Superfund Tour Sets Tone for Graduate Journalism Studies

You know you’re in the right journalism program when, before the semester has even started, you race to campus at 6:55 am, jump into cars with 10 strangers and drive two hours just to get a close and personal look at the largest toxic waste cleanup project in the country.

And instead of being the slightest bit grumpy, you feel like you have finally found birds that share your particular brand of nerdy feather.

Group photo of journalists students standing at the Berkley Pit in Butte, MT.

The 2018 class of UM’s Graduate Journalism program listens closely as reclamation specialist Tom Malloy describes the future plan for the Berkeley Pit. Photo by Doug Simpson.

Staring into the Berkeley Pit may not be everyone’s idea of a good time, but it tends to be right up the alley of new graduate students in the University of Montana’s graduate program in Environmental Science and Natural Resource Journalism.

It’s become a tradition to kick off the program with what Professor Nadia White calls the “Super Fun Superfund Tour” – a daylong immersion into Montana’s storied mining and extraction history.

This year, the new cohort moved backwards through time and space, tracing the Clark Fork River upstream from Missoula toward its headwaters near the Continental Divide.

The Clark Fork and its tributaries are the veins through which toxic pollutants from a century of copper mining near Butte have spread. Each mile of the river is in a different state of restoration, reclamation, stagnancy or conflict.

Our first stop was Dry Cottonwood Creek ranch – a working cattle ranch owned by the non-profit Clark Fork Coalition located on the Upper Clark Fork. It’s a living laboratory for river and soil reclamation.

Rancher Maggie Schmidt showed students the sections of the river that are in the process of being cleaned up and explained the impact the reclamation project is having on her ranching operation. The visit was a window into how the federal government’s Superfund program plays out with private landowners and the agriculture sector on the ground.

Our caravan then wound through the town of Opportunity, which continues to be the dumping ground for other places’ hazardous waste. Brad Tyer, one of our chaperones and author of the book “Opportunity, Montana: Big Copper, Bad Water, and the Burial of an American Landscape” offered insight as to how some communities, lands, and rivers in Montana may be restored, but there is almost always another one that becomes a kind of sacrificial lamb in exchange.

We stopped for lunch in Anaconda, which is famous for its remnant landmarks from its smelting days. At Smoke Stack State Park, I looked around to see my fellow graduate students clambering over a brick wall to touch slag from the old copper smelter with their bare hands.

Finally, we landed in Butte, the “black heart of Montana,” to meet up with Tom Malloy, the reclamations manager for Butte-Silver Bow County. Malloy lives and breathes environmental reclamation. He knows more sneaky passageways to mining sites than just about anyone else in the county, or maybe the entire country.

Malloy treated students not only to a bird’s-eye view of the Berkeley Pit, but also to a once-in-a-lifetime visit to Yankee Doodle Tailings Pond, which is hidden from the general public’s direct sight.

Seeing the legacy of extraction helped some students ground their ideas about these infamous places.

Journalism student Matt Blois’ only prior connection to the Pit was from hearing about it on Radio Lab. “I expected it to be much more sinister looking – bubbly, green and horrible looking,” he said. “It was strange to see it and know it was so acidic, because it looks so benign.”

J-School students stand in the grass near the pit.

Tom Malloy leads students through Slag Wall Canyon outside Butte – the last stop of the Super Fun Superfund tour. Photo by Olga Kreimer.

Tromping around with Malloy was like having an all-access pass to the behind-the-scenes drama of Butte. I knew he had saved the best for last when he said he was going to take us to “Slag Wall Canyon”, a first for students as well as for our chaperones.

We pulled up next to a trickle of water outside of town and ducked under a crumbling archway. Soon, we were watching Silver Bow Creek meander between 30-foot walls constructed of bricks made from smelting waste. To the untrained eye, it was beautiful and eerie at the same time.

But to Malloy, it was another environmental disaster waiting to happen. He told us that toxic tailings are buried just beneath the slag walls. Meaning that if a big flood were to occur, or the slag walls proved structurally unsound, the old chemicals would be unleashed into the creek, enter the Clark Fork and make a dash for the Columbia. All of the reclamation and healing efforts at places like Maggie’s ranch would be undone, and the water supply of this area would be severely compromised once again.

As Malloy pointed out this risk, we thought hard about what it meant in the big scheme of things. As emergent journalists, how can we talk about slag walls and this one creek in a way that connects our audience to the hard and complex choices we all have to make? What about the ones we don’t make, but are implicated in? And how do we do that gracefully, without scaring the public away?

For his part, Malloy advocated for the creek to be re-routed away from danger. He made it sound as if changing the path of an entire creek was a relatively quick-and-easy fix, and to a reclamations specialist, perhaps it is.

But long after we arrived back in town, a little late and very hungry, I kept thinking about progress. I wondered how someone like Tom Malloy defines progress in his work on a daily basis when he is surrounded by problems created decades ago and solutions that will take a century. And how we are willing to define “solutions” themselves – when it’s so much easier to wish some of these harms had never been caused in the first place.

