The Berkeley Pit
Butte, Montana toxic waste site turned tourist attraction yielding compounds that may be medically, environmentally useful.
Written by Science & TechnologyFiled under
Butte: Then and Now
It was nine decades ago that Butte was producing fifteen percent of the world’s copper. Yet the longtime mining mecca continued to thrive until the mid-1970s, when most of the underground mines were closed and workers were laid off en masse. By then Butte’s environmental legacy was well-established, and the town’s future seemed as bleak as its then-treeless landscape.
So it’s ironic that the damage done by mining is now playing a key role in terms of safeguarding the town’s financial future. “There’s a lot of money in toxic waste,” says Donald, noting that in recent years BP-Arco has poured $800 million into the cleanup of Butte and the Clark Fork River. “I think Butte would be a ghost town if not for those hundreds of millions of dollars,” he says.
And while a dozen or so tall, steel headframes still dot Butte’s landscape, historical remnants of days gone by, the land is visibly healthier than it was in 1976, when the once-mighty Anaconda Company—which owned or controlled most of Butte for the better part of a century—was sold to Arco. “The Superfund law [the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act of 1980, which facilities the cleanup of toxic sites], saved Butte, because they have removed and capped some of the toxic overburden,” says Andrea, emphasizing that there are now trees and wildflowers in town, which wasn’t the case thirty years ago.
Perhaps even more unlikely, the region’s mining industry is experiencing a minor resurgence, thanks to a sharp rise in the price of copper and gold. For one, Barrick Gold Corporation recently invested millions of dollars in its Golden Sunlight mine and mill in nearby Whitehall, which has already outlived several projected closing dates thanks to the returns it is generating.
Of course, Butte will never be the same as it was in the 1940s and ’50s, when the air was so thick with smelter fumes that they kept the streetlights on 24/7. “About thirty percent of the copper that went into electrifying our nation came from Butte,” notes Andrea, attempting to counterbalance the town’s legacy of toxic waste, and the fact that hundreds of miners died over the years while working to enrich copper barons like Marcus Daly and William A. Clark. In fact, the worst hard-rock mining disaster in American history occurred in Butte in June 1917, when one hundred and sixty-three men died in a fire in the North Butte Mining Company’s Granite Mountain shaft.
Today, it’s probably safe to say that most area visitors come for the hunting, fishing, and boating, or are perhaps interested in Butte’s most famous son, daredevil Robert Craig “Evel” Knievel, who is buried in the town’s Mountain View Cemetery (and inspired the three-day Evel Knievel Days festival that takes place each July). But it’s undeniable that a large percentage of tourists are only too happy to fork over two dollars to spend a few minutes on the Berkeley Pit viewing stand, testament to the Pit’s strangely compelling scenery. “It’s like a Martian environment,” concludes Andrea, “if Mars could have water.”