A Small Hunting Town Caught Between Industrial Pollution and Environmental Activism

A Small Hunting Town Caught Between Industrial Pollution and Environmental Activism

“Boy, those Branch Davidians sure did get a bum deal.”

I sat in the back seat of the truck not quite sure I understood what Ron Harper had said. It had been 20 years since I’d even thought of David Koresh and the ATF invasion of the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas. Back then, Harper had been hell on wheels in Libby, Montana.

The moment passed, and the conversation wandered while Harper’s son drove us up Libby Creek to take some pictures and share memories. Every hole in the trees produced a stunning view and story to go with it. Harper told about the time the young ranger stumbled into their campsite up at Granite Lake one morning to find the aftermath of a drunken adventure. Harper was a man of wild experiences and strong convictions, not unlike most of the other residents of Lincoln County, Montana.

In the early ‘90s, Harper briefly held the Montana state record for rainbow trout. He caught it right below the dam that holds Lake Koocanusa back from the Kootenai River. He was a half-crazed party animal who made his living supporting the logging and mining industries. He had love, respect, and knowledge of that outdoor paradise that few could match. When he wasn’t fishing, hiking, or hunting, he was usually in the downtown bars of Libby. It was a golden age for the community when good jobs at the mine and mill supported good jobs all over town. Now, he’s a reclusive loner whose eldest son occasionally picks the veggies that he doesn’t like out of his orange chicken TV dinners when he drops them off for him at the house. His struggle is not unique among the men and women who lived through the town’s heyday.

He suffers, like so many in Libby, from exposure to the asbestos created by tailings from the vermiculite mine that operated just out of town from the 1930s to the 1990s. His healthcare is handled as long as he keeps up his regular visits to the local Center for Asbestos Related Diseases. He’s doing OK, but moving around is harder than it should be for a man in his late 50s. He’s gained weight and lost much of the spark he once had. Like Libby, his best days appear to be behind him.

A Conservation Battleground Northwest Montana has been a place of conflict between corporations and environmentalists since the early 1990s. It began when the lid blew off the secret of W.R. Grace & Co.’s efforts to suppress the negative impacts of vermiculite exposure on the region’s miners, their families, and friends. Seven of its executives were indicted on federal charges for knowingly putting workers and the public at risk. But, as mesothelioma has wreaked havoc on the community, the environmental battle shifted to lawsuits attempting to protect spotted owls, grizzly bears, and bull trout from logging and mining claims in the Kootenai National Forest.

Throughout the 1990s, logging in the Kootenai National Forest around Libby was reduced by nearly 75%, leading to the 2002 closure of the lumber mill by Stimson Inc.

Few in Libby will attribute the town’s downfall to the corporate decisions to close the mill or the asbestos exposure from the mine. Their ire is more often directed at the Ecology Center lawsuits challenging logging claims in the Kootenai National Forest. Designed to protect grizzly bears and bull trout, these lawsuits effectively alienated an entire county of people who loved, cherished, and relied on the unique ecosystems of Northwest Montana.

Fishing and hunting are a way of life for the Harpers and most families in Lincoln County. The old-growth forests zigzagged with logging access roads create a nearby paradise for deer and elk hunters and provide habitat for grouse, turkeys, and waterfowl. The waters around Libby teem with gamefish ranging from alpine brook trout to giant rainbows and northern pike. The overwhelming majority of households in Lincoln County are involved in some form of fishing, hunting, or foraging.

The Ecology Center and other environmentalists claim that years of abuse of the environment by logging and mining companies has led to the decline of lynx, pileated woodpeckers, grizzly bears, bull trout, and other native populations. Their lawsuits and appeals shelved two dam projects and delayed numerous mining and logging operations. The results are less pressure on Lincoln County’s natural resources and an average annual income in the county of about $26,000 per year.

With the mining and mill jobs gone, small businesses all over Lincoln County suffered. The EPA became the largest employer in the county for a time while the massive cleanup effort was underway. Harper worked for them, donning full hazmat suits to clean up places he played in as a kid.

A New Threat Emerges As the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) works on vermiculite remediation, one of the largest environmental cleanups in history, another resource is threatened. The Kootenai River and Lake Koocanusa are experiencing elevated selenium levels in numerous fish species, including the westslope cutthroat trout. The pollution comes as runoff from a large coal mining operation in Elk River, British Columbia.

This time, the Montana Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) and the EPA came quickly to the defense of Lincoln County. They worked efficiently over five years and 41 meetings to enact special requirements for selenium levels in Lake Koocanusa. However, they ran into fierce opposition from elected officials and community members in Lincoln County who joined the side of the big coal company lawyers to oppose the site-specific lowered selenium standards.

Harper’s reference to the Branch Davidians is a reminder of the distrust that many people in and around Libby hold for the government. Many residents found themselves in the remote inland rainforests of Lincoln County because they sought a life of solitude with nature. Others, like Harper, are leftovers from a more prosperous time when mining and logging provided thousands of good-paying jobs, a time when the community thrived. They watched as lawsuits and environmental legal actions ground the gears of industry in Lincoln County to a halt and workers found themselves without stable income. They watched as local businesses closed and their neighbors lost the money, time, and energy they had invested in the community. Most viewed the government and environmentalists in cahoots to destroy their way of life.

The organizations trying to save the rugged forest environment soon became the enemy. Several smaller mining operations opened, survived for a time, then closed when the corporation they served no longer found them profitable. Many of the most promising graduates of Libby High School moved away to greener pastures.

