The Profits of Doom

One of the most polluted cities in America learns to capitalize on its contamination

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.

From the archives:

The Environment
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.

Presented by

William Langewiesche

"Enclosed are Two Pieces on Algeria." With those words, typed on plain white bond, William Langewiesche introduced himself to the editors of The Atlantic Monthly. Although neither piece quite stood on its own, the editors were drawn to the unusual grace and power of Langewiesche's writing and sent him on assignment to North Africa for a more ambitious piece of reporting. The result was the November 1991, cover story, "The World in Its Extreme"—his first article to appear in a general-interest magazine. (He had, however, written frequently for aviation magazines; he is a professional pilot and first sat at the controls of an airplane at the age of five.) Since that article, from which his book Sahara Unveiled: A Journey Across the Desert (1996) grew, Langewiesche has reported on a diversity of subjects and published four more books.

A large part of Mr. Langewiesche's reporting experience centers around the Middle East and the Islamic world. He has traveled widely throughout the Middle East and Northern Africa, reporting on such topics as the implementation of the shari'a in Sudan under Hassan al-Tarabi, North Africa's Islamic culture, and the American occupation of Iraq. Other recent assignments have taken him to Egypt, the Balkans, India, and Central and South America. In 2004 he won a National Magazine Award for excellence in reporting.

In 2002 his book American Ground: Unbuilding The World Trade Center was published. It is based on a series of three cover stories he wrote for The Atlantic as the only American reporter granted full access to the World Trade Center clean-up effort. His latest book, The Outlaw Sea: A World of Freedom, Chaos, and Crime, was published in May 2004.

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