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Montana’s Money Pit

A shining city on a hill, with Superfund site

In southwest Montana in the mid-1870s, a seam of silver was found in a wide basin in the mountains near the Continental Divide. By 1879, a growing miners’ camp was incorporated as the city of Butte. To Butte’s northeast, there was a hill containing some of the world’s richest deposits of copper ore. Butte fueled the rapidly electrifying world’s need for copper wire and electrical components, and soon became one of the leading sources of copper in the United States, just as Thomas Edison and J. P. Morgan, more than two thousand miles to the east, were launching the business that would become General Electric. While industrialists took over the rapidly expanding market for electrical power, Marcus Daly’s Anaconda Copper Mining Company fought and eventually controlled Butte’s copper mining, digging thousands of miles of underground mines around Butte and nearby Anaconda.

By the mid-1900s, mining companies were commonly using open-pit mines. That hill to the northeast of Butte began to be torn away in the 1950s, allowing Anaconda to mine vast amounts of copper. Today, the hill contains a mile-long, half-mile-wide hole in the ground called the Berkeley Pit. In photos, the flooded pit’s blue-green water may look like a lake, but the sharply stepped walls betray the reality: this was cut into the earth. This was manufactured. I’d heard a lot about the Berkeley Pit before my first visit to Butte, so when we approached Butte from the west, I kept asking if the pit was behind this hill, or if this or that pile of slag by the highway was the pit. My friend driving us from Missoula told me I’d know it when I saw it. As we exited the highway and drove up Park Street, away from the highway, Google Maps showed the names of the communities that formerly surrounded the mine: Meaderville, McQueen, East Butte. Now destroyed, they live on only as titles for so many heaps of rubble, the towns buried under the waste rock as the Berkeley Pit expanded.

Standing in front of the Berkeley Pit feels like standing at the end of the world. The discolored pit waters churn slightly in the wind, and the bleached terraces of the former mine are eerily bare of vegetation. Perching on the wooden observation deck (and paying three dollars for the privilege) is the easiest way to view the pit. The site has become a minor tourist attraction, sometimes getting three hundred visitors a day. Informational posters framed under glass give a capsule history—“Mining the Berkeley Pit, 1955–1982”—and recount environmental concerns. The acidic waters contain heavy metals and arsenic, we’re told, and yet even so, “the Pit waters support life.” But with additional reading, you learn that managers of the pit have had to install a system of sirens, drones, and guns to scare off birds from landing on the water and dying.

Dump trucks and water carriers shuttle back and forth along dirt roads to the nearby, and still active, Continental Pit. The deepest mines here reach well below sea level, even though the general elevation of this area, this bowl in the Rocky Mountains, is about five thousand feet. Historically, these mines were each capped off at the top by a magnificent “headframe,” the towering steel structures containing the assemblage of hoists and engines needed to lower underground miners in pursuit of copper ore. Many remain standing throughout the city of Butte. Just over two years ago, some of the original operators were able to restart the hoisting engine at the Steward Mine and operate the signaling bells used to communicate to miners deep in the ground. Several headframes sit high on the rim of the Berkeley Pit. On the mountain ridge opposite them, behind a tangle of other mining operations, looking over Butte and the pit, stands a gleaming white ninety-foot-tall statue of the Virgin Mary, Our Lady of the Rockies, which was dedicated in late 1985, not long after copper mining ceased at the Berkeley Pit.

For more than three decades, longer than the mine was in service, the ever-present question has been what risks the Berkeley Pit poses to the nearby population of Butte. A “PitWatch” website that is meant to provide unalarming information to the public notes that this is now “one of the nation’s most iconic Superfund sites.” The Berkeley Pit is the centerpiece of a complex of eight federally managed Superfund “operable units” that stretch throughout Silver Bow County, each unit focusing on geographically defined recovery projects to restore the land abused by pit mining. Slag heaps, tailings ponds, and the pit itself contain harsh chemicals left over from the mining process, as well as the toxic elements that accompany large deposits of copper: arsenic, cadmium, and lead. The pit itself lies below the level of groundwater in the area, meaning that rain and runoff have pooled inside. With the pumps of the mines turned off, this water—about fifty billion gallons of it—has collected, reacting with pyrite and sulfide-bearing ores, releasing sulfuric acid into the water along with heavy metals. The concentration of dissolved metals grew so high at one point that mining operations experimented with extracting copper directly from the pit water.

