Anaconda and Butte, Montana: Putting the FUN Back in Superfund

Did you know that the EPA has a Superfund Coloring Book? It’s true! If you have a Java-enabled web browser you can color a polluted town, the EPA cleanup worker that saves the day, the waste removal truck, or the newly clean town. If your browser is not Java-enabled, you’ll just have to print them out to color, the old fashioned way.

This was one of the more unusual books I discovered when looking up titles that would be relevant to last Saturday’s adventure.

Depending on how you look at it, I either visited three Superfund sites that day, or one enormous one—in fact, the largest in the US. Because they’re all connected by Anaconda Copper Company, a company that only exists today as yet another environmental liability for BP. But in the days of yore, Anaconda Copper was a booming operation responsible for the economic livelihood of several Montana towns along the Clark Fork River, including Butte and Anaconda.

Related to all this mining activity, some important moments in labor union history took place. The Granite Mountain Fire, which killed 168 miners in Butte, sparked an important strike, and the Anaconda Road Massacre happened a few years later. If you’re interested in finding out more about the labor movement in the area, watch Butte, America, a documentary that aired on PBS in 2009. Another documentary, An Injury to One, explores the death of Butte IWW organizer Frank Little. Interesting book selections include Anaconda: Labor, Community, and Culture in Montana’s Smelter City and Anaconda, Montana: Copper Smelting Boomtown on the Western Frontier.

But we’re here to talk about large-scale environmental disaster as it relates to that history. And lucky us! The Anaconda Copper Company gave us enough to last us a very long time.

Site #1: The Anaconda Stack (Anaconda, Montana)

Anaconda is about six miles away from I-90, but the 585-foot stack, completed in 1918, acts as a beacon to visitors. The town was founded by Marcus Daly when he started Anaconda Copper—which for a short time was the fourth largest company in the world. The stack has not been operational since 1980, but not every little town can boast having the tallest freestanding piece of masonry in the world, so the stack remains.

Since the last time I visited, I had read about both the creation of Anaconda Stack State Park, as well as the opening of Jack Nicholas’ golf course “The Old Works,” on the site of—well, the old works—just on the other side of town. Much to my chagrin, “Anaconda Stack State Park” mostly consists of a viewing platform at the north end of town with some interpretive signage. Adding insult to injury, it’s not even an adequate viewing site: power lines and passing trains obscure a visitor’s view of the stack, and you can’t see the enormous slag piles (at left in the above photo) or the tailings ponds (a former wetlands area) from the platform. Lucky for me, my own gumshoeing got me some better views, and Brad Tyer’s account of his behind-the-scenes tour filled in the holes.

It’s as if the state of Montana doesn’t want people to see the catastrophic damage that mining can do…!

Site #2: The Berkeley Pit/Silver Bow Creek (Butte, Montana)

How many Superfund sites do people pay $2 each to see? Only one that I know of—the Berkeley Pit in Butte, Montana.

Shaft mining is pretty dangerous, so this pit mine was opened in 1955 to reduce the number of miner deaths Anaconda Copper had been experiencing in the previous decades. When the pit mine stopped operating in the early 80s, water started accumulating at the bottom. It is now a one mile long by a half-mile wide poisonous lake! The waters contain high levels of zinc, copper, cadmium, and more, giving the lake a sheen that can only be described by the Crayola color “Burnt Sienna.”

Then sometime in the mid-90s migrating snow geese were passing through Butte. Shortly after they showed up, 342 of their carcasses were recovered from around the site. They drank the water. When I visited in 1996, speakers were placed around the pit to play strange sounds at 45 second intervals to scare away any curious birds. This past time, the noises were gone—meaning the noise method was likely not working. (Be sure to visit PitWatch online!)

The Clark Fork River starts in Butte as Silver Bow Creek, and the Creek is also part of the Berkeley Pit Superfund Complex. “Why should I care?” you ask, “I’m all the way over here in Portland!” The Clark Fork River winds through much of western Montana, provides drinking water for Missoula, and is eventually emptied into the Lake Pend Oreille. The lake then flows into the Pend Oreille River, which in turn empties into the mighty Columbia River. In other words, this area of Montana is ecologically connected to Portland, where this blog post finds many of you.

