• picture
  • picture
  • picture
  • picture
Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Montana Superfund Site

Air Date: Week of

The Anaconda copper mining complex was operational for one hundred years. Now its legacy is that with 120 miles of surrounding contaminated waterways, it is one of the nation's largest Superfund sites. From Butte, Montana, Jyl Hoyt reports on some of the difficulties encountered in cleaning up the region.


CURWOOD: For about 100 years the Anaconda Copper Mining Complex just outside of Butte, Montana, brought lots of jobs and plenty of riches to the area. But when the ore played out, Montana was left with a toxic zone along its various waterways, the total more than 120 miles in length. And now the area is listed as one of the nation's largest Superfund sites. Just about everyone agrees it needs to be cleaned up, but there's little agreement among government officials, environmental activists, land owners, and the mining industry about just how this should be done. From member station KBSU, Jyl Hoyt reports.

(Vehicles motoring on a highway)

HOYT: At the top of the mile-high city of Butte, Montana, is a mile-wide crater of sorts called The Berkeley Pit. It hasn't always been here. Beginning in the late 1800s, the Anaconda Copper Company dug underground tunnels to get at the metal. But in the 1950s Anaconda shifted to open pit mining to get at the low-grade ore here. They used giant bulldozers to gobble up the land. Over a century, miners extracted millions of tons of processed ore from the Butte hill. In the 1980s the mine closed down, and the pits started filling up with water. It became a huge rising lake, full of poisoning acids and heavy metals, a looming threat to people and wildlife.

(People singing about migration)

HOYT: This past fall, 342 snow geese, who were migrating south, landed on the toxic waters of the pit and died. At a memorial service, Butte citizens sing a song that symbolizes both their hurt and anger. Carolyn Bird with the activist group Women's Voices for the Earth, says a state study of the incident found the birds died a horrible death.

BIRD: The insides of their mouths, their throats, their stomachs, were all corroding and peeling off from the high levels of acid and copper and other heavy metals in the water, as well as their kidneys had completely been destroyed by trying to eliminate these toxins. So they died because they landed in the Berkeley Pit.

HOYT: Ms. Bird and others fear that over the long term, the Pit poses serious threats to humans as well as wildlife.

(Earth moving vehicles over gravel)

HOYT: From its edge the Berkeley Pit looks like a giant bowl with concentric rings carved by miners' machines. John Ray, a humanities professor at Montana Tech of the University of Montana, is worried the level of toxic water in the pit will rise so high it might leach into the local water supply.

RAY: What we're concerned about is that if that water permeates the aquifers in Butte for drinking water, it could literally close the city down. And so people are very, very concerned that if the pit is allowed to fill as it has been filling, that it could detrimentally affect the water table, ground water as well as drinking water here in Butte.

(Motors continue)

HOYT: Containing the toxic pollution of the Berkeley Pit is only one of the challenges presented by this Montana Superfund site. The contaminated tailings from the Berkeley Pit were dumped alongside Silver Bowl Creek, an area locals describe now as a "moonscape." Whenever it rains or there are floods, toxic chemicals from the tailings piles wash into the creek, which in turn flows into one of Montana's major rivers, the Clark Fork. The runoff has killed the creek and damaged the river. Candace West monitors natural resources for the State Justice Department.

WEST: If we don't do much, or if we do nothing, it could take hundreds if not thousands of years for any fishery to come back to Silver Bowl Creek or the upper -- or re-establish itself in the upper Clark Fork River.

HOYT: Some advocate a simple solution to solve both problems, the toxic tailings along the creek and the toxic water in the pit. Jim Jensen of the Montana Environmental Information Center wants those in charge to drain the pit, treat the water, haul the tailings from the floodplain and put them back into the pit, and neutralize them with limestone, then landscape with trees and grass.

JENSEN: It seems almost poetic to me, that you have a big hole, you know where the stuff that came out of the hole is, why don't you go get it and put it back in?

HOYT: The Environmental Protection Agency says this seemingly simple solution would cost billions of dollars. The EPA's Russ Forba says for just $80 million, the water in the pit can be stabilized at a level below that which threatens the aquifer.

FORBA: We think if we keep the whole system below that, that it's impossible for it to enter the drinking water system.

HOYT: As for tailings along Silver Bowl Creek, the EPA and the state say they can safely be stabilized where they are. But the Montana Environmental Information Center's Jim Jensen says burying toxic tailings just leaves the pollution problem for future generations.

JENSEN: We believe that that river has to be cleaned up, the wastes removed from the floodplain, treated to remove the mostly cancer-causing metals which are these heavy metals, arsenic and cadmium and zinc and copper and others.

HOYT: The Berkeley Pit and tailings piles are just 2 parts of this enormous Superfund site, which includes the entire city of Butte, about a third of Anaconda, the city where the copper smelter was, and 140 miles of river. According to state and Federal officials it would cost about $900 million to both reduce the risks to human health and the environment and restore lost resources. As with most Superfund sites there is tremendous debate over who should pay. Before mining stopped, Anaconda was bought by the Atlantic Richfield Company. Now, ARCO and another company, Montana Resources, are responsible for cleaning up the mess. ARCO says it already paid a quarter billion dollars on clean-up. It won't say how much of that went for litigation. ARCO is battling a notion that is at the heart of the Superfund law: retroactive liability. The idea that industry today is responsible for the actions of their predecessors. ARCO's Sandy Stash.

STASH: Clearly people should not be held liable for something that their great great great great grandfathers did that were legal at the time they were done. The industry is paying in two ways. We pay into the Superfund tax. ARCO for instance pays about $40 million a year. And we pay for the clean-ups directly.

HOYT: ARCO has joined an industry-led effort to lobby Congress to change the Superfund law, and absolve industry from most responsibility to pay clean-up costs. But many environmentalists say making companies pay for past pollution is the best way to make sure it won't happen again.

(Motors running)

HOYT: On the desolate edge of the Berkeley Pit, university humanities professor John Ray says as Congress rewrites the Superfund law, it needs to remember Butte history.

RAY: The trouble is we're still dealing with the effects of mining long after most mining operations in the area have ceased, and it certainly illustrates the important point of looking at mining in general, of how if it is not done in an environmentally safe manner, if it is not done in a manner protective of human health and the environment, communities spend decades trying to deal with the problems.

HOYT: Snow is melting away now from the mile-high Berkeley Pit. Local residents hope birds migrating north won't be tempted to land on its toxic waters. ARCO says it will make noises to scare away any birds, something that may have to be done forever to prevent a repeat of the death of the 342 snow geese that landed on the pit last fall. For Living on Earth, I'm Jyl Hoyt.



Living on Earth wants to hear from you!

Living on Earth
62 Calef Highway, Suite 212
Lee, NH 03861
Telephone: 617-287-4121
E-mail: comments@loe.org

Newsletter [Click here]

Donate to Living on Earth!
Living on Earth is an independent media program and relies entirely on contributions from listeners and institutions supporting public service. Please donate now to preserve an independent environmental voice.

Living on Earth offers a weekly delivery of the show's rundown to your mailbox. Sign up for our newsletter today!

Sailors For The Sea: Be the change you want to sea.

The Grantham Foundation for the Protection of the Environment: Committed to protecting and improving the health of the global environment.

Contribute to Living on Earth and receive, as our gift to you, an archival print of one of Mark Seth Lender's extraordinary wildlife photographs. Follow the link to see Mark's current collection of photographs.

Buy a signed copy of Mark Seth Lender's book Smeagull the Seagull & support Living on Earth