Butte: Out of the Pits : City Reaping a Bonanza as Old Mine Oozes Poisons

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Williams is a freelance writer in Steamboat Springs, Colo

Don Peoples leans out over the viewing station of the state's deepest lake. Well, not a lake, exactly; it's a gaping, open-pit mine half filled with toxic water--17 billion gallons of it, and rising.

"That's an awful-looking sight out there," says Peoples, an entrepreneur who was the city's mayor during the 1980s.

He watched the copper mine shut down in 1982, leaving 5,000 people unemployed and the mile-wide Berkeley Pit smack in the middle of uptown Butte. Now, what Peoples used to consider a liability--the pit and the town's subsequent designation as a Superfund site--he now considers an asset.

"That water down there contains 28 different contaminants," he says, almost boastfully. "Butte is the perfect laboratory for the study of environmental technology."

Indeed, Butte has turned trash into treasure, attracting millions of federal and corporate dollars in the race to design remediation technology. Where this Rocky Mountain city of 32,000 people once prospered by making a mess--as the world's top producer of copper--it now thrives by cleaning up the mess.

Far from hiding its unsightly legacy, Butte markets it, celebrating an environmental overhaul that is directed by Los Angeles-based Atlantic Richfield Co., which owns the area's old Anaconda copper mines.

"No one has the extent of pollution we do," says Peoples, president of MSE Inc., one of many new technology firms in town. "We are part of the largest contiguous Superfund site in the country. We have more different kinds of soil and water pollution, with more variety of contaminants, than practically anywhere."

That status--though hardly the stuff of the typical Chamber of Commerce brochure--has helped the city rebound from 20% unemployment in 1985 to a 7.6% jobless rate today. Two years ago, Butte gained population for the first time in 40 years. The environmental technology field, including construction and earthmoving jobs, out-employs the one remaining copper mine 3 to 1.

"Having all this pollution may be a dubious distinction, but we see it as an advantage," said Evan Barrett, director of the Butte Local Development Corp.

One example: In the last few years, over a dozen technology companies have come here to test innovative cleanup methods and vie for contracts. The companies offer high-paying jobs--including earth-moving and construction work for some of those who were displaced by mine closures.

One such company is MycoTech. Founded in 1990, the 32-employee, privately held firm is developing "fungal biotechnology" to tackle the creosote, coal tar and fuel oil residues left from Butte's mining days. MycoTech's prize fungus, known as white rot, appears to be adept at breaking down stubborn chemicals.

The demand for environmental remediation is immense. Nationwide, 200,000 inactive mine sites are leaking contaminants, according to the U.S. Bureau of Mines. And mines still operating generate another 2 billion tons of waste every year, the agency says.

Thanks to innovations in Butte, the cleanup soon may become one of Montana's staple industries, along with agriculture, timber and tourism.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency designated Butte and its surroundings as a Superfund site in 1987. Although most of the area's mining and smelting pollution occurred during the long reign of the Anaconda Copper Mining Co., Arco--which purchased Anaconda in 1977--is responsible for the cleanup.

So far, Arco has spent $148 million to move piles of tailings, replace contaminated soil and study the many problem areas that remain. The cleanup could cost $2 billion, Peoples says.

What's bad news for Arco is good news for Butte. "The cleanup is not going to happen in just five or 10 years," said Bill Rautio, marketing director of the local Chamber of Commerce. "This could be a multi-generational, high-tech boom. Our problems are that massive."

Indisputably, Butte's biggest environmental problem is the Berkeley Pit, which is filling at a rate of 5 million gallons daily. The water had been pumped out when the mine was operating, but now, some 3,000 miles of underground shafts feed into the pit, discharging lead, arsenic and trace metals.

The toxic lake sits safely at the bottom of the groundwater system, but that will change as the water level rises.

"It's a race against the clock to find a solution," said Tom Malloy, manager of MSE's resource recovery project. "Whoever comes up with the best technology may get the contract."

MSE, with 300 employees and $27 million in annual revenue, already receives funding from the departments of Energy and Defense and the EPA to field-test waste treatment technologies. The company's favorite, called the "plasma arc furnace," converts organic waste into glass in a super-hot, rotating tub.

But, adds Malloy, his goal is not merely to clean up Butte, but to market the wastes.

This is not as improbable as it sounds. The glassy residue can be used in industrial aggregates. In nearby Anaconda, a proposed Jack Nicklaus golf course will use blackened, vitrified slag from an old smelter site in its sandtraps. And metals extracted from contaminated water and soil can be sold to mining companies.

Such mining of old mines has set off a buzz around Butte.

"I was heartbroken when the mines closed," said 83-year-old Dave Piper, a mostly retired engineer. "This is a new era in Butte. I'm terribly excited to see it come back