BUTTE, Mont. — High above this storied copper town, one of the tallest earth-filled dams in the country holds back more than 6.5 trillion gallons of toxic sludge from an open-pit mine.
The dam is set to grow even taller. Yet it is the least of Butte’s immediate concerns.
Residents have been waiting years to learn how the Environmental Protection Agency will finish cleaning up a different part of mining’s legacy here — the cavernous Berkeley Pit, now a mile-long, 900-foot-deep poison lake, and a vast network of contaminated subterranean tunnels. Together they constitute the nation’s largest Superfund complex. State and federal officials and the company on the hook for cleanup have negotiated privately; the outcome may be revealed within weeks, if not days.
There is both weariness and wariness in the city of 34,000, a fading political and financial powerhouse that remains a Democratic stronghold. Many residents are exhausted by the closed-door dealings, technical and bureaucratic jargon and the seemingly endless process. They are suspicious of regulators’ insistence that public input has been critical to their decision-making.
“Butte, Montana, has paid its dues. We deserve to have this place cleaned up right,” said Fritz Daily, a retired high school teacher, state legislator and perpetual thorn in the side of mining companies and government. In the 1990s, he would stand on the floor of the House of Representatives in Helena and read off a list of alarming statistics about the abandoned mines and their potential risk to drinking water.
“People ask me why I keep doing this, and the thing I always go back to is, people forget how important this community was in the shaping and creating of this great nation,” Daily explained recently.
That’s not just hometown pride talking. Butte has been called the most mined city in the world, and much of the world’s copper once came from here. When the bulk of the mines shut down in the 1980s, the fighting began over how to mitigate the damage and who would pay for it.
On Butte’s east side, where 1.5 billion tons of ore were extracted, the terraced scars remain. Berkeley Pit’s dark water is laden with heavy metals, and it has twice killed migrating flocks of snow geese that sought to rest there. Intermittent cannon fire is now used to keep birds away, though humans are welcome to visit. There’s even a small information center and gift shop.
These days, the pit’s water is treated and sent down the Clark Fork of the Columbia River. Daily and a group of residents have been pushing for the restoration of Silver Bow Creek, which forms the headwaters of the Clark Fork. Discussion continues over a mile-long stretch that goes through Butte but long served more as industrial sewer than natural waterway. Community factions have only hardened.
“They keep thinking we’re going to go away and forget,” said Sister Mary Jo McDonald, a retired Catholic nun who wants full transparency with the EPA deal. “My goal is we get this cleanup done right.”
According to Doug Benevento, EPA associate deputy administrator, Butte’s problems were allowed to languish. The city’s toxic sites, including the Berkeley Pit, were placed on the Superfund cleanup list in the 1980s, but the remediation plans and attempts that followed had no final deadlines. The complexity of what’s required and the projected costs are part of the challenge.
“If there is one thing I would note about Butte and some of these other Superfund sites in Montana and elsewhere … the political leadership of the EPA should have done a better job of prioritizing these sites and moving them forward,” Benevento said in an interview.
The agency made Butte a priority in 2017, and local Superfund managers are quick to point out that nearly $1 billion has already been spent to stabilize the mine tailings, cap and plant over many of the waste sites, and treat water from the Berkeley Pit so it can be released and the natural water table protected.
A similar battle over cleanup has been fought some 25 miles away by residents in the tiny town of Opportunity, which was on the processing end of the mining industry’s massive operation in Montana. The Supreme Court in December heard arguments on whether they can sue for greater cleanup than what the EPA approved. Legal experts say the case could have national implications.
The plan about to be released for Butte is what’s known as a consent decree, a binding agreement reviewed by the federal Justice Department. The document will lay out specifics for mitigating roughly the final 25 percent of Butte’s contamination, which could cost another $100 million.
Jon Sesso, Superfund coordinator for the local government, is watching closely because it has been named a responsible party given local stormwater contamination. Should the negotiations leading up to the consent decree fall through, Butte could be on the hook financially.
“We have to make sure we get the best cleanup possible [and] protect our citizens from the financial exposure of cleanup,” he said.
Butte’s history by the numbers tells the staggering scale of mining in southwestern Montana. The industry began in the 1860s after prospectors discovered gold, then quickly turned their attention to silver, then copper, the mineral that would draw tens of thousands of immigrants from around the world to mine.
By the late 1800s, as American homes, businesses and factories were being electrified, Butte was supplying more than half the copper needed for that wiring. At its peak, 10,000 men worked in the mines here, transported hundreds and thousands of feet below the Earth’s surface and sending back up its mineral riches.
The mines supported the country’s mobilization during two world wars. They also sparked labor movements, violent crackdowns on unions, and a deep local mistrust of corporate and government authority. Strikes and the falling price of copper slowed the industry — controlled by the Anaconda Copper Mining Company — while underground work shifted to safer but more visibly damaging open pits. Anaconda sold its holdings in 1977 to Arco, a division of oil giant BP, which several years later suspended all mining in the state.
When the pumps that had been keeping the mines dry were shut off, a 10,000-mile honeycomb of mines under the city quickly flooded and the Berkeley Pit filled. As Butte’s population and economy tanked, the struggle over cleanup began.
About 370 people still work pulling copper and molybdenum out of the area’s only remaining active mine, the Continental Pit. Its waste is dumped in what’s known as the Yankee Doodle Tailings pond, which is contained by the giant dam that looms, out of sight, above Butte. State officials recently approved a mining company’s request to build the dam beyond its current 750-foot height, a move that will extend the pit’s life by decades.
The consent decree won’t erase what happened in the mines, and the truth is, nobody wants it to. Butte’s Uptown hillside is dotted with a dozen iconic gallows frames, the looming, black iron elevator rigs that lowered generations of men underground. They haven’t been used in decades, but are protected by local law.
One of the most striking, the frame over the Original Mine, is used as a stage for the Montana Folk Festival. And a paved path for walking and biking extends for miles along what used to be a railroad that transported copper and other ore. Outside the old mine yards, signs list facts about each, including death tolls. An estimated 2,500 men lost their lives.
Still, Butte is focused on getting past the stigma of Superfund. Matt Vincent, who grew up here, served as the local government’s chief executive and now works as an industry consultant, said Butte’s reputation as a waste site needs a drastic revamp. Given the years of delays and distrust, he knows that won’t be easy.
The EPA’s Benevento agrees. “You have a citizenry who, because of experience, is wary,” he said. “What I’ve told them is, ‘Don’t trust us. Watch us.’ “