On Talking About The Politically Acceptable Risk To The Clark Fork River Vs. The Not-So-Politically-Acceptable One

by Travis Mateer

The politically acceptable risk that’s OK to talk about when it comes to the Clark Fork River is the industrial footprint left by Smurfit-Stone, a defunct paper mill our County would like help cleaning up. This risk has been ALL OVER local media thanks to a national environmental group designating the Clark Fork as the 5th most endangered river in America.

From the link:

National environmental nonprofit American Rivers has included an iconic western Montana river in its 2023 list of America’s Most Endangered Rivers, citing its proximity to the site of a former 1,000-acre pulp mill still rife with contaminants.

The river is the Clark Fork, which flows from the Continental Divide before running through Missoula, Alberton, St. Regis and Thompson Falls on its journey to Lake Pend Oreille in the panhandle of Idaho. The pulp mill operated northwest of Missoula for more than 50 years before Smurfit-Stone declared bankruptcy in 2010 and walked away from the sprawling site, which includes hundreds of acres of unlined ponds that were used to store wastewater — some of it untreated — as well as landfills and sludge ponds.

Those landfills, wastewater ponds and sludge heaps are dangerously close to western Montana’s largest-volume river and leach toxins into the groundwater, according to environmental nonprofit Clark Fork Coalition, which has long called for federal intervention. More specifically, it would like the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to clean up the contaminated material and remove the nearly four miles of unengineered berms holding back the river from its historic flood plain.

Upstream from this ticking time-bomb, a shanty-shack/meth-den posed a much more immediate threat to the river, so I scrambled last week to get a dumpster placed in the parking lot of Missoula College for a major clean-up. Not only is the shant-shack gone, I even met some new friends!

Since there isn’t much media interest in covering this politically sensitive risk to the river, too many members of the public remain ignorant about how nasty a homeless encampment can get. The video I will post later this week about the clean-up should help alleviate some of that ignorance, like the ignorance it takes to make a comment like this:

Where is baer? Not cleaning up this:

Or this:

Or this:

This wasn’t the only homeless site that got cleaned up this weekend. My new friend said, despite being told NOT to clean-up the West Broadway Island, it got LOTS of attention from people who care more about ACTUAL cleaning than the POLITICS of cleaning.

If we had waited around for the politics to align with the need to clean some shit, then this particular spot, right across from the University of Montana, wouldn’t look like this:

I am very proud of what you NO LONGER SEE here, and that’s a toxic meth den. It took a lot of hard work, a big chunk of money for the dumpster, and a refusal to be paralyzed by politics to get done.

Here’s what it looks like to be paralyzed by politics:

The Clark Fork Coalition, which started in the mid-1980s amid concerns associated with the pulp mill, says the pairing of topography and carcinogenic chemicals result in a “catastrophe waiting to happen.”

“Every spring since the mill shut down in 2010, we’ve had to keep our fingers crossed that nature will take it easy with spring run-off and won’t throw too much at these flimsy berms,” Clark Fork Coalition Executive Director Karen Knudsen told Montana Free Press. “It’s been 13 years. EPA has yet to tackle the problem despite compelling evidence that cleanup should start immediately. We think our river and our communities can’t wait.”

She notes that the confluence of the Blackfoot and Clark Fork rivers, upstream of the Smurfit-Stone site, has a similar legacy of industrial pollution, but the removal of the Milltown Dam and remediation of the site has helped Missoula become “River City,” with a vibrant recreational economy.

“It’s just pulsing with nature and it’s a place of community connection and civic pride, so to be stripped of that by a four-mile swath of languishing industrial wasteland [downstream] is just a shame,” Knudsen said. 

All this posturing for the media sounds great, but would it have gotten the meth-den cleaned up? No, since homeless encampments are still being systematically ignored by influencers and the media who stenograph for them, it’s taking angry citizen direct action to get things done.

If you want to be a part of the solution, but breathing in particles of meth dirt isn’t for you, then I suggest supporting Travis’ Impact Fund (TIF), or making a donation at my about page.

Thanks for reading!

About Travis Mateer

I'm an artist and citizen journalist living and writing in Montana. You can contact me here: willskink at yahoo dot com
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3 Responses to On Talking About The Politically Acceptable Risk To The Clark Fork River Vs. The Not-So-Politically-Acceptable One

  1. TC says:

    Nice work on the clean-up! Couple of years ago I spoke directly with the Clark Fork Coalition about “homeless” pollution. I pointed out the human waste that gets poured into the river; up to 100 people’s daily feces/urine. Also pointed out trash, drugs,etc. Asked if CFC would publicly address this threat to the river.
    I was told, quite self righteously, that this issue didnt contribute significantly to the river’s pollution; rather it was those damn cows around Drummond and irresponsible floaters that caused all the problems.
    Seems they have their new boogey man – Smurfit Stone. Narrative control!
    Thanks for your efforts toward real issues

  2. Ted Hartman says:

    I’ll repeat the accolades for the cleanup and say thank you to you and your friends. In another State it took a Tribe to tell a bunch of bureaucrats and elected officials to clean up the river bank from the transient and dope use. They did.
    On the flabbergasted meter, it raises the hair on the back of my neck to see property owners who pay taxes on the land they own adjoining the river being forced to comply with every little whim of the DNRC, even with 310 permitting in place, while saying and doing nothing about camps and haz mat sites on the river.
    Must be a money thing. Somewhere in the middle are the people who can and will pay the price. Unless…………………..nah. You got enough to do out here.

    • I appreciate the accolades. I’m on day 3 now, and the rain doesn’t matter because it’s a research day. The latest has pointed me to DNRC, so I’m waiting to hear back. Meanwhile there is still some physical work left to do, but that will have to wait until tomorrow.

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