals on the issue of this ruling. New York’s Tiffany Jewelry placed a full page ad in the Washington Post, asking the federal government to reject the mine.


The conversion of ranchland into housing subdivisions has devastated hundreds of streams, rivers, lakes and wetlands through disturbance of soils, drainage and vegetation:

• The first impact comes during the construction phase: bulldozing, leveling and road building increase soil erosion. The mud and silt from a typical construction site can pollute miles of downstream waters and recovery might take a hundred years.

• The second impact is from covering water permeable soils with pavement and buildings, thereby preventing rain water and snow melt from soaking into the earth and decreasing the recharge of water into streams and wetlands. Groundwater inflow is necessary for cool, high quality streams. A decline in recharge will affect wells and downstream flows.

• Water that once soaked into the earth becomes storm water runoff when pavement and buildings create impervious surfaces. This runoff washes large quantities of pollution from rooftops, streets and parking lots and contains nutrients, salts, oil, oxygen consuming materials, and toxics such as copper, lead and zinc. These contaminants settle out of polluted air and accumulate on the impervious surfaces until the next rain washes them into storm drains, groundwater, streams and wetlands. Other sources of pollution are car and truck operations, fertilizers and pesticides applied to lawns, corrosion of metal rain gutters, etc.

• Converting forests and rangeland into subdivisions can increase 12-fold the nutrient load which cause algae to proliferate in downstream water bodies. As algal populations build, water clarity declines resulting in loss of aquatic grasses and a dramatic shift in species, with massive die-offs of fish and other water-dependent life.

• Runoff from an asphalt road or parking lot may have a temperature of 83 degrees Fahrenheit or more. Sensitive species such as trout prefer a temperature of 68 degrees or less and will die when water temperatures reach 77 degrees.

• Diversity is a measure of the overall health of a fish community. The higher the fish species diversity index, the healthier the community. A significant decline in stream quality occurs when 10 percent or more of a watershed is paved over.

• To minimize storm water runoff from paved over areas, the use of ponds and enhanced infiltration will help to protect streams from the toxic effects of heavy metals. Only infiltration measures can fully protect sensitive wetlands and streams. A maximum of 10% of impermeable paving and roof tops is recommended.

Unless erosion control is used effectively, damage to aquatic resources will occur. Sediment trapping when properly applied will help protect streams.

Pollution of ground and surface waters from disposal of individual or community sewage systems must be avoided.

Milltown Dam on the Clark Fork River

The Milltown dam is located 7 miles upriver from Missoula, just below the confluence of the Clark and Big Blackfoot Rivers. See this page: Removing The Dam At Milltown ~

Back to Montana River Action
304 N 18th Avenue • Bozeman MT 59715 • Phone: 406-587-9181
Search This Site
Home Email
Join MRA