November 13, 2015
Friday November 6th, the 40th class of Wilderness and Civilization visited Butte, Montana. Snow had fallen the night before giving the town of butte, along with the Berkley Pit some “make-up” to conceal scars of the past.
(Entering the tunnel to the pit viewing area)
Our first stop was at the south side entrance of the Berkley Pit, and we were greeted by Butte historian and enthusiast Richard Gibson. We went through a tunnel in the hill that led to a viewing porch of the pit, where Dick told us unbelievable detailed facts about the mine. Butte is referred to as “the richest hill on earth”, because of the immense amounts of precious metals that were harvested. After the lightbulb was invented in the late 1800s, the demand for copper skyrocketed, causing the town to grow like crazy. The mining town of Butte experienced every stage of development, from camp to boomtown to mature city onto a center for historic preservation and environmental cleanup. In the early 1900s it was one of the largest cities in the U.S. with a population of 100,000 comparable to New York and Chicago. After WWI the demand for copper declined causing the population of the town to dwindle to a mere 30,000. The urban downfall of Butte was just the beginning.
(View of the pit from the north-west side)
The pit is 1x1.5 miles around and approximately 1,800ft deep filled to around 900ft with water, closing in on the natural water table. Combination of 10,000 miles of tunnel run-off along with the deep strip mine waste caused the water to become toxic. The pit is heavily monitored because if said water were too leak/spill, it could contaminate one of Montana’s largest headwaters. The water is very acidic, and has a pH level of 2.5, equivalent to lemon juice or cola. People including scientists are no longer allowed on the pit “lake”, and most animals that come in contact with the water become sick or die. There is a siren that sounds regularly to keep animals (mostly waterfowl) from lading in the toxic water. There were a few minor theoretical solutions to help slow down the levels of contamination, but they were scrapped because the costs would be in the billions and no one knew if they would actually be beneficial for prevention. The water is managed differently as time goes on or as we heard many times “in perpetuity”.
(view of downtown Butte)
Richard brought us to city hall where you could see the wealth that Butte possessed in the past with the lovely architecture and art displayed in the hall. We walked around downtown admiring the amazing classical buildings.
(Joe informing the class)
Then we met up with longtime Butte geologist Joe Griffin, on the north-west side of the pit. We were able to view some old mining equipment and retired structures. Joe gave us some insight on his opinions as an expert on the situation, and made many of us realize just how severe the pollution was.
(old sealed off mine shafts)
We wrapped things up in Anaconda where Joe showed us some old smelting stacks that were used for mineral processing. After the processing plant was closed, people realized there was still much hazardous and contaminated waste in the area. Millions of dollars has been spent in an effort to clean up the toxic district.
(Group photo in Anaconda; in front of an old smelter stack)
Overall it was an awesome trip, probably one of our most informative weekend sessions. Dick and Joe were just full of information about the region. It’s hard to determine the best possible answers when it comes to mining. Everyone in America (and all over the world) needed/ relied on the materials that came from the Butte district for numerous reasons, so it is difficult to say “no mining” when we so heavily rely on the products. But the aftermath of the mining will be felt long into the future for generations to come. It was a very thought-provoking trip that made me re-realize that natural resources NEED to be managed properly or for “the greatest outcome for the greater good”, we need to maintain ourselves without “biting” the literal hand that feeds us.