Somehow, the corporations never took the blame for the layoffs or illnesses that came. It was always the government and the environmentalists at the center of the community’s ire. When you drive through Libby today, you see “We Support Montinore” signs on most businesses. Montinore is a mining company that has been working for years to get through the legal hurdles and bring a mine back to Lincoln County.

Now, the largest coal company in Canada is polluting the Kootenai River and Koocanusa Reservoir, but a politician cannot support anything that might be seen as restrictive to the mining industry. Even a bill limiting the selenium runoff from a foreign-owned, upstream mine is toxic to a candidate’s chances of keeping office.

Canadian Coal, Chinese Steel, and Montana Selenium The lawyers from Teck, the owner of the Canadian coal mine responsible for the selenium runoff, and the community members who stand with them, are quick to point out that the selenium levels in Lake Koocanusa and the Kootenai River are well below what the EPA considers a threat to humans. The State of Montana and the EPA made their decisions based on the impact selenium is having on fish populations. Teck’s representatives sometimes poke holes in the procedures used to collect the data presented by proponents of the restrictive standard, but the scientists conducting the studies stand by their work.

Teck’s pushback against the new Montana regulations comes as they pay the largest fine Canada has ever issued for their pollution in the Elk River. According to a CBC report, Teck’s own scientists have determined that the Fording River’s westslope cutthroat trout population, which live among stored waste from the Elk River mine, has “all but collapsed.” Still, the Lincoln County Commission submitted a petition to the Board of Environmental Review challenging the site-specific standard for Lake Koocanusa.

Even Teck’s plans to expand the Elk River Coal Mine by 18 square miles isn’t waving a red flag for most Lincoln County residents. Teck has spent millions of dollars to help mitigate their release of toxic waste, but even their own board questioned whether their current technology can handle MDEQ’s selenium restrictions.

The plan also asserts that, in addition to the massive sums the company is spending on current water treatment projects designed to deal with the selenium issue, there will be water treatment requirements that extend for an “indefinite period” after mining operations have ended. The newest expansion of the Elk River project is designed to carry its usable life through 2070.

A Familiar Story Libby has been burned by long-term mining operations before. W.R. Grace, the company that operated the vermiculite mine in Lincoln County, declared bankruptcy as they struggled under more than a billion dollars of liabilities from their asbestos businesses. In the end, they paid roughly $64 million toward cleanup for 39 sites in 21 states and created a trust fund to compensate victims of asbestos-related illnesses. Taxpayers were stuck with the lion’s share of the bill for the rest of the cleanup and support of the Montanans suffering from mesothelioma and other diseases.

Harper, his son, and I took a few minutes to explore the hidden gem that is Libby Falls. It’s a reminder that this area is close to Glacier National Park, and the landscape holds much of the beauty without the signs and crowds. We continue towards Haller Lake and Harper tells stories about practicing drive-by shooting on street signs next to the remote Forest Service roads. He’s convinced this practice will be valuable if “the government continues to get out of control.” He struggles to catch his breath as he remembers the excitement of his impulsive younger days.

Much like the asbestos in Harper’s lungs, selenium is impossible to remove once it gets into a stream or lake. Once there, it will be part of the ecosystem for a very long time. Selenium is already reaching dangerous levels for fish in Lake Koocanusa. Plus, millions of tons of waste rock from the coal mine are leaching selenium into the Fording and Elk rivers and tributaries of the Kootenai. With plans to expand the current strip-mining operation, there seems to be little hope outside of Teck itself that the situation will improve.

Even with the stricter site standards for Lake Koocanusa and the Kootenai River, it’s likely that the damage is already done. Montana has no authority to regulate Teck’s operations in Canadian territory. Their only leverage comes from the U.S.-Canada Boundary Waters Treaty signed in 1909. The treaty created an International Joint Commission (IJC) consisting of three commissioners from each country to deal with disputes regarding shared waterways. In 2018, the American half of the six-person IJC issued a letter to the director of the Office of Canadian Affairs expressing disappointment that the Canadian side of the delegation was not able to join a consensus that the Elk River selenium pollution into the Kootenai River was a problem. The issue has not yet been resolved by the IJC. In 2021 U.S. Senator Jon Tester of Montana pressed the U.S. Secretary of State to work with the Canadians towards a resolution. No actions have resulted from his efforts.

The new site-specific standard, which relates to a 1995 Montana law that prevents MDEQ from setting water quality standards stricter than those required nationally, will likely face legal challenges. While the issue is working its way through the political and legal system, waste rock piles in the Elk River drainage will continue to leach selenium and other contaminants that will work their way downstream to Lake Koocanusa and the Kootenai River.

Our day of driving and telling stories ends about an hour and a half after it started. It’s been a big outing for Harper and he needs to go back home and rest. The early end is a grim reminder of the damage that was done in the name of progress to some of the most vibrant characters in Northwest Montana.

For outsiders, it might be difficult to imagine how the residents of Lincoln County could align with a band of lawyers pressing the government to allow a multinational corporation to pollute the river that runs like an artery through their beloved forest. For them, it’s just the latest battle against the environmentalists and government who have already taken so much from them. Mines and clear-cuts mean money and jobs for a community that needs them. That’s hard to argue against.

Whether the legal challenges between Teck and the State of Montana find resolution during Harper’s lifetime remains to be seen. Whether his sons and future grandchildren will be able to fish in the Kootenai River is an open question as well. Maybe one day the residents of Northwest Montana will decide that corporations are no less dangerous than environmentalists and the government.

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