Neihart and Monarch
is what brought people to
Montana’s Little Belt Mountains
in the late 1800s.
The first mine -- called the Queen of the Hills – went in July 1881. Within a year, the mining camp became a town.
The story of Neihart and its neighboring towns is a cross section of a boom bust cycle.
The area supported mining, logging and ranching families for decades. It once rivaled Great Falls, which was called the Western Front’s new Chicago. Neihart was going to be the next big thing. Now, fewer than 100 permanent residents live among the vacation cabins cuddled up between two of Montana’s largest Superfund sites.
And a new tunnel to explore a copper deposit is going in on the other side of the mountain.
See America: Superfund, Montana
These towns are small but there is this sense of
S P A C E.
They’re in the middle of 1.8 million acres of national forest, one of Montana's youngest mountain ranges and boast enough old mines to warrant a history book. (It's called Images of America: Neihart Mining.)
"Everybody always used to like a good Western, well, here it is and it’s real. You didn’t have somebody making a script and putting it on film, this is the real thing. This was what the West was like," says Donna Kramer, a Monarch homeowner and Great Falls resident.
During the 1930s, the Works Progress Administration created some of the most famous images of U.S. national parks and states in the "See America" series. This is one for Montana.
Montana has breathtaking vistas, abundant natural resources and toxic dumps--and none of these are mutually exclusive.
Monarch and Neihart are proof that toxic and beautiful can describe the same place.
A stop along a scenic byway, a blink on Highway 89.
Maxine Nebel's Home
Bob and Maxine stand on the lawn next to Belt Creek in Monarch, Montana.
Bob is Maxine’s brother-in-law and the two have more or less known each other their whole lives.
Bob was born in Neihart; Maxine grew up on a small ranch just outside Monarch.
Maxine's home was built by her parents. Bob worked the old mines.
The same mines that
founded the towns,
fueled the world wars
two Superfund sites.
Barker-Hughesville Superfund Site
Outside Monarch. Up Galena Creek. Beyond the ghost towns of Barker and Hughesville.
Carpenter-Snow Creek Superfund
Outside Neihart. Up Carpenter Creek, up Snow Creek. Past the streamside tailings dumps.
Note: The following maps are a spatial exploration of the towns along Highway 89, a scenic byway that cuts across the Little Belt Mountains in central Montana. Each map scrolls north to south, focusing in on a few features explored in-depth in my radio documentary and master's work.
on the north side of the Little Belt Mountains.
Historic train footage of the Great Northern rail that used to run through Neihart and Monarch. Once called the fishing train for bringing fishermen and families up to the mountains, the rail brought down ore to the smelters in Great Falls, Montana. (Thanks to Neil Taylor for sharing.)
The Superfund Process
The rail, the highway follow Belt Creek. So does the mine waste.
And now it's getting cleaned up.
In Neihart and Monarch, the risk to humans from heavy metal contamination is relatively low. These toxins have the most impact on kids and women of child-bearing age. High levels can kill people, but not always. Heavy metals mess with brain development and require long term exposure, so the effects can be subtle and come on gradually.
Several contaminants—lead, zinc and arsenic among them—are greater than EPA standards in Neihart and Monarch. This is mostly an environmental concern. The metals themselves can mess up plants and other critters. But the problem goes beyond the metals. Mine tailings create a lot of acidity. That alone can kill living things, but it also ties up soil nutrients. This squelches life trying to take root in mine impacted areas. And the consequences of that cascade up the food chain.
For some metals, it may seem like their acceptable thresholds are low. But some contaminants are so toxic that they’re measured in parts per billion.
"And just to put that in perspective, that’s one drop of a contaminant in an Olympic sized pool," says Roger Hoogerheide, the remediation project manager with the Environmental Protection Agency.
Hoogerheide oversees part of the clean up in the old mining districts. He says many people drive along Highway 89, a scenic byway, and "don’t necessarily see the mining contamination tucked away in the mountains."
That’s good in some ways because the area no longer relies on mining, logging and ranching. Now, this area’s all about hiking and skiing and fishing and snowmobiling and, well, everything outdoorsy people like to do in Montana.
A Superfund label kills the idea of pristine natural beauty. People visiting the area want a clean experience. Remediated, restored to normal.
Residents of Neihart and Monarch also want a clean, normal place to live. But it's complicated.
Superfund Clean Up
"Sure, you have a community that’s very enthusiastic for the first couple of years, then it’s like, ‘Oh, EPA is up here again to sample,’" says Hoogerheide, the remediation project manager from the EPA.
Taking one sample isn't enough. Many have to be taken--who knows, it could have rained two hours earlier or it's different than the samples taken earlier that summer.
"Wide range, variations in metals contaminations," says Hoogerheide.
Minimizing uncertainty drives the repetitive, methodical process of science. Many factors have to be singled out and, well, studied for good science. Especially when those samples could say something about the danger to people’s health or the environment.
