How mining nearly killed the 'richest hill on Earth'

In Butte, Mont., $48 billion worth of copper, gold, and silver mining made a lot of people rich--and created America's largest Superfund site. CNET Road Trip 2009 investigates where things are today.

Daniel Terdiman Former Senior Writer / News
Daniel Terdiman is a senior writer at CNET News covering Twitter, Net culture, and everything in between.
Daniel Terdiman
6 min read

For decades, the city of Butte, Mont., was wealthier than anywhere on the planet. But the incredible mining operations that brought so much wealth eventually poisoned the town, putting it on the brink of being uninhabitable. Now, Butte is slowly recovering, but a big price was paid. CNET Road Trip 2009 visited to see where things stand. Daniel Terdiman/CNET

BUTTE, Mont.--When you visit a town whose current (though not historical) claim to fame is hosting one of America's biggest Superfund sites, it's hard to know what you're going to experience when you get there.

But when I was planning Road Trip 2009 and discovered that this Continental Divide city had once been known as the "richest hill on Earth" due to monumental mining wealth, but was now a city trying desperately to recover from the poisons the mining left behind, I knew I had to check it out.

Instantly, upon reaching the historic district on the hill, where most of the mining--largely copper, but also gold, silver, and other metals--was done, you can tell this is a town with a past. And only a past. Everywhere you look are wide, empty streets and run-down houses and buildings, many clearly the former prides and joys of the wealthy, that now speak to the end of copper's reign as a kingmaker.

Photos: Mining's domination of the 'richest hill on earth'

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Yet it's not the scruffy character of the town that is its real problem. The true elephant in the room is the contamination legacy of decade after decade of mining. This is a town that produced at least $48 billion worth of metals, and that for a time was the richest city on the planet. But dig thousands of miles of mines, abandon them in favor of gigantic open pits, and then combine that with allowing groundwater to seep up through the mine tunnels and the giant pit, and you have an environmental catastrophe.

The centerpiece of it all is the Berkeley Pit, the unbelievably large eyesore that dominates the hill on the north end of town. More than 7,000 feet long, 5,600 feet wide, and 1,800 feet deep, the Berkeley Pit opened for business in 1955, and eventually produced 320 million tons of ore and more than 700 million tons of waste rock.

Its water level is currently at 5,280 feet--exactly a mile high--and 2.9 million gallons of water with a pH of 2.5 to 3.0 is flowing in each day.

Mining ceased there in 1982, but over the years, the rising water in the pit has still been pumped out to extract copper from it. Today, 13.2 million gallons of its water is pumped out for copper extraction.

"It can be said that mining continues today in the Berkeley Pit," writes a local information publication called Pit Watch, "as Montana Resources' (the mine's former owner) copper recovery project is recovering the dissolved copper that exists in the water contained within the walls of the Pit."

Though underground mining in Butte ended decades ago, the huge headframes (or main above-ground structures) of many old mines still dominate the landscape throughout Uptown, as it's known. Daniel Terdiman/CNET

These days, one of the most pressing problems is that the water rising inside the pit is approaching a water level of 5,410 feet, or what is known as the "critical water level," the point at which the poisons in the water can seep through the walls of the pit and into Butte's aquifer. There seems to be general agreement among the mine's owners and city, state, and federal officials that this is years away from happening, but that doesn't mean some city residents don't already assume their water supply is contaminated.

Indeed, though, it was the imminent threat of the poisoning of the aquifer that led to Butte's biggest crisis. If the water supply was contaminated directly, it could have meant the end of the city. Having seemingly escaped that fate, today the city's water comes from a source on the other side of town. But again, not everyone is convinced what they're drinking is safe.

Defining the problem
Here's how the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency sums up the problems left behind by Butte's copper, silver, gold, and zinc mining operations:

"The long period of mining in Butte left the landscape littered with un-vegetated or sparsely vegetated mine wastes, often containing hazardous concentrations of metals and arsenic," the EPA writes on the Superfund page dedicated to Butte. "These wastes represent significant sources of environmental contamination to Silver Bow Creek and posed human health and risks to the environment.

"Ground water, surface water, and soils are contaminated with arsenic and other heavy metals, including copper, zinc, cadmium, and lead. Silver Bow Creek and the Clark Fork River contain metals from the cities of Butte to Milltown. The tailings, dispersed along the creek and river, severely limit aquatic life forms and have caused fish kills in the river. Potential health threats include direct contact with and ingestion of contaminated soil, surface water, ground water, or inhaling contaminated air."

No small problem, that, especially since the cleanup isn't finished, nor does it look to be any time soon. Even trying to sum up the various initiatives that are part of the Superfund operation isn't practical in an article of this size. Suffice it to say there is almost no end to the arms of the cleanup efforts.

The Horseshoe Bend Water Treatment Plant, which is treating and recycling much of the water that would otherwise be filling up the Berkeley Pit. Daniel Terdiman/CNET

Yet, even while Butte, or at least its historic district, staggers like a drunk trying to get home after a night out, mining is still going strong. The Berkeley Pit may now be essentially a museum piece, but in plain sight of the viewing stand where the public can come to see the visceral downsides to mining, the Continental Pit is very much up and running. There, another giant pit is turning out large amounts of copper.

Of course, in a town like Butte, where mining was pretty much the only game in town, it's not hard to find reminders that whatever its dangers, the world owes a lot to mining. It's something the mining companies would have wanted the world to think about back in copper's heyday here, and the same is surely true today of Montana Resources, the operator of the Continental Pit.

A sign in the World Museum of Mining, located on the edges of Butte, maybe best sums up the message.

"Most people pass their days with no thought of the role mining plays in their lives," reads the sign, titled, "What mining means to Americans" and authored by the American Mining Congress. "They know where to buy the things they want but seldom consider the origins. Food comes from a grocery, electricity from a wall socket, tools from a hardware store, cars from a dealer...and so on. If we do think of how these things are created, many of us probably begin with farms, factories, and power stations.

"In fact, they all begin with mining.

"Without minerals, we could not till our soil, build our machines, supply our energy, transport our goods, or maintain any society beyond the most primitive. Our horn of plenty starts with a hole in the ground.

"We are in trouble if we forget that!"

Reading that sign, one can't help but acknowledge the points it makes. A similar sentiment is expressed in an informational audio recording that plays on loop at the Berkeley Pit and describes how the opening of the pit meant the evisceration of several Butte neighborhoods. "If (the mine) did not produce, it would cost every miner's family their livelihood," the recording states.

Water treatment
One of the most welcome additions to the Berkeley Pit is the Horseshoe Bend Water Treatment Plant, which was built alongside the pit and went online in 2003. The idea is that water is treated and recycled--much into Continental Pit mining operations--but that it does not simply just continue to fill up the pit. The various entities involved in the pit--the city, residents, mining companies, and other governmental agencies--seem pleased with the results of the plant.

Still, with more than 40 billion gallons of highly poisonous water sitting in the Berkeley Pit, and more coming up into it every day through the thousands of miles of mining tunnels underneath, one has to ask if the children of Butte, and their children, have gotten a very raw end of the deal.

For the next two weeks, Geek Gestalt will be on Road Trip 2009. After driving more than 12,000 miles in the Pacific Northwest, the Southwest and the Southeast over the last three years, I'll be writing about and photographing the best in technology, science, military, nature, aviation and more in Montana, Wyoming, South Dakota and Colorado. If you have a suggestion for someplace to visit, drop me a line. And in the meantime, join the Road Trip 2009 Facebook page and follow my Twitter feed.