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The Profits of Doom - Page 2
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on Peoples now met the challenge. Having watched the grand plans fail, he believed that what the city needed was a strategy of incremental advances—anything to get it moving again. In 1983 he held a series of town meetings at which he invited hundreds of people to express their ideas for Butte's future—and having involved them, he organized a broad-based community response. Most of the initiatives were small business projects that individually didn't amount to much. Collectively, however, they began to turn the town around.

Peoples worked without respite, acknowledging his mistakes and pressing ahead with such dedication that he was able if not exactly to shame community leaders into action, then at least to elicit important new commitments from them. The Montana Power Company, which had toyed with the idea of moving its headquarters out of the central district, now promised to expand its presence instead; the hospital promised to stick around too, and to build a new cancer center, which would require an increase in staff. ARCO began to pump money into the Superfund cleanup. Then, in 1985, a Missoula construction magnate named Dennis Washington started a new open-pit mine. It was a mechanized, nonunion operation, and it employed relatively few people, but it proved that mining could still be profitable, and it symbolized the city's resilience.

Equally important to the mood that year, a group of miners erected Our Lady of the Rockies—a ninety-foot statue of the Virgin Mary, supported inside by a steel scaffold like a gallows frame, standing high on the Continental Divide with her hands held wide in acceptance of the ravaged city below. The statue was a genuine expression of faith, and if only in that sense it appears to have helped. The central district continued to decline, but the city was taking heart. In 1987 U.S. News & World Report listed Don Peoples as one of the top mayors in the nation. By 1988 Butte's unemployment rate had dropped to that of the state as a whole, about seven percent.

But Butte had never happily shared in Montana's fate, and Peoples wanted a fuller life for it than the life that tourism could provide. He had a way of looking squarely at things. The city was undercut by its ugliness and hard winters, and by its geographic isolation. The tax breaks and subsidies it had offered in order to attract manufacturing had been exploited by companies to extract equal concessions from more-desirable towns. Some of the companies that did arrive turned out to be empty shells and stock-market scams; others were simply ill managed or impractical. Peoples insisted that Butte had to endure these bruisings and to continue searching outside the valley for investors. But he also looked inside the valley, and began to wonder if the city's mining wastes, however terrible they seemed, might somehow be turned into assets. He came to realize that at the least the local pollution was no longer an embarrassment to be covered up.

The strength of that insight was its acceptance of an authentic Butte—a place with a few false fronts on its buildings but little chance of forgetting its past or engaging in Montana-style reconstructions of its identity. Butte had always been and always would be a gritty town, and Don Peoples wanted to recognize it as such. His revelation was profound. It was a step not just toward the development of a new resource but also, implicitly, toward a new form of preservation. Practically speaking, its origins lay in a Department of Energy testing facility built in the mid-1970s in a federally financed industrial park near the airport. An existing nonprofit community-development organization now called the Montana Economic Research and Development Institute took over that facility. In 1981 this organization—MERDI—in turn created a for-profit engineering company, Mountain States Energy, specifically to run the DOE's programs. Don Peoples sat on both boards. MSE's initial mission was to experiment with a power-generation technology called magneto hydrodynamics, but the company soon diversified into civil engineering and landed new contracts with various government agencies—eventually including the EPA—for a bewildering range of construction projects and the pilot-scale testing of advanced materials and processes. It operated in conjunction with the state's universities—particularly Montana Tech, Butte's once great school of mines.

MSE was an unusual company, and it remains so today. It had a hard-nosed business sense, but it was owned by a community organization and its ultimate purpose was to promote the public good. It put its headquarters in the middle of the central district, among halfway houses and ruined stores, and it ploughed its profits into the city, funding scholarships, grants, and infrastructure projects that the local government could not afford. Equally important, it provided jobs for Butte residents who had technical or university training. There was a troublesome side to MSE as well: it was in some ways a provincial and insecure company, searching in vain for legitimacy and a permanent mission while presenting a public face that was a bit too bright to be entirely believable. Nonetheless, it was determined to exploit every opportunity to build a new economic base for the city.

rom the start of the Superfund cleanup MSE wanted to get in on the action. The immediate problem was that ARCO didn't require its advice. ARCO's cleanup of the mines consisted mostly of old-fashioned earthmoving, an activity for which Butte—where people are known to indulge in recreational bulldozing—was particularly well prepared. "Suck, muck, and truck," the locals called it. The technique was relatively cheap, and it served to concentrate and bury the toxins, at least for a lifetime. The EPA and ARCO agreed on a similar plan for the eventual cleanup of the Berkeley Pit: they would pump out the water, mix in limestone to neutralize the acid, and truck the resulting gelatin to a toxic dump—or repository—to be monitored indefinitely. This promised to be a large but otherwise ordinary job.