Because the pit’s water level is below the surrounding water table, water leaches from the surrounding rock into the void provided by the pit, following a path to lower pressure in the “closed-loop” water system. However, were the water level in the pit to rise above the water table, the pressure would reverse, forcing water from the pit, along with its contaminants, into the area’s groundwater. If that happened, it would contaminate a much larger portion of the city, not through drinking water, but by leaving that closed loop—entering soils and, eventually, human bodies. The pit recently came within 104 feet of the threshold known as the “Protective Water Level”—the boundary that must be maintained to prevent wider contamination—but pumping resumed, and for the first time in thirty seven years, the water in the pit stopped rising.

If you didn’t turn around and see the city sprawling behind the pit, from the stately, weathered brick buildings of uptown to the wide suburban Flats, you could imagine it as the resting place of a long-expired civilization. The years “1955–1982” on the informational placard barely connect with the magnitude of the place. The devastation inflicted here spans the entire history of modern industrial society. The rise and fall of the titanic copper empires ravaged it with a rare intensity. Now, the magnitude of this plunder weighs on the city below.

The specter of deindustrialization fascinates the imagination of those looking to the future. While the dread of climate change bears down on coastal cities with savage storms and floods, the American West, and especially former industrial regions, is viewed with reverence and a patronizing fixer-upper attitude. Ruins are a useful rhetorical tool for forward-looking developers and progressives with big plans. No one lives in a ruin. Where they are preserved, it is to function as a museum piece, or on display as a tourist attraction, a place where we can think to ourselves, What was this like, before it was destroyed?

Simply the Pits

When I told my friends from Montana that I would be writing a piece on Butte, they impressed upon me that if I “got Butte wrong,” they would hand me my ass. Butte has been seen as a wild town, dirty and unkempt, the punchline of a nasty joke. The city is sometimes referred to as “Butte, America,” both as a jab at its stark differences from the rest of Montana, and, more positively, for its former national significance. There was a time when it was the largest city between Chicago and San Francisco. Butte was born from a global hunger for modernity, to dredge from the earth the copper that made electrification possible. This hunger preyed on Butte, as unrestrained capitalists had ten thousand miles of subterranean mines dug under the Silver Bow Creek Valley. At their peak, one-third of the world’s copper came from this city’s mines, and the lion’s share of that from one company: Anaconda Copper Mining Company.

Anaconda built wealth and power in Butte, but that was a long time ago. Butte is often called the state’s most historic city, which feels like an unfair consignment. The city thrums with energy on the right day. Heading up for my second visit, I stopped in Butte again to attend the Montana Folk Festival, a free music festival featuring musical traditions from around the world. At the gas station, one of the attendants gave me a heads-up that the Butte–Silver Bow County Police were picking people up for being drunk and disorderly. Then, unprompted, he showed me where he had gashed his leg on sheet metal the week before. This, I was told, is called “Butte Tough,” and I believed him.

Standing in front of the Berkeley Pit feels like standing at the end of the world.

