David Brooks has spent untold hours in the Maureen and Mike Mansfield Library to help prepare a history of the Milltown Dam Superfund site.
History reveals UM role in river restoration
Interview by Jennifer Sauer
David Brooks, a doctoral student in UM’s Department of History, is writing his dissertation on the history of the Milltown Dam Superfund site located east of Missoula in the Clark Fork River basin. As he researched his project, Brooks noted that several UM faculty members, students and graduates from a variety of departments played a key role in the process that guided the reclamation of the site. Brooks recently talked about the people who had a hand in the evolving project, from the time arsenic was first detected in Milltown wells, to the evolving discussion on how to manage the contaminants, to the eventual removal of a dam that stood for more than a century.
How did you come up with the idea for your dissertation project?
My area of interest has been U.S. environmental history as well as the American West. The dissertation project idea that I brought into the program was doing a history of the Milltown Dam, which really has become a history of the Superfund process. What I am trying to write is the history of how Superfund has played out using this as a case study — particularly as a case study of how it has worked well and the changes in the implementation of Superfund and its now 30-year history. It matches with the 30-year history of Milltown because it was designated on the national priorities list as a Superfund site on the very first round.
Why is the history of the Milltown Dam Superfund site significant?
At the time Superfund legislation was passed [in 1980], the designation was mostly about fencing [the sites] off, preventing them from causing any more harm to human health. I think Milltown is the best example, if not one of the forces behind, turning Superfund cleanups into environmental restoration projects. Now they are actually trying to restore environments to some semblance of naturally functioning ecosystems rather than just containing toxic waste.
How did UM faculty members first become involved with the Milltown Dam Superfund site?
In 1981 just after Superfund law was passed, a guy in Milltown called up the health department complaining about his water. Somebody from the health department went out and found just obscenely high levels of arsenic in the drinking water. [UM Regents Professor] William Woessner, who teaches in what is now called the geosciences department, and his colleague [geosciences Chair and Professor] Johnnie Moore were both fairly new faculty. Woessner heard about this and got $25 from his department to rent a chain saw to cut through the ice in the reservoir and take some samples. He and Johnnie Moore and a couple of grad students went out in the winter and found that there was all kinds of arsenic in the sediment over there. That was really just the beginning of their participation with Milltown.
When I go through all the EPA records and read all the studies, the lion’s share of them were done by William Woessner and Johnnie Moore. They really did most of the research that the EPA has relied on at that Superfund site. No doubt the story would be different had those two guys not been here to do that.
What kind of role did UM students play in the history of the Milltown Superfund site?
I was just riding my bike over the footbridge here, and there’s a group of eight or 10 students out in the Clark Fork right now netting fish. Some of them might write a paper on it; it might be an exercise in methodology for some of them. This has been a Superfund site, so it’s been a great laboratory for UM students and faculty.
How did some of these UM graduates take the research they did around Milltown as students and turn it into a career?
Peter Nielsen was a grad student in environmental studies doing his master’s beginning in 1980. Before Milltown Reservoir was designated as a Superfund site, he had been studying, as a student, and protesting, as a local river user and concerned citizen, the drawdowns that the Montana Power Company would do of the dam.
Once it got designated as a Superfund site, Nielsen helped start the Clark Fork Coalition. He was its first director. He parlayed his early activism and interest in water-quality issues as a UM grad through the Milltown Dam into being a government agent with the Missoula health department’s Water Quality Division and an advocate for clean water and environment. He’s been a key player from beginning to end.
Michael Kustudia is another example of that. He was in the EVST department and finished up his master’s in watershed conservation in 1997. He went on to become the head of the Clark Fork River Technical Assistance Committee, which was the public relations organization for the EPA. He’s now become the first manager of the new Milltown State Park. The area is being restored, and now the land will become a state park. This is the third phase of the three Rs: remediation, restoration and now redevelopment. This is the redevelopment part that now Michael has a major hand in coordinating.
David Schmetterling did his master’s in wildlife biology at UM in the mid-’90s and started with Fish, Wildlife and Parks in 1995. In 1998 he started studying the question of how many fish and what kind of fish was the dam actually blocking. He started finding that like 200,000 fish a year were being backed up by the dam, including native fish like cutthroat trout and particularly bull trout. David mentored a number of graduate students in wildlife biology through his studies of fish.
Not all the people involved have made it into my story about the Milltown Dam or are recognized as major figures in that story, but it just goes to show how involved UM has been in watershed work around here, both people studying as students and then what they go on to do with their degrees.
Who helped bring the idea of removing the dam to the table?
We think of it now as the Milltown Dam Superfund site and what happened with the dam because it got taken down and that’s big news. But it did not start out as a dam issue. It started out with the reservoir and the contaminants in the reservoir. There was no discussion of needing to take down the dam. That didn’t happen really until the floods of 1996 that threatened to wash out the dam. Shortly thereafter, a woman by the name of Tracy Stone-Manning, a UM EVST graduate student, did her thesis on environmental advertising. Her idea was “how can environmentalists use advertising to attract more people to causes in the same way that businesses use advertising to attract consumers?”
She became the director of the Clark Fork Coalition about two years later and really put those issues into play around the Milltown Dam. She was really the inspiration behind the campaign to remove the dam that started between 1998 and 2000. She did exactly what she had studied in her thesis, which was to make environmentalism — in her own words — sexier, funny, entertaining, in a way that it hadn’t been before. Probably the most popular thing they did was produce bumper stickers that simply said “Remove the Dam; Restore the River.” And that phrase really caught on. The idea was that the Superfund process could be about both things; not just remediating the problem of the toxic sediment behind this old leaky dam, but actually restoring an ecosystem.
The involvement of UM faculty and students in the Milltown Superfund site project spans several different departments. Why is that?
Superfund law, like any federal public policy, is just a massive law. There are a lot of different ways to be involved in the Superfund process. These are the names that I know and that I have focused on in my story, but there are plenty of others. The point is that people have come to it from a lot of different departments and a lot of different angles. They have used their education here at UM to continue to be involved in the Milltown issue or to become involved through putting their education to use.
Why do you think UM faculty, students and grads were drawn to working on the Milltown Superfund site?
Nationally, Superfund has been controversial through its entire history. But when you talk to people about Milltown, nobody talks about the law itself. What they talk about is how different individuals have affected the process. Again and again, I wind up hearing about individuals who came through UM as many of the key people. As a historian, I find that interesting. This is a major Superfund site and that law is important, but really what’s caused change are individuals. And all of them certainly emphasize their education as the part of the reason they moved the direction they did. Most of the people I talk to came to Missoula to go to UM but also just because of their love of the area and, for all of them in different ways, their love of rivers and being outdoors, which this place has to offer. I wouldn’t be the first person to recognize that that’s a huge attraction to a lot of students here: not just the school, but the place. And these are people who have appreciated that and wanted to give back.
This image shows Milltown Dam on the day a side channel was breached in March 2008, allowing the Clark Fork River to flow freely past the dam for the first time since 1907.
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