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A New Legacy for the Clark Fork River



Photo Chad Okrusch

By:  Brian Bartowiak, Jeni Garcin, and Katie Garcin, Department of Environmental Quality

Montana’s mining history helped shape the state’s economy, history and landscape. Unfortunately, past mining practices also left mine waste and contamination, damaging the environment and threatening human health.


The Clark Fork River is a prime example of the type of damage contamination can do to a river system,  the surrounding floodplains and agricultural fields. The Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ), along with its partner agencies, the Environmental Protection Agency and Natural Resource Damage Program, recognize the economic and environmental importance of cleaning up the Clark Fork. they began the daunting, multi-year cleanup in 2013.


The primary sources of contamination in the Clark Fork are mine tailings mixed with soil in the stream banks of the historic floodplain. Arsenic is found in the tailings, as well as cadmium, copper, zinc, and lead. These heavy metals were left behind by the Anaconda Company’s historic mining, milling and smelting operations in Butte and Anaconda.


The majority of the cleanup will occur along a 47- mile stretch of river from Warm Springs downstream to Garrison, known as “Reach A.” Phase 1 begins at the bottom of Warm Springs ponds and extends the first 1.5 miles of river. Cleanup of Phase 1 began in March, 2013 and construction was completed in December 2013. Approximately 330,000 cubic yards of mine waste were removed from the floodplain and river banks.


Some river banks were rebuilt to create stability and prevent erosion. An additional 180,000 cubic yards of clean rock and soil was put back into the floodplain and thousands of native shrubs, willows and other vegetation were planted. Additional plantings will occur in the spring and fall of 2014, for a total of 130,000 plants.


While construction is complete for Phase 1, vegetation will take a few years to become established.   Giving this vegetation time to grow will create better recreation areas and lead to a healthier watershed.


“It is a daunting and humbling task to revitalize a river that has been polluted for over 100 years. This first phase has been a great success for DEQ, our partners, and the people of Montana,” says DEQ Director, Tracy Stone-Manning. “We appreciate the cooperation and support of all the people involved in the project and we look forward to moving the cleanup downstream.”

Phases 5 and 6 of Reach A will be cleaned up next. If everything stays on schedule, the bid for construction is expected to go out in spring 2014, with construction starting soon after the bid process. Phase 2 is currently in the design phase and includes coordinating with landowners, since the work will be done on private property. Construction is expected to begin in fall 2014.

Cleaning up a river that has been contaminated for over 100 years is no small task. As remediation and restoration of this important resource continues, the agencies recognize the importance of correcting past and preventing future mistakes as the land is returned to productive use. Future generations will be able to enjoy the prosperity that a clean river brings to an economy, and live in a cleaner, healthier environment.

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