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.

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.

Nonetheless, the image of an acid lake is compellingly apocalyptic, and it has come to symbolize Butte's unhappy fate. Much has been made of a flock of migrating geese that landed and died in the poisons of the Berkeley Pit. Butte has been displayed in the press as a moral lesson in environmental self-destruction. Repeatedly it has been called a ghost town, in anticipation of its necessary end.

But Butte defies such easy dismissals. Indeed, its toxic wastes, however abhorrent, may prove in some way to be the city's salvation. There are those who believe that pollution may just possibly provide an important new economic base that will allow Butte if not to prosper, then to live on with dignity, and perhaps to avoid the clownishness and implicit servility that seems increasingly to color the vacationland of western Montana. If so, a man named Donald Peoples will deserve much of the credit.

Peoples is a third-generation native son, born and raised in Butte. At first he was merely another high school football star, of which Butte has had plenty. He was a hard worker, and smart enough to go off to college. Afterward, in 1962, he dutifully returned to Butte. Several years later he got a job as a football coach at Butte Central, the Catholic high school where both he and his father had played. When we first met, in the summer of 1999, he still wanted to talk about it, even after thirty years. He told me in all sincerity that he would have been content to spend his life coaching at Butte Central. Indeed, at sixty-one, he still looks the part—a tall, wide-shouldered man with gaunt cheeks, brooding eyes, and an asceticism honed by daily sessions of hard running. But as it happened, Peoples coached for only three years until, in 1972, an old friend of his persuaded him to go to work as a planner and manager for the city administration. He rose quickly within the local government. He became mayor in 1979, when he was thirty-nine, and he remained in office through multiple elections for more than a decade during the final collapse of mining in Butte and the worst years of despair. Many residents now believe that by his public displays of courage he single-handedly kept Butte from falling apart, and that—though he is no longer in government—he is still saving Butte today. History is never that simple, of course. But there are reasons more important than football that some people in Butte call Don Peoples "the coach."

Butte has never had an easy time. It had been slowly losing population since World War I when, suddenly, in the mid-1960s, it slipped into what appeared to be a final decline. A combination of mine-yard closures and the inexorable growth of the Berkeley Pit caused real-estate prices to collapse. People began to flee the hill, abandoning their houses and small businesses by the hundreds. Butte had a powerful patron in another native son, U.S. Senator Mike Mansfield, who in 1968 tried to intervene with a typical Great Society program called Model Cities, which tripled Butte's budget, paid for repaving the streets, created new social programs for the unemployed and the poor, and tried to cut out urban blight as if it were a cancer—by tearing down more than 300 old buildings and houses. The Model Cities program lasted six years, and it softened Butte's pain. But the cancer kept spreading anyway.

Forces too large to control were to blame. Copper prices had plummeted, and in 1971 Chile expropriated Anaconda's important South American operations. The beleaguered company announced that Butte, with vast amounts of ore still lying in the ground, was Anaconda's last hope; it warned, however, that the Berkeley Pit might have to be expanded westward, across the whole of the city's central district. So bleak was the civic mood that rather than resist such a move, Butte began reflexively to give way: over the next few years, at the height of the Model Cities attempts at urban renewal, a series of fires, most of them thought to be caused by arson, destroyed more than twenty major buildings in the central district, leaving ruined blocks that remain vacant today. The fiercest of the fires exploded in JCPenney in February of 1972, blowing mannequins like corpses onto the streets and destroying thirteen businesses in a single night. Watching the fires became a Butte pastime. In 1974, when the historic Pennsylvania block burned to the ground, more than 8,500 residents gathered to watch the conflagration and in some cases to cheer it on.

That attitude was formalized the same year, by a group of leading citizens who called themselves Butte Forward and drew up plans for a radical solution to the town's decay—the staged demolition of the remaining central district, and the construction of an entirely new town center, to be built in the flats around bright offices and a shopping mall. For its proponents the plan served two purposes: it would allow Anaconda the room to survive while offering the city itself a completely fresh start. The plan seemed progressive at the time, though in retrospect its supporters, including Don Peoples, agree that it would have been a mistake. Butte was saved from it by a group of shopkeepers from the hill, who ran ads shouting "Wake Up, Butte! Don't Be Pushed Around!" Their leader was Beverly Hayes, a blunt-spoken woman who owned a burger joint called The Doghouse. She mocked the plan as a sellout to Anaconda and protested loudly against it during a series of tumultuous public hearings. In July of 1976, just as federal officials in Washington, D.C., indicated that they would fund Butte's relocation, the city council voted it down. The emotion in Butte afterward was one of unexpected relief: suddenly everyone agreed on the need to save the central district. But then Anaconda died, and ARCO arrived on its ill-fated mission, and people continued to abandon the hill. Butte was still slipping away.

In the last days of 1978, after a bitter firefighters' strike, Butte's mayor left town for a job in Helena, and the city council appointed Don Peoples, then serving as Butte's director of community development and public works, to finish the term. Peoples was an ordinary leader at first. He instituted a program of street and sidewalk repairs, and shored up the façades of some crumbling buildings, but mostly he just rode the city's decline.

Butte hit bottom in 1982, when ARCO shut down the Berkeley Pit and flooded the mines. Thousands of people packed up and moved on, and unemployment among those who remained rose above 20 percent. Adding to the sense of doom, the EPA began sampling the water and soil on the way to declaring the city a Superfund site—a designation from which no reputation could be expected to recover.

Don 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.

From 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.