Butte, Montana, lives on its toxic waste. It is a filthy brick city of 33,000, built on a steep hill among the remains of dead copper mines. Montanans elsewhere call it "Butte, America" in a disparaging way, as if it were somehow a separate and alien place. One can see why by hiking up the hill, past Butte's decrepit central district, past mines and union halls and a bar called Pisser's, through proletarian neighborhoods of bungalows nestled among waste heaps laced with lead and arsenic, to the Granite Mountain overlook, a memorial to 168 miners killed in 1917 in an underground fire.
Out across the horizon of snow-capped mountains lies the celebrated Montana of natural beauty, where a record number of visitors vacationed in recent years, even as the residents' incomes floated in the forty-sixth position among the fifty states. Montanans proudly call their home "The Last Great Place," though the slogan can sound wistful and forlorn. Caught in a two-tiered economy with little industry left to sustain them, they are remaking the fashionable western half of the state into an exaggeration of itself, so that even the individualists there—the guides, the survivalists, the cowboy poets—now learn at the movies how to dress and talk. Or so I've been told in Butte.
A collection of Atlantic articles on environmental issues.
Butte's residents speak frankly about themselves as well. They say that their city is fractious and that its survival remains in doubt. Eighty years ago it had a population three times as large as today's, predominantly of Irish Catholics, but also of Serbs, Scandinavians, Italians, Chinese, and French. The immigrants, who formed labor unions that were willing to fight, infused Butte with an old-fashioned left-wing sensibility that remains a part of its character to this day. The workers' enemy was also their patron—the voracious Anaconda Mining Company, which was founded in 1891 and soon absorbed Butte's independent mines. Over the years, Anaconda sent perhaps 2,500 local men to their deaths underground in pursuit of copper ore, but it employed a far greater number of people and gave Butte its life. Because the company was so important to the community, when Anaconda said it needed to begin open-pit mining, in 1955, it was allowed to consume long-standing neighborhoods with barely an objection.
Quarrying was the way of the future, and it was safer than tunneling. But it required less labor, which weakened the unions and meant that layoffs, once cyclical, became permanent. It was also physically destructive: over the years the open pit, known as the Berkeley, grew into a crater 1.5 miles across and 1,800 feet deep—a giant hole in the heart of town. In 1977 Anaconda Mining was near death, and the oil company ARCO bought it up. ARCO was flush with cash at the time and wanted to diversify and experiment with hard-rock mining. Within a few years the experiment began to fail. In the early 1980s ARCO closed the remaining shafts and turned off the pumps that had kept the mines from flooding. It then shut down the Berkeley Pit.
The sight from Granite Mountain today is of an industrial battlefield with smoke still hanging in the air. The city spills into the flats of the valley below with a sprawl of new houses and a shopping strip that extends to the airport. But the soul of Butte remains on the hill, in the tattered and cosmopolitan center—a red-brick commercial district, scarred by vacant lots and shuttered storefronts, but resilient and defiantly urban. This is the core that refuses to die. The streets are steep and unadorned, and eerily empty at night even in the summer. In the winter they are swept by the full force of mountain winds and snows. On the east side the central district falls precipitously into the Berkeley Pit; on the west side it melds with an old neighborhood of brick houses, most in need of repair, where the engineers and mine bosses once lived. Higher on the hill stand the miners' modest wooden houses, snaking upward in bands among the wood-and-steel hulks of the abandoned mine yards. A dozen main shafts are straddled by black steel elevator derricks, called gallows frames, which dominate the city's skyline. From them the miners were lowered as much as a mile into a labyrinth of now unreachable destinations—the most heavily mined ground in the world. It is said that the hill contains 7,000 miles of wood-framed horizontal tunnels and untold numbers of vertical shafts. Most of the shafts are closed over and forgotten, but every year a few of them suddenly open up—sometimes in people's back yards or basements. No one knows why dogs fall in and children do not.
Butte has bigger problems anyway. This hill, once called the richest on earth, is known now as one of the dirtiest in America. Its soils and waters are filled with lead and other toxic metals, and the creek called the Silver Bow, which flows at its base, was until recently so contaminated by runoff that it was poisoned at least 140 miles downstream, creating a plume of death that reached into the picturesque Clark Fork River and on toward the Columbia.
In 1983 the Environmental Protection Agency declared that Butte was a high-priority Superfund site—and by the way, that ARCO would have to pay for most of the cleanup. ARCO was taken by surprise. The Superfund laws had been passed in 1980, decades after most of the mess had been made and three years after ARCO bought Anaconda's liabilities. The retroactive application of the laws, though apparently constitutional, seemed unfair. Nonetheless, when threatened with triple damages by the EPA, ARCO did not go to court, as other companies have, but began grudgingly to cooperate. Eighteen years later it remains entangled in what has grown into one of the largest Superfund sites in the United States. The costs of the cleanup have been huge. The site is especially complex because it remains inhabited. The health consequences of the pollution have been only partially studied, but they are widely assumed to be serious—lead poisoning in particular is a concern.
Meanwhile, in Butte's vast underground the shafts and tunnels, full of residual heavy metals and arsenic, have flooded—and the tainted waters have risen within the hill to a level precariously close to that of the rivers and stream-beds on the surface.
Now for the paradox: The mine waters would already be spilling into the Silver Bow, further poisoning it and the rivers downstream, were it not for the existence in the middle of town of the Berkeley Pit, which by serving as a giant sump has delayed the day of reckoning. Five million gallons a day drain into the pit and mix with oxygen to form one of the most contaminated bodies of water in the world—a brown lake of metal-laden sulfuric acid, currently 900 feet deep and steadily rising. The lake is expected to reach the critical level (about 1,100 feet) in another twenty years, at which time—if left alone—it will bleed into the aquifer and poison springs and wells, with catastrophic consequences.
That is unlikely to happen, of course, because Butte is in America, which has the wealth to clean itself up. If Congress lets ARCO off by loosening the Superfund laws (as industry believes it should), then the necessary treatment plant will be built by the EPA instead. One way or the other, the problem will be contained.