Sherry Devlin tells an inspiring tale in today’s Missoulian: the EPA has finalized its plans for removing the Milltown dam and cleaning a huge plug of contaminated sediment out of the Blackfoot and Clark Fork Rivers. This saga has been developing for most of a decade, led by citizen organizations and local government, and today’s announcement is a milestone.

One larger lesson from this Montana victory is that Cascadia has abundant economic opportunities from restoring rivers and contaminated sites: in today’s economy, polluted places are deadweight on productivity and income, as I wrote in Green-Collar Jobs.

A second is that the failure to prevent pollution-the lack of stewardship-is not a boon to the economy but a huge burden on it, even in the one-eyed accounting of dollars and cents. Had the miners who filled western Montana’s rivers with toxic-laden tailings taken fairly inexpensive precautions, future generations (in this case, us) would have been spared costs mounting into the tens of millions of dollars (plus the arguably larger nonmonetary losses to human health and quality of life). Cleaning up messes like this one typically costs hundreds of times as much as preventing the messes in the first place.

In fact, I’ve often wondered just how much Cascadia pays out each year to atone for the sins of its fathers by cleaning up the legacy of their carelessness.