"We’re taking thousands of samples. And the thing about it is, we have to have enough data to bring to court because these PRPs aren’t saying--"
OK, wait. PRP stands for Potentially Responsible Party, in other words the companies that pay for clean up. And in the courtroom, minimizing scientific uncertainty is not the same as minimizing legal uncertainty.
"These PRPs aren’t saying, ‘Yeah, I’ll just sign it’ and sign up for a hundred million dollar remedy. They’re gonna fight us and the only way that we can win these arguments is with the data and the more data we have, the better our chances of negotiating settlements with these parties."
To fund remediation projects, agencies have to meet legal standards, not scientific ones. They’re going way above what’s needed to make scientifically sound management decisions.
This makes for stiff competition for funding.
These clean ups don’t just matter to a handful of people in the Little Belts.
The Black Butte Project
Old mines are common in Montana.
New mines are hard to come by.
The Treasure State is a frustrating paradox to investors, exploration geologists and poor communities. Montana is a resource-rich state, but it can take almost a decade before a mine turns a profit here.
But there is a mine proposed just over the mountain from Neihart. It’s a rich copper deposit along Sheep Creek.
The proposed mine -- the Black Butte Project -- is halfway between Neihart and another town called White Sulphur Springs. It’s an old logging hub and the gateway to one of the best rafting rivers in Montana.
Because of that there’s a lot of resistance to the mine. The folks of Neihart and Monarch have plenty of their own opinions.
Jerry Zieg is the vice president of exploration for Tintina Incorporated--the company exploring the copper deposit. In January 2014, the Montana Department of Environmental Quality approved a permit for Tintina to put in an exploration tunnel. The site is 17 miles north of White Sulphur Springs, about 13 miles from Neihart as the crow flies.
To date, Tintina has drilled about 34 miles of rock core and outlined just over a billion pounds of copper.
Given the history of Neihart and Monarch, and the lessons learned there--yet knowing our society needs those resources--the question for Zieg and Tintina is can they do this right.
Can the company mine this site with minimal impact?
Mining has happened.
Mining will happen.
The question is where and how.
Remediation is the compromise between the extremes of mining carelessly and not mining at all. Both remediation and mining, by definition, change the landscape. Both have and will change the landscape around Monarch and Neihart.
But to say these towns are unique is wrong. There's a bigger picture, just in Montana alone.
Painter and environmental activist Monte Dolack is fighting to stop the Black Butte project and advocate for cleanups.
His latest works, called Altered State, depict the irony of Montanan landscapes. Dolack says, yes, the color palette is lovely, the scenes are striking--but these places are disturbed, uprooted, altered.
Watching truck after truck haul away contaminated soil along the Clark Fork River--and knowing they will run like that for another decade--it's hard not to feel inconsequential.
Listening on the road to Forest Rose, it's hard to imagine the old contamination.
Squishing into the mud on top of the Mike Horse Dam, it's hard to walk. And it's easy to see contamination in the water.
Looking up at the Zortman-Landusky mines, it's hard to remember this was sacred ground. A bald, half-gone mountain squats above the Gros Ventre Sun Dance lands.
Climbing to the top of the Silver Dyke tailings outside Neihart, it's hard not to be struck by the vista.
All this is the
of mining in Montana
This work is a part of my master's project through the environmental science and natural resource journalism program at the University of Montana. There is an hour long radio doc that goes along with my map series. It will be available soon on PRX.
Original Music: guitar, mandolin and piano by Brady Hanson
Additional Music: Melodie by Rufus Cappadocia; Cylinders 5 by Chris Zabriskie; Opportunity by Chad Okrusch
Sounds: Thank you Freesound.org for the inspiration and a couple snippets. I like you so much I even donated.
Photo support: Brianna Mills (Cover, Butte, Zortman-Landusky sites), Stephanie Parker (Mike Horse Dam site), Drew Cramer (Forest Rose, Butte and photoshop help), Neil Taylor (historical photos and train footage)
A big thanks to Jule Banville, my rockin' awesome committee chair. And my other committee members, Alison Perkins and Kevin McManigal, who are also very cool people and great at keeping me in line.
Thanks to Madelyn Beck, her beautiful voice and encouragement.
Though only a few snippets of their voices made it into the radio doc, I owe a HUGE thanks to Chris Croff, Neil Taylor and Donna Kramer. This project couldn't have happened without their help and the support of the Monarch-Neihart Historical Group.
Roger Hoogerheide, Shellie Haaland, Brian Bartkowiak, Beth Ihle, Terri Long Fox, Kris Larson from CDM Smith and unnamed Tetra Tech guys--all rock.
Thanks to Jerry Zeig for surprising me and agreeing to an interview.
Olivia Koski and the Creatavist team--thanks for the inspiration and help getting this part of the project together.
Thanks to Kerry, Heather and Monique for keeping me on my feet and my head clear.
And last but far from least, Drew and Charli for keeping me sane, feeding me and talking about Robert Jordan when I got tired of heavy metals.