Book Review: Opportunity, Montana – By Brad Tyer

Big Copper, Bad Water and the Burial of an American Landscape


I’ve always been fascinated with the little corner of Montana that contains the state prison, the state mental hospital, and the largest Superfund site in the nation—all within 35 miles of each other. Coincidence? You tell me. Is there a causal relationship here, or is my eye for the perverse looking too hard for something that’s not there?

I’ll leave the answer to my therapist, but one thing is for sure: the 120-mile stretch of the Clark Fork river between Butte and Missoula, which runs right through this Bermuda Triangle of the twisted and tortured, is one righteously screwed-up piece of water.

In his new book, “Opportunity, Montana: Big Copper, Bad Water, and the Burial of an American Landscape” (Beacon Press), Brad Tyer delves into the sordid story of how the decision was made to haul thousands of tons of toxic waste from the now-defunct Milltown Dam site back upstream to be dumped on the ponds surrounding the town of Opportunity, which for generations had already been buried under the smelter waste of nearby Anaconda. It’s a tale that’s sometimes as crooked and foul as the river itself.

Opportunity Montana by Brad Tyer

Opportunity, Montana. By Brad Tyer.

Even casual observers of Montana history know how the three Copper Kings turned Butte into the “richest hill on earth” during the heyday of hard rock mining from the late 1800s to the mid-twentieth century. Tyer takes that familiar story down a fresh road by threading the memoir of his poisoned relationship with his late father, Bob, throughout the book. Their tenuous and prickly bond occasionally echoes the destruction and neglect visited upon the Clark Fork.

It’s an unusual device for a nonfiction book about environmental disaster, but for the most part, it works. At first it felt a little forced, but as I got deeper into the book, the scenes of Bob blindsiding his teenaged son with emotional cruelty and cold-blooded indifference hit close to home with me.

The father/son thing is hard. Show me someone who didn’t have a thorny and contentious relationship with their father, and I’ll show you a daughter.

Brad Tyer. Photo by Chad Harder.

But it’s Opportunity, population 500, that is the hapless loser of this story. The ironically-named micro-suburb of Anaconda has always been kind of a crazy uncle the smelter town kept hidden in the closet under the stairs. Tyer spent some time with a few of Opportunity’s diehard residents, and their attitudes range from denial (despite losing several family antecedents to cancer) to helplessness to righteous anger. Many residents who could muster the means and ambition have moved away, but plenty of people still live in Opportunity, trying to make the best of it.

Tyer, a seventh-generation Texan, moved from Houston to Missoula ten years ago to fill the editor’s chair at the Missoula Independent. He quickly fell in love with Missoula, with its funky charm and handy wilderness. An avid canoeist, he spent a lot of his leisure hours (the editor of an alternative weekly doesn’t have many) plying the waters of the area rivers. He much prefers rivers to standing water, and in “Opportunity, Montana” his intimate knowledge of the physics, geology and natural workings of flowing water informs the story: “Rivers move sediment. It’s what they do.”

Silver Bow Creek.

Both the Clark Fork and Silver Bow Creek had to have entire stretches moved to manmade channels as part of the reclamation efforts.

The Clark Fork, he writes, “is the most fucked-up river I’ve ever met.” He frequently reports from water level as he paddles along various stretches of the Clark Fork. That unique vantage reveals not only the vibrant life still extant in the river, but also the layers of arsenic- and carcinogen-laden soil exposed along its banks.

Several times while reading the book, I had to just stop, sit back and admire a chunk of imagery crafted by a man who can just flat-out write. At one point he discusses the 1889 financial deal that vaulted Butte’s copper industry into the stratosphere, explaining the gist of the deal with one evocative sentence: “Standard Oil, the Rockefeller dynamo that had already cornered the petroleum market, turned its corporate eye west toward copper and decided to own it all.”

Opportunity, Montana By Brad Tyer.

“Opportunity, Montana: Big Copper, Bad Water, and the Burial of an American Landscape” explains how the reclamation project for the Clark Fork was fast-tracked.

He describes the janky, plexiglass-covered 3D models of Butte’s underground veins on display at the World Mining Museum: “They look like a tinker toy monstrosity built by meth heads.”

The book provides a ton of background on the world’s growing need for copper and the history of its acquisition, and Tyer nimbly relates the oft-told tale of Butte and its mercurial growth into a bustling, smoky, carcinogenic city of 100,000 at the height of the mining boom. He makes no attempt at objectivity when writing about William A. Clark, the shrewd opportunist who ravaged the land in order to enrich himself beyond the imaginations of the miners who lived, worked and died in the mile-deep shafts that honeycomb the earth beneath Butte.

“The Clark Fork is named not for Clark the exploiter, but for Clark the explorer,” he writes.

Opportunity, Montana

Strata of earth exposed along the Clark Fork’s banks reveal the layers of toxic waste that have been dumped in the Opportunity Ponds for a hundred years.

Aside from one staggeringly poetic suggestion from a public comment period (dump the waste into the Berkeley Pit), no solutions are offered here. “Opportunity, Montana” serves more as a floodlight that illuminates all the dark corners in this shadowy story of greed, NIMBYism, corporate sloth, and government chicanery, with Opportunity slouching at center stage.

Ultimately, familial subplot aside, “Opportunity, Montana” is an important book—a clear-eyed examination of a picturesque, stridently environmentally-correct Montana city that flexed its political muscle to remediate the toxic nightmare at its doorstep, and accepted a back-room deal to have all that waste hauled back upstream and dumped on an area that has already been dumped on.

Still, as Tyer writes, can you blame them? Missoula is one of the most beautiful cities in America. Those involved were focused on the removal of the dam, not the aftermath. Why would they ruin a perfectly good chunk of riverside real estate, when there’s a perfectly good already ruined chunk of riverside real estate just upstream?

Opportunity, Montana.

Author Brad Tyer’s passion for canoeing gave him a water-level viewpoint of the decades of toxic damage visited upon the Clark Fork.

From the Copper Kings to the Clark Fork Coalition, Tyer names names and pulls no punches as he describes the bait-and-switch hoodwinking of the EPA which enabled ARCO to begin the restoration of the poisoned stretch of the Clark Fork at the downstream end. That makes about as much sense as paddling a canoe up a waterfall.

From a cultural and historical perspective, the Butte-Anaconda corridor is one of the most interesting places in Montana, if not the entire Rocky Mountain West. As you’ll learn in “Opportunity, Montana,” the little punch-drunk town’s ongoing role in the whole boom-and-bust of the Richest Hill on Earth is crucial to that story. Just don’t drink the water.


Brad will be doing book signings on Tuesday, April 2, 7:00 pm, Shakespeare & Co. Saturday, March 30, Country Bookshelf in Bozeman (time not listed). See Brad’s book on Amazon.


Ednor Therriault Ednor Therriault is a writer, musician and graphic designer with deep Montana roots. His first book, “Montana Curiosities,” was published by Globe Pequot Press in 2010. He’s currently finishing up his first novel, “Stealing Motown,” a comic crime romp laced with rock and roll history.

Ednor’s writing can frequently be seen in the Missoula Independent, Montana Magazine, and other area publications. He lives with his wife and two children in Missoula.