WE MUST DO THIS RIGHT, FOREVER

(Published in MEANDERINGS for the Butte Weekly January 2017)

Southern China is lovely and temperate in December. The temperature hovered around 70ºF while I was there, with low humidity. It was pleasant. The palm trees in Zhaoqing were flourishing, and the redbud trees were losing their petals, the second flowering of the year. Compared to the -48ºF wind-chilled world we confront now, China’s Pearl River Delta region seems a dream from a far-off place and time.

Seven Story Lakes Park in Zhaoqing, China December 2016.  

Yet here we are. Why?

Because Butte, Montana USA is a vortex, a singularity, a whirling network created where  centripetal and centrifugal forces overlap and merge. Like other places I’ve been, our home is a strange combination of attractive and repulsive--it creates a disturbing tension and allows for the realization of novel things, some good and some not-so-good. Portland, Oregon and New Orleans comes to mind as similarly weird and wonderful places.

Who we are and how we create the world together is unique. Our weirdness draws interesting people like a camp lantern attracts moths. When I meet them I say, “Welcome to the vortex.” Sincere people who are mindful and creative understand immediately. They’re here because of our strange combination of salt-of-the-earth character and environmental spectacle. Artists seek novelty, and God knows we’re novel.

We’re sleepwalking. We’ve become blind to the reality of the world we’ve created because we created it slowly, over decades. Mountains become pits and overburden piles become mountains, and we hardly realize it.

That’s why I wasn’t surprised to read the unfolding international environmental drama back home while I was in China last month. Ten-thousand (10,000) snow geese experienced the misfortune of landing in Lake Berkeley. We love superlatives in the Richest Hill on Earth, so the headline reading, “Die-off of Snow Geese in Butte Possibly the Largest in History” reads easy. We're sleepwalking. We've become blind to the reality of the world we've created because we created it slowly, over decades. Mountains become pits and overburden piles become mountains, and we hardly realize it.  

 A young Butte citizen contemplating the Berkeley Pit on a Clark Fork Watershed Education Program field trip. 

A young Butte citizen contemplating the Berkeley Pit on a Clark Fork Watershed Education Program field trip. 

These geese are a reminder of the truth about the world we inhabit. We all live in (or very near) a world that is capable of killing thousands of perfectly healthy geese. That is demonstrably so, incontrovertible, a warranted assertion, in other words, actually and factually true.

Yes, we’ve spent much more than $1 billion on environmental remedy and restoration across the vast interlocking complex of Superfund sites from here to Milltown. To clean it all we would need perhaps 10 times that amount. The demon here lies in the details. EPA, for example, didn’t see fit to include the many large obvious waste dumps in the middle of town in their remedy plan--a $30 million detail. They appear to view Butte as a project that is taking too long and costing too much. Time to wrap it up and close the file.

Except, our particular problems are forever problems. In the convoluted language of the bureaucratic experts running the remedy/restoration projects by remote control from Helena, Denver, and Washington D.C., Butte will confront these environmental problems “in perpetuity.” As Fritz Daily will tell you, that’s a long time.

The geese, by a series of unfortunate events, were drawn to the vortex. They paid. My hope is that the recent spate of attention doesn’t stifle the generally positive drift and direction our community has taken. We will be fine if we wake-up and stay vigilant. Superfund unfolds over generations of time. That means that we need intergenerational communication and education in order to fight the good fight. Our grandchildren will struggle with the world we’ve left them unless we do this right, forever.

Chad Okrusch is a tenured assistant professor of ethics and communication in Montana Tech’s Professional & Technical Communication department. He was appointed to the Butte Natural Resource Damage Restoration Council (BNRC) in 2009.