Big Copper, Bad Water, and the Burial of an American Landscape
By Brad Tyer
Beacon Press (MA), Hardcover, 9780807003299, 232pp.
Publication Date: March 26, 2013
A memoir-meets-expose that examines our fraught relationship with the West and our attempts to clean up a toxic environmental legacy
In 2002, Texas journalist Brad Tyer strapped a canoe on his truck and moved to Montana, a state that has long exerted a mythic pull on America's imagination as an unspoiled landscape. The son of an engineer who reclaimed wastewater, Tyer was looking for a pristine river to call his own. What he found instead was a century's worth of industrial poison clotting the Clark Fork River, a decades-long engineering project to clean it up, and a forgotten town named Opportunity.
At the turn of the nineteenth century, Montana exploited the richest copper deposits in the world, fueling the electric growth of twentieth-century America and building some of the nation's most outlandish fortunes. The toxic by-product of those fortunes--what didn't spill into the river--was dumped in Opportunity.
In the twenty-first century, Montana's draw is no longer metal but landscape: the blue-ribbon trout streams and unspoiled wilderness of the nation's "last best place." To match reality to the myth, affluent exurbanites and well-meaning environmentalists are trying to restore the Clark Fork River to its "natural state." In the process, millions of tons of toxic soils are being removed and dumped--once again--in Opportunity. As Tyer investigates Opportunity's history, he wrestles with questions of environmental justice and the ethics of burdening one community with an entire region's waste.
Stalled at the intersection of a fading extractive economy and a fledgling restoration boom, Opportunity's story is a secret history of the American Dream and a key to understanding the country's--and increasingly the globe's--demand for modern convenience.
As Tyer explores the degradations of the landscape, he also probes the parallel emotional geography of familial estrangement. Part personal history and part reportorial narrative, "Opportunity, Montana "is a story of progress and its price: of copper and water, of father and son, and of our attempts to redeem the mistakes of the past.
“Mr. Tyer has written a lovely book, searing in its anger, about a beautiful but much abused place.” —Larry McMurtry
“This previously neglected subject provides a great way to talk about the crazy doubleness of Montana, a state we've idealized and plundered for two hundred years. Opportunity's story lines stretch not only across the state but around the country and the world, and Brad Tyer is just the person to follow them. His writing is straightforward, heartfelt, and elegant.” —Ian Frazier, author of Travels in Siberia and Great Plains
“Tyer’s evocative prose of quiet melancholy and gentle humor.”—Kirkus Reviews
“That the most scapegoated place in Montana is called ‘Opportunity’ is an irony so rich that a skilled blacksmith could forge it into swords, or plowshares, as the spirit moved. Brad Tyer is that blacksmith. Deploying a unique blend of journalistic acumen, lyric scholarship, and canoemanship, Tyer has fashioned an emblematic history, biopsy, and eulogy not just of a river and town, but of the thankfully dying extraction juggernauts of the post-industrial West.” —David James Duncan, author of The River Why and The Brothers K
“Memoir, history, and the unequal application of economic justice come together in Tyer’s deeply felt and sharply penned nonfiction debut.”—Publisher's Weekly
“Brad Tyer, in this excellently reported book, asks a fundamental question: is it fair that Missoula, a thriving little city, gets its poisons cleaned up at the expense of Opportunity? Citizens in Opportunity don’t think so. As the globe industrializes, even more toxic waste is being created, and while we can move it around, we can’t make it go away. Pretty soon we'll be eager to mend our ways. But how? We should all be reading Opportunity, Montana.” —William Kittredge, author of Hole in the Sky and The Nature of Generosity
“An intelligent, insightful, and finely crafted book that channels outrage into clear thinking.”—Booklist
“Industrial progress always leaves a hidden country of spills and blight. In this powerful and poignant memoir, Brad Tyer takes us up the river into one of America’s own ravaged quarters and asks important questions about how we lock away parts of our history. This is not just a book about burying a deadly inheritance; it’s about fathers and sons and the erasing flow of time. An amazing debut from one who knows the country intimately.” —Tom Zoellner, author of Uranium: War Energy and the Rock That Shaped the World
“Tyer blends nature writing and memoir, focused on his estrangement from a perfectionist father, with cultural history and journalistic reporting, including interviews with a variety of local players. The mix can seem a bit unwieldy. But the result is an engaging, almost breathtaking bit of nonfiction.” —Billings Gazette
“When a story about slag heaps and sluices can make the hair on the back of your neck stand up, you know you're holding rare ore.” —Missoula Independent