The women working at a help desk in the historic Hotel Finlen, a beautiful brick building that has a lobby filled with stately columns and marble floors, were distributing advice, water, and supplies to visitors and festival operators alike. A small child was sent on an errand to deliver flyers, and the staff generally maintained order amidst the hubbub in the lobby. This influx of visitors inevitably brought the species of showbiz types that prickle residents. Staffers, offering water to performers as a matter of course, would hear comments that this seemed like an overeager attempt to prove that Butte water is safe to drink. They complained about out-of-town musicians suffering dehydration while at high elevation in the heat of summer. And besides, the staff reaffirmed, Butte’s drinking water is some of the cleanest in the state (sourced from three reservoirs without any connection to local groundwater). One of the women mentioned that a visiting musician had once asked “How could you have let this happen to your city?” in reference to the Pit. She was outraged, and the rest of the staff had chimed in alongside her. To suggest that they had invited this was offensive. The staff talked about the city’s reputation and the need for cleanup and management of its resources, but moments later, some genius down the street started a licensed trash fire, on the day of the festival, one of the hottest days of the year. “Like I really need this,” one of the staff members said, holding up her portable oxygen concentrator.

Despite the health risks to residents, cleaning up the mess left by mining has been slow. Remediation and restoration efforts have been underway for decades. The “Butte Priority Soils Operable Unit,” one of the seven units within the broader Silver Bow Creek/Butte Area Superfund complex, is a five-square-mile region containing uptown Butte’s historic mining district, the target of cleanup efforts for the last twenty years. The remediation process, designed in accordance with EPA guidelines, includes the “removal of mine waste dumps, cleanup along railroads, removal of sediment, and capture and treatment of ground and stormwater.” Butte was deemed a Superfund site in 1983, but a seven-year delay meant a remedial plan was not selected until 1990, and then only put into action in 1992. A final remedial plan, agreed upon in 2006, intended to bring the whole site to safe levels, has an expected delivery date of between March and May 2022.

The EPA has set a goal for removal of the Berkeley Pit from the Superfund program by 2024. The restoration standards set by the EPA require that all immediate cleanup goals be met, that future use be restricted to ensure long-term safety of the site, and that there be a “construction complete” status for all restoration work. There is currently no timeline in place for either achieving “construction complete” or “site ready for reuse and redevelopment” status after construction ends. The wastewater from the Berkeley Pit is being treated and, at least for now, it is no longer rising.

In spite of decades of promises, the EPA, county and state regulators, and Atlantic Richfield Company (ARCO), the company that absorbed Anaconda and is now responsible for the environmental liabilities, recently missed another consent decree deadline. The consent decree outlines the specific requirements on ARCO to manage Superfund remediation. The product of thirteen years of legal battles, a decree has already been delayed several times over the last few years. Even once this decree is signed, an arcane process of approval begins: any tentative decree must be signed by representatives of the Department of Justice, the EPA, the state of Montana, representatives of ARCO, and Butte–Silver Bow County. After this whole process, the Department of Justice submits the decree to the state Supreme Court. Then, a thirty-day public comment period begins. The combination of ARCO’s sluggishness, regulatory delays, and scant media coverage of the site has allowed this process to continue as it has for decades, leaving residents dissatisfied and without meaningful recourse.

My Anaconda Don’t

Mining is life-threatening and unhealthy work, and it leaves behind chemical contaminants that persist through generations. As an industry, mining is punctuated by disaster, with cave-ins, fires, floods, and violent conflicts claiming lives below ground. The chipper recording on the observation deck of the Berkeley Pit makes no mention of the nightmarish conditions and risks, saying only that “folks realized the mine meant jobs” while a fiddle plays on loop until the recording ends. In reality, Butte saw fierce political organizing against the expansion of Anaconda’s control. Sometimes referred to as the “Gibraltar of Labor” in the American West, Butte grew into a strong union town, with unions managing nearly eighteen thousand of the city’s workers in an essentially “closed shop,” and eventually electing a Socialist mayor to an unprecedented two terms in the 1910s. Meanwhile, Anaconda maintained its grip on the city through political repression, blacklisting, and a tightly controlled press.

