Photos: Mining's domination of the 'richest hill on earth'
Once home to the world's most valuable mining property, Butte, Mont., now hosts America's biggest Superfund site. CNET Road Trip 2009 stopped in to see how mining can almost kill a boomtown.<br>
Shown is the Berkeley Pit, the centerpiece of America's biggest Superfund site, the massive mining operations and their contamination of vast areas of northern Butte, Mont.
Once upon a time, Butte was the "richest hill on earth," producing the most wealth of any mining town in the world. But as groundwater rose up through the thousands of miles of mine shafts and a mammoth open pit mine, and metal contaminants spread throughout the area, the city's aquifer became endangered and the city faced extinction.
These days, the government and mining operators say they have things under some kind of control, but not all residents agree.
CNET News reporter Daniel Terdiman visited Butte on Road Trip 2009 to get a look at the riches and the incredible damage that come from giant mining operations.
Mining operations and the town of Butte were so intertwined that in several places, mines, and their giant headframes, are just about on top of people's houses.
These days, with the vast riches that once came to Butte from its mining production no longer flowing in, the historic district of town feels like a ghost town, with block after block after block of rundown, dilapidated houses and a sense that no one is around anymore.
To keep the rapidly rising water level from destroying Butte's aquifer--which would have essentially killed the town--the conglomerates in charge of the Berkeley Pit built a water treatment plant that pumps in water and uses it for mining operations.
While the waters are still rising--from groundwater coming up through the many mine tunnels underneath--the hope is that it can be kept below the critical water line until at least 2023.
Notice that the runoff from the treatment plant is white.
While the Berkeley Pit is no longer operational, and is considered a massively contaminated site, the Continental Pit, which is just southeast of the Berkeley Pit, is fully functional and is still turning out copper ore every day.
These days, the Berkeley Pit is a museum of sorts, allowing the public to see firsthand the side effects of incredible industrial operations like the mining that went on there. This is the entryway to the viewing area.
While most of the attention in Butte's cleanup operations is focused on the Berkeley Pit, some feel no one is paying attention to the Yankee Doodle Tailings Pond, north of town, which also features extremely high concentrations of metal.
This cage was used to ferry miners thousands of feet below the surface. The cage would be sent down at speeds of hundreds of feet per minute, meaning that it would take as little as five minutes to go 4,000 feet down.