I hope the questions that bubbled to the surface that day will stay present as we willingly and bravely enter the fray as journalists, listeners, storytellers and witnesses.

Story by Nora Saks

Standing Rock Reporting Trip Gets Big Attention

MJR students and J-School Professor Jason Begay on the road to Standing Rock.

Montana Journalism Review (MJR) students and J-School Professor Jason Begay on the road to Standing Rock.

Following a five-day trip to the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation, a team of journalism students and a professor have been at the center of a lot of media attention, a sign that coverage of the intertribal stand against the Dakota Access Pipeline is both sorely lacking but also highly sought after.

During Labor Day weekend, Associate Professor Jason Begay and three students—grad students Matt Roberts and Lailani Upham, and undergrad senior Olivia Vanni—drove to the North Dakota campsite where an estimated 250 tribes have gathered to stand against a massive oil pipeline project.

“The Journalism School faculty thought it made sense that we have a student presence at Standing Rock, since we consider ourselves to be leaders in Native American journalism,” said Begay, who teaches the Native News reporting teams to the Montana’s seven reservations every spring. “But I don’t think we anticipated the kid of attention we eventually found.”

The students were reporting for the Montana Journalism Review (MJR) and were looking to research how the media was covering the Standing Rock camp. Standing Rock Sioux tribal members have been camping at the site since May, as they challenge the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline, which would pump nearly 1,200 barrels of oil from the Eastern North Dakota to Illinois.

Although the pipeline wouldn’t go into tribal lands, it would cross the Missouri River just upstream from the Standing Rock reservation, including through an area sacred to the tribe.

The campsite has been billed as a non-violent demonstration by participants, but during the MJR reporting trip, violence rocked the area as tribal supporters and pipeline employees and security guards clashed over the construction site.

“It wasn’t overt, but we could sense a shift in tone at the camp after that event,” Begay said. “Everyone was just a little more cautious about who to talk to and why so many media reps had finally showed up.”

Media attention increased exponentially for both the campsite and the reporting team. Before the team left North Dakota, they were interviewed for stories by both a Missoula TV and radio station. Begay was invited to write a story for the Butte Standard. Other programs that featured interviews and photos from the team include Public Radio International, Native America Calling and the Navajo Times.

Begay was also invited to talk about the trip on two panels at the Excellence in Journalism conference in New Orleans in mid-September.

“News media is really starved for any kind of on-the-ground coverage of the Standing Rock camp,” Begay said. “Most of the media present at the site have been either local to the Bismarck area or the big outlets. Smaller, regional news companies really seem interested, but lack the resources to send their own people.”

The Montana Journalism Review team is posting content from the trip on its Medium page and is expected to feature a longer story and media analysis

of the trip in its 2016 edition, due out later this year.

Award-winning Editor to Deliver Annual Pollner Lecture

Melissa Mccoy profile picMelissa McCoy, a former deputy managing editor of the Los Angeles Times, will deliver the University of Montana School of Journalism’s annual T. Anthony Pollner Lecture on Monday, Oct. 3. Her topic: “What the Media Communicate About Mental Illness.”

The lecture, which is free to the public, will begin at 7 p.m. in the University Center Theater. McCoy said she is interested in why violence is often a theme in news coverage “when people coping with a mental illness are much more likely to be the victims of crimes rather than the perpetrators.”

She believes the media are making some progress in how such stories are covered but need to do better.

“What the news media tell us about mental illness is getting a bit deeper,” McCoy said, “but most stories are still reactive. By that I mean we chase the news when there’s violence, but we generate relatively few stories about how mental illness affects tens of millions of ordinary Americans every year.”

McCoy spent 17 years at the LA Times, advancing from metro copy editor to a deputy managing editor supervising 250 journalists. In addition to overseeing the paper’s award-winning copy desks, graphics department and researchers, she frequently was the final editor for major projects, a number of which won Pulitzer Prizes. During her newspaper and magazine career, McCoy also worked as a reporter, copy chief, news editor and assignment editor.

Since leaving the LA Times in 2009, McCoy has been a media consultant, writer and editor. She was a visiting faculty member at the Poynter Institute for Media Studies, where she had previously served as an ethics fellow. At UM she teaches a seminar that focuses on reporting and writing about sensitive topics that include rape, murder, suicide and mental illness.

McCoy is the school’s 17th Pollner Professor, a professorship created in 2001 in memory of T. Anthony Pollner, a UM journalism alumnus and a dedicated staff member at the Montana Kaimin who died two years after graduating. The Pollner endowment allows the school to bring a distinguished journalist to campus each semester to teach a course and to mentor students at the Kaimin.

Founded in 1914, the School of Journalism is now in its second century of preparing students to think critically, act ethically and communicate effectively. To learn more about the School of Journalism, visit