A series of labor riots ignited in 1914 due to chronically low wages, which led to the destruction of the union hall of the Western Federation of Miners. This conflict briefly broke union power in the city, when Anaconda, already capitalizing upon the opportunities presented by the demand for bullets for the First World War, announced it would no longer recognize the Western Federation of Miners, ending the closed shop era of Butte. Buoyed by government contracts and with the company maintaining an artificially high price for copper, Anaconda secured their control by carefully navigating future strikes to ensure the closed shop would remain dead. At the peak of wartime production, the June 1917 Speculator Mine disaster killed at least 167 men in a catastrophic fire, triggering mass strikes. Anaconda negotiated with trade unions rather than the miners’ union, ending the mass support for the strikes. The Industrial Workers of the World, already present in Butte and deeply loathed by managers, supported the strike action, but by August, IWW organizer Frank Little was lynched by unknown assailants­—he was reportedly dragged behind a car, had his kneecaps cut out, and was hanged from a trestle as a warning to labor activists in the area. The strike ended in December of 1917, leaving the unions with little to show for it.

Anaconda was a company built from staunch and often brutal opposition to the interests of its workers. This was, and to some degree remains, the nature of mining as an industry, but a company as ruthless as Anaconda, with so much political power behind it, could exert an influence on the young Montana government to a degree unheard of in any other state. In the context of World War I and the first Red Scare, Montana passed draconian anti-sedition laws that led to crackdowns on anti-war rhetoric and agitation from IWW organizers, who faced brutal beatings and imprisonment.

The anti-sedition laws gave an opening for officially sanctioned violence that was accompanied by a reactionary culture of frontier justice. Frank Little’s murderers left a message hanging around his neck with the calling card of the Montana Vigilantes, the numbers 3-7-77 (the meaning of which is still debated to this day). With the brutality of the Indian Wars in living memory, continued defense of settled territory gave the property rights of settlers primacy in the minds of the public, and where they could not be defended through legal means, extralegal killings and other violence ensued. The anti-sedition laws codified these tendencies and served as the basis for federal legislation shortly thereafter. Anaconda made full use of this situation, tacitly supporting a strike action in 1917 to provide a pretext for the declaration of martial law in the city of Butte. As the Red Scare expanded into national hysteria, Butte’s mining district became the frontlines against socialist and union organizers.

Like a museum piece on display, ruins tantalize us, a place where we can think to ourselves, “what do you think this was like, before it was destroyed?”

Anaconda expanded into international mines, eventually controlling major properties in Mexico and Chile. As the grade of Butte’s copper ore became less concentrated, Anaconda began to depend on its international mines to a greater degree, especially in the 1950s and 1960s. It then largely abandoned the dangerous and costly shaft mining in Butte, introducing an intensive pit mine in 1955 at its Berkeley mine, mirroring its international acquisitions of massive pit mines. This global expansion, though profitable, put the company in political settings they were no longer able to manage through sheer brutality, as they had in decades prior. In 1971, Salvador Allende, Latin America’s first democratically elected Marxist president, nationalized Anaconda’s Chuquicamata and El Salvador copper mines in Chile. Unable to leverage the same anti-socialist policies it had spearheaded domestically, the company began to stumble. Although the Pinochet dictatorship did pay Anaconda $250 million after a CIA-backed coup toppled Allende in 1973, the company suffered from another nationalization in Mexico by the government of Luis Echeverría and struggled to regain its dominant position in the international market.

Anaconda flailed for a few years, making a series of desperate and ultimately unwise investments in copper mines in Arizona, before finally being acquired by Atlantic Richfield for $700 million in 1977. ARCO had bought the lemon of the century. The unprofitable and mismanaged mines were too much for even its slickest accounting, and the mine operations were slowed. Underground mining ended altogether in Butte in the 1980s, and the Berkeley Pit was shut down on Earth Day 1982. The richest hill on earth seemed all spent, and the company had died. After a century of mining, a city of nearly one hundred thousand people had shrunk to about thirty thousand.

While the physical dangers of the pit are the most obvious and lasting of Anaconda’s legacy in Butte, the intensity of a century of exploitation has scarred the city politically. While the “copper collar” on journalism critical of Anaconda has long been broken, the legacy of the systematic propaganda campaigns that were orchestrated by Anaconda via its various company newspapers persists in public institutions. Anaconda’s suspicious nature and commitment to control produced a statewide collection of newspapers owned by the mining company itself—a company that simply did not print contro-versial stories of any kind. Editors learned which pieces to kill, responding to company policy, targeting articles of a political or environmental bent. The “company town” mentality affected the political structure of the entire state.

