For some, the ponds network provides a birders’ paradise. For others, the ponds and headwaters of the Clark Fork River offer an anglers’ dream. For still others, it’s a sprawling mess of contaminated sediments that could flood downstream with potentially disastrous results.
Of course, many motorists speed by the Warm Springs Ponds on Interstate 90 and give the settling ponds nary a passing thought.
What do residents and non-residents think about the ponds and their future? Agencies, organizations and the property owner want to know.
They hope people will complete a brief online survey to share thoughts and observations.
“It’s really important to see where public sentiment is at this point,” said Alex Leone, the Anaconda-based restoration policy manager for the Clark Fork Coalition, a river advocacy group based in Missoula.
The goal of the survey is to help inform the Superfund remedy ultimately selected for the Warm Springs Ponds network. The site harbors about 19 million cubic yards of contaminated sediments and mining wastes from historic upstream mining and smelting.
That total far exceeds what was once piled up downstream behind the Milltown Dam near Missoula. The Superfund remedy there included dramatic interventions, including excavating tons of contaminated sediments and transporting them by rail to be spread across the Opportunity Ponds.
What should happen at the Warm Springs Ponds?
That question led to the creation of the public survey now available online. The survey launched March 2 and will close by mid-July. It was developed by students and supervising faculty at the University of Montana Western.
Students participating in the survey effort said that “the goal of our research project is to better understand how the public uses and views the Warm Springs Ponds so we can integrate this information into future management decisions.”
The National Science Foundation provided funding for the survey. The EPA, the Clark Fork Coalition, the Atlantic Richfield Co., the Montana Natural Resource Damage Program and Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks provided input.
Arica Crootof, an assistant professor of environmental sustainability at the University of Montana Western, supervised the 27 students participating in the survey project. The questionnaire asks about uses of the Warm Springs Ponds, about perceptions regarding contamination at the settling ponds and seeks comments about the future of the site.
Many residents of the region feel strong ties to the Warm Springs Ponds. They appreciate the recreational opportunities offered there and throughout the surrounding acres included within the Warm Springs Wildlife Management Area.
Someday, a decision will surface like a large rising trout about how the EPA and other agencies and organizations should address pollution in the ponds.
For now, the Warm Springs Ponds network continues to play a role in removing heavy metals flowing downstream from contaminated sites that have not yet been fully remediated. The Anaconda Copper Mining Co. built the first settling pond in 1911. A second pond was constructed in 1916, followed by a third during the 1950s.
Allie Archer, EPA’s remedial project manager for the Warm Springs Ponds operable units, said they continue to be an active treatment system, protecting the main stem of the Clark Fork River from heavy metals, including copper, arsenic, cadmium, lead and zinc.
The EPA has said it will wait until cleanup work upstream is further along before identifying a potential remedy for the Warm Springs Ponds.
Leone said the survey can help inform that process.
“Everybody has been in a wait-and-see mode,” he said. “We just want to see the process move forward and we want to see the public involved in the process.”
He said the Clark Fork Coalition has not yet taken a stance about the best remedy for the Warm Springs Ponds.
In addition to the survey, students in Crootof’s classes will interview stakeholders likely to have knowledge about the ponds and thoughts about the network’s future. For example, students hope to interview representatives from Montana Trout Unlimited and from the Anaconda Sportsman’s Club.
Crootof said understanding more about how the Warm Springs Ponds are used and by whom and why people decide not to use the ponds will help inform future cleanup plans.
“To work on the river basin scale, we need to have support from the people who live and work here,” she has said.
To participate in the survey, go to: WSPsurvey.org