From the archives:

"The Sub Sea-Bed Solution" (October 1996 )
Far from being embraced, a promising solution to the radioactive-waste problem faces stiff opposition from the federal government, the nuclear industry, and environmental interests. By Steven Nadis
MSE saw its chance in the national discomfort with repositories as a permanent solution for toxic waste. Under Don Peoples's guidance the company slipped in from the side, exploiting Butte's growing notoriety and MSE's own reputation for technical competence, and managed to assume control over research grants for a wide range of advanced cleanup technologies. Peoples encouraged the company to move beyond repositories, whether by incinerating the pollution, remining the wastes, or applying chemical or biological cures. The size and pace of the Berkeley Pit drama helped to ensure long-term funding and provided time to work the solutions out.

Suddenly MSE had large ambitions. Its purpose was not to change ARCO's plans for the cleanup of the pit, or even necessarily to clean up the hill, but rather to use Butte as a test bed for permanent solutions—to spin off ventures, capitalize on new knowledge, and find work for itself around the world. For this the company needed a strong president. After a nationwide search the board realized that no one would equal its own Don Peoples. Peoples felt he had done what he could in government. In 1989 he left office and took the job at MSE. His political admirers were dismayed, and worried that he had in some sense sold out, until they realized that from his new position he was still attempting to rescue his beloved home town.

He knew it would be a rescue without end—and, indeed, after more than a decade at MSE he recognizes that his city remains at risk. Though he sometimes talks of retirement, it is difficult to believe he would choose this moment to quit. These are hard but pioneering times, and his work at MSE is starting to bear fruit. A cluster of new companies interested in pollution remediation—some directly spawned by MSE, others intending to compete with it—have sprung up in Butte. This is more or less what Peoples had always had in mind—the possibility that an entirely new industry might come to life on these polluted grounds.

Meanwhile, the acceptance of Butte for what it is has spread. Assertive young officials in the city government have dusted off a 1962 "National Historic Landmark" designation and are using it in radical ways to shape the Superfund cleanup: rather than allowing the EPA simply to cap the mine waste and return the land to a clean condition, they have declared that even the waste piles have historical significance, and therefore, according to the law, must be respected by federal agencies. Their idea is to leave the least toxic of the piles in their raw state, as historical monuments. For the dangerously contaminated sites that must be cleaned up and eliminated, trades can be made—swapping those sites for the preservation of the old mine buildings, for drainage and street improvements, and for an extensive new network of footpaths and parks. It is possible that the greatest result for Butte of the Model Cities program was the expertise the program created in just this sort of bureaucratic leveraging and manipulation.

But the preservation of industrial waste is more than a ploy, or a folly for reporters to write about. Don Peoples is an instinctively conservative man; he seems uncomfortable with the city's new stridency, and uncertain about where it will lead. Nonetheless, he also seems to recognize that this public embrace of pollution is a complement to his own way of thinking, and that the honesty of such an approach is helping to attract a new generation of immigrants to the town—people who are too young or urban for him quite to appreciate, but who are smart and effective and are looking for something beyond the standard Montana. Some of those people work for MSE or its subcontractors, or for Montana Tech; others work independently, as architects, engineers, software designers, and technicians of various kinds.

So much the better if Butte does not try to be pretty. Its population, after more than eight decades of decline, has finally stabilized, and there are signs of new life for the central district, as residents of all generations slowly begin to return to the hill. MSE still suffers from its provincial insecurities and an over-reliance on government funding, but its priority remains the health of the city. Recently, for instance, it spun off its profitable civil-engineering division, selling it to the employees with the provision that the new and promising company remain based in Butte. Meanwhile, the somewhat reduced MSE brings in $25 million a year, employs 200 people, and stands at the core of the most hopeful industry in town. Critics say that the industry is hardly more than a welfare scheme, and that welfare of any kind is bad. But MSE and similar companies in Butte are finding customers; Don Peoples predicts that the new technologies will someday stand on their own. Butte is still a hard-luck town. But it may be able to mine the only resource that will never be used up—a whole renewable world of industrial waste.

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Copyright © 2001 by The Atlantic Monthly Group. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; April 2001; The Profits of Doom - 01.04; Volume 287, No. 4; page 56-62.