In 1959, Lee Enterprises bought seven company papers from Anaconda, a move that seemed to suggest a turn away from uncritical support for the company. However, Lee continues to operate in the aftermath of the copper collar. Even though mainstream journalism is no longer formally controlled by mining company interests, the skeletal state of independent journalism in Montana has left the largest Superfund site in the country, so proximal to a city, without the broad and varied coverage it deserves. In response to a unionization effort, Lee shuttered the Missoula Independent, one of the papers it acquired from Anaconda, in 2018, further deteriorating statewide coverage and leaving journalists without work, forcing some to leave the state to find employment. The decision to close the paper was made under the oversight of an executive who has since resigned from Lee, and was subsequently hired for $60,000 to consult for six months with the University of Missoula journalism school. He later left to work for Tim Fox, Montana’s attorney general and current Republican gubernatorial candidate. Without the presence of critical journalism, the public presumably will figure everything out—or just leave things to the EPA and ARCO. How could they let this happen to themselves?

Wide Open Spaces

Knowing the history of a place colors the experience of visiting, but the economic engine of this city is only part of the story. It’s not just pits and trucks and headframes: there are masses of men and women, miners, managers. The hum of cars and industry fade as you enter uptown, walking down wide streets that feel slightly oversized for a city of nearly thirty-five thousand. The monuments to the power struggles that defined Butte’s history are scattered across the city, silent and forbidding. The Copper Block, a neighborhood historically known for prostitution, has been mostly bulldozed. There are dozens of black metal silhouettes at the backs of the buildings that remain standing and scattered throughout a parking lot, sculptures of the women who lived and died here. The historic Dumas Brothel, the longest operating in the country, still remains, but several abortive attempts to establish a museum have failed to stick. Butte’s chaos has relocated.

In this same historic area, just north of the Copper Block, there is a vintage clothing store run by a man who claims to have worked on the costumes for the film Titanic. He caught me eyeing the enormous collection sprawled throughout the shop and asked if I had been to Butte before. When I said no, he reached behind the counter and took out a stack of framed photos of historic Butte to take me through a photographic history of the city, like a salesman trying to get me to bite. A transplant from Bozeman, he spoke tenderly about Butte, and explained his good fortune to have acquired this building. “Steinbeck stayed here,” he explained, and noted that the building was mentioned in Travels with Charley. He had found his place in the history of Butte, and nothing would remove him from it. I asked him about the Pit and if its presence ever troubled him. Nonchalantly dismissing my concerns, he mentioned that with the rising sun at the right angle and the clouds low enough, the light that reflects off the Pit’s lake fills the city with a beautiful glow in the mornings. I didn’t know what to say.

Ruin is never permanent, and recovery is never promised.

During the folk festival, there is a distinctly different experience of Butte. The festival is a rare time when Butte suddenly swells, for just one weekend, to the population it had at its height, with tens of thousands of visitors descending on the city. Performers hustle up and down the steep streets of uptown, lugging equipment and instruments, and the wide roads fill with onlookers outside tents already packed with audience members. The festival features a cosmopolitan array of performances. Last year, alongside Irish, Latin American, and American folk performers, the throat singer Yuliyana Krivoshapkina transfixed an audience with a hypnotic, droning performance while singing over a jaw harp and received a standing ovation. If anyone had thought Butte was a ruin, they had not seen it the night of the festival, swarming with sprawling crowds making liberal use of the city’s relaxed open-container laws. We stumbled down a jagged L-shaped alley; we razzed and were razzed by locals and visitors alike.