Not concerned yet?

Site #3: Milltown Reservoir/Clark Fork River (Bonner, Montana)

A curious thing exists on the banks of the Clark Fork River just upstream from Missoula. A large area of the banks have been completely cleared of trees and brush. When my dad and I noticed it during our ill-fated trip to Garnet a few weeks ago, we assumed a resort or fancy subdivision was being planned.

Upon further research, I discovered that the Milltown Dam site on the Clark Fork River is yet another Superfund site related to Butte and Anaconda, and it sits just a few miles upriver from Missoula. In 1908 a huge flood carried millions of tons of mine waste down the river until it found a resting place behind the Milltown Dam. Little did anybody know this was an issue until the early 90s when groundwater in Milltown (a—um, mill town) was found to have arsenic in it! Today, Milltown is all but a ghost town, with many abandoned worker houses boarded up along the side of Highway 200. Creepier yet are the enormous buildings and storage yards of the old mill that lie empty.

No wonder I find Missoula’s tap water rather unpalatable, eh?

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “Anaconda and Butte, Montana: Putting the FUN Back in Superfund

  1. Brad Tyer

    Hey there, nice post. I hope you won’t think it presumptuous if I point out a few little clarifications? First, my last name is Tyer, no “L”. Common error, no worries, even my mom makes it sometimes.

    I don’t think the stack being closed has anything to do with whether Montana wants people to see the Superfund mess. Most of it is out in plain sight. It’s more a matter of the smelter hill part of the site, where the stack is, being “unremediated” in Superfund parlance, i.e. still potentially a health hazard. The site is off-limits to the public due to liability issues. Same reason there’s no swimming in the Berkeley Pit. And on that front, the Berkeley Pit wasn’t instituted as a safety measure in response to the dangers of underground hard-rock mining. The pit was opened in response to thinning and increasingly expensive underground reserves, and to take advantage of the economies of scale opened up by replacing hard-rock miners with dynamite and enormous trucks. Open pit mining may have had a lower casualty rate, since it’s largely a matter of driving, but it basically killed mining in the traditional sense, swallowed hundreds of miners’ homes, and certainly wasn’t designed to save them.

    Interesting note about the speakers at the pit. I haven’t seen those, but last time I was there, last year, Montana Resources had hired people to sit on opposite lips of the pit and shoot fireworks — literal bottle rockets — at birds that looked like they might land on the lake. Nice job, huh?

    Missoula’s municipal water supply isn’t the Clark Fork per se, though the river certainly has a hand in recharging the underground aquifer which is where Missoula’s drinking water does come from. And lastly, the portion of the river just upstream from Missoula that you said looks like the banks have been cleared of trees and brush — it was cleared alright, in 1907, when the dam went in. Since then, until just a couple years ago, that whole bare expanse was the bottom of Milltown Reservoir. (The Milltown wells started testing with elevated arsenic in 1983, which is the initial thing that sparked the series of Superfund designations.)

    I live just across the Blackfoot from that creepy mill complex, and most mornings I walk upriver and have a great view of the backside of the mill from a small bluff. It’s enormously empty. A former landlord of mine bought the mill property a couple of years ago and everyone’s wondering what he’s going to do with it. Most people suspect condos.

    P.S. Thanks for the reference to the Superfund coloring book. I had no idea. Also, if you’re interested, I’ve got a bibliography of titles related to all this I could pass along if you’re not already sick of reading about all this mess.

    Cheer,

    • Eeek! Corrections up the wazoo. First and most importantly, I’ve corrected your name. Please pardon any details not yet unearthed, as everything I know is from either what my dad told me (having lived in both Butte and Anaconda for a time when he was a kid), and what I’ve read in the past four weeks since I arrived in Missoula. Putting this blog post together—which I started a week ago—was a real challenge!

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