Anaconda Smelter Stack: An Eyesore to Some, A Touchstone to More
ANACONDA – A funny thing happened to University of Montana graduate student Megan Moore on her way to writing her doctoral thesis.
The forest and conservation sciences student set out two years ago to gather community input in Anaconda, Montana, about the ongoing Superfund mining cleanup along the Clark Fork River. She expected to hear a lot about how long the process has taken – 40 years so far – and shared experiences with contaminated soil remediation and the Superfund’s impact on daily life in this historic town of 9,500 residents.
What she found instead was that conversations inevitably circled back to one thing: the 585-foot Anaconda Smelter Stack that towers over the landscape and, she would learn, the town’s psyche.
“I set out to learn more about the community’s collective memories, what gives them pride, what brings nostalgia and what do they hope for the future,” Moore said. “And the stack just emerged from these interviews as the thing that everyone wanted to talk about. I spent more time talking about the stack than about Superfund.”
Tucked into the folds of the Pintler Mountains, the Anaconda Smelter Stack is not only one of the tallest surviving masonry structures in the world, it’s also one of a few remaining vestiges of the region’s storied mining history – a history that produced vast wealth for some, steady employment for many and environmental pollution still undergoing cleanup today.
Saved from destruction by Anaconda’s citizens, the stack today is the star attraction at the aptly named Anaconda Smoke Stack State Park. It must be viewed at a distance, though, because the ground around the stack is still polluted with toxic levels of arsenic.
“Megan’s research is one part of the $20 million CREWS (Consortium for Research on Environmental Water Systems) grant from the National Science Foundation that has studied water quality in Montana and employed a whole team of researchers, including social scientists like us,” said Moore’s adviser Libby Metcalf, UM’s Joel Meier Distinguished Professor of Wildland Management and senior associate dean of the W.A. Franke College of Forestry and Conservation.
“In the past decade we’ve looked at community issues surrounding Superfund cleanup in Milltown and Bonner and now we’re looking at Deer Lodge and Anaconda,” Metcalf said.
Metcalf and Moore said the stack, and its central role in the community’s collective memory, was a “thread” too interesting to ignore, becoming the topic of Moore’s research, which included interviews with 55 of Anaconda’s community leaders and surveys sent to the residents at large.
“There were a few, mostly younger, people who think the stack should be torn down because it’s a symbol of contamination and is holding the town back,” Moore said. “But there were a lot of people who say it needs to stay up, it’s a symbol of who they are and what it means to be tough – a mining community and a melting pot.”
According to the Montana Historical Society, at the time of its founding in 1883, Anaconda was of the state’s more ethnically diverse communities, with many of its residents born outside the United States and employed at the Anaconda copper smelter.
Anaconda High School Principal Erik Swanson and his mom, former Montana State Rep. Kathy Swanson, have deep family connections to the Anaconda Smelter, which was owned at its closing in 1980 by Atlantic Richfield Co.
“When smoke was coming out of the stack, it was a sign of prosperity, and when the smoke quit you knew no money was coming in,” said Kathy Swanson, whose father worked as a boilermaker at the smelter. “I remember you could taste arsenic on your lips. People called it the ‘taste of money.’”
When ARCO closed the smelter, she added, animosity toward the company was palpable in town.
“Everyone wanted the whole plant, including the stack, torn down,” she said. “But now, a lot of people realize the stack is part of our history.”
As the Superfund remediation continues, Swanson takes comfort in seeing new trees growing on nearby hills and – thanks to ongoing soil replacement – lawns that were once perennially brown turn green each spring. And the stack, she said, is always in sight.
Erik Swanson, whose home attic will soon go under remediation for traces of toxic dust, said his feelings about the stack are a bit different than his mom’s.
“I lived in California for 20 years, and when driving home the stack was a sign that we were getting close to town,” he said. “I guess I view it more as a landmark. And we do find that people who come to town ask about the stack and take pictures of it.”
For James Rosien, editor of the Anaconda Leader and town resident for 12 years, the stack is a purposeful feature in his own landscape photos.
“It’s been 40 years since smoke came out of the stack, but it still has a dominating presence in town,” said Rosien. “For a long time, it provided folks with hope that the smelting business might come back. Today, people recognize the value of the structure and it’s more a point of pride in our history.”
Moore’s study comes at a critical juncture for Anaconda as it looks to secure its future by attracting new businesses to town while still protecting what makes the community unique. It’s a delicate balance facing many post-industrial communities across the country.
“For older generations, it’s hard to see things like box stores coming in,” said Rosien of the town’s continuing transformation. “But growth isn’t going to stop because we want it to. The key is how it’s managed.”
Moore said she found it fascinating to see how the town is being purposeful in moving forward.
“They are asking a lot of tough questions,” she said, “such as is there a way they can harvest these memories as the community goes forward? Can they bring in more historic preservation and use history as they move toward a recreational and tourism economy?”
As far as her study, Moore said, she and Metcalf are working with the community to determine how best to share the results. She hopes that in whatever form that takes, Anaconda will find it useful as it steps out of its Superfund past.
Metcalf added that Moore’s research experience typifies the robust exploration encouraged of UM’s students.
“What’s beautiful about our graduate student program is we bring students in and let them explore ideas,” Metcalf added. “Megan’s research grew out of Superfund studies into something that is so much more.”
- by Raequel Roberts, UM News Service -