Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Butte, Montana and the Berkeley Pit--An Environmental Disaster for the Ages

Recently I visited Butte, Montana, while on my way to Kalispell and Glacier National Park to visit my daughter Carolan. I am interested in Butte because a hundred years ago it was a town of Irish immigrants (and other ethnic groups). It was so Irish that Gaelic was often spoken in town. The city of Butte, which once had a population of almost 100,000 souls, lay atop a fortune in silver, gold, and copper ore. In 1955, the Anaconda Copper Company began strip mining under the town. To do this they bought out the residents and annihilated the Dublin Gulch, Finn Town, and other neighborhoods. They didn't stop this open pit mining until 1982 when they left a hole a mile across and almost 1800 feet deep. When Atlantic Richfield (ARCO), which had succeeded Anaconda, abandoned the mine, they turned off the water pumps at the bottom of the pit. The pit filled with water, almost to the point that the drinking water supply was destroyed. The pit is now filled with highly acidic water, with the acidity of lemon juice. This acid water leaches out arsenic, lead, and other heavy metals and poisonous substances from the rock. There are so many heavy metals in the water that they are now trying to mine the water!

I don't think this incredible environmental disaster can ever be fixed. What is particularly disturbing is that it happened so recently--when we knew better. Butte appears to be a ruined city at the heart of a ruined county. An incredible statue overlooks the city of Butte (now about one third its former size) from atop the Continental Divide--Our Lady of the Rockies. It will take the environmental Superfund, and the power of the saints like Our Lady, to restore this historic city.

The Berkeley Pit, Butte, Montana
Another view of the Pit, looking toward the mountain of Our Lady of the Rockies

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