There is a spirit held over from the days of “wide open” Butte, of a city that is hard and frenetic, coping with the real tragedies and daily instability of mining with lawless fun. A corner bar erupted into song as people played with a well-known local dog and his owner on the sidewalk. The bouncers chopped it up with the crowd. Everyone loved this place. I loved this place. It was a frenzy of faces streaming from doors and onto city-sized wide sidewalks, which had been empty enough to hear a pin drop only a few months before. Butte booms and busts, overflows and empties, consistent in its excess.

The Impossible City

A century of copper mining, class war, and the slow decay of deindustrialization has left scars on the city. Buttians struggled against company control through the ballot box and through unions. No one let this happen. It was fought every step of the way. The history of Butte is not a packageable disaster story, or a cautionary tale against civic inaction. This community experienced the worst ravages of economic predation and became an unwilling sacrifice to a mining empire that built the rest of the world. What happened in Butte was not happenstance, or an unavoidable consequence of our staggering march toward progress. In spite of its history, Butte was a place powerful interests, from mining companies to federal regulators, would sooner see forgotten than made livable. The unrestrained capitalism of the American West saw no future for Butte beyond its short-term profitability.

Deindustrialization has left ruined monuments, multibillion-dollar cleanup projects, and struggles for control over what remains. However, these fights are continuing alongside a quieter disruption of life, one that leaves no monuments, but instead a series of “non-places,” hollowed out and abandoned to years of decay. The depopulation of the Plains has been underway since the early twentieth century. Displacement is especially felt in the Plains states east of Montana, where smaller cities are plagued by crushing isolation and economic abandonment. Further down the Missouri River, industry has condemned entire regions to precarity. Development of the Bakken oil fields in North Dakota and in the Mid-Continent Oil Province throughout the southern Plains will condemn communities to water contamination crises when water supplies are threatened by pipelines and fracking byproducts. Climate-related disasters have serially flooded these regions, including recent statewide flooding in Nebraska.

The poverty and remoteness of much of the American West has left it a sacrificial zone. What was the subject of centuries of aggressive colonization to convert it into an archetypal heartland of America has been denuded and destroyed: billions of tons of Great Plains’ ruined topsoil blown to the wind; the mines scattered throughout the mountains with their unthinkable amounts of toxic waste. This intensity of extractive capitalism necessitated a genocide by white settlers that destroyed ecosystems and inhabitants with a casual fury. The development of industry on this same land led to the upheaval of farmers, with more and more evicted, and—occasionally—the development of radical political forces to challenge this intrusion. The decimation of these industries through international competition turned new cities to ghost towns, as capital and political power fled to greener pastures. Ruin is never permanent, and recovery is never promised.

As the exigencies of climate change begin to bear down on the West, the story of Butte becomes particularly important. A place that had so much wealth, whose land and people gave so much of themselves to the world, was left to clean up an impossible mess. No one will be held responsible for the crimes committed against the people of Butte, just as it seems that no one will be held responsible for the broader environmental destruction worldwide. In this perilous time, communities will be hammered and battered in the same way that Butte has been, irrevocably reshaping them. We’ll be lucky to love our cities then as much as Buttians still love Butte today.

At the end of the festival, I was feeling sentimental. Butte can be overwhelming. A century of brutality weighs down on everything, and everywhere you look, in the faded advertisements printed on walls, in the imperious headframes, in the shadow of the mountains’ ridge, the past reaches into the present and takes hold. I stood at the back of the Old Lexington Gardens in uptown, the site of Butte’s first smelter, and, later, first high school, next to child-sized headframes and a garden of wildflowers. A Cuban band was wrapping up its performance in the stage tent behind me. From there, I could face south, looking over the city and out into the Silver Bow Creek Valley. The sun was setting at the end of the last day of the festival, and Butte’s transformation was complete. My host and I talked about this impossible city, a city of ruins and destruction, of unimaginable material wealth, the whirlwind of faces and bars and monuments, the depth of the Pit and the deaths it held, the bright union hall and the crowds heading down the hill, reminding us of the longer, broader story of a city that would not die, learning, again and again, ways to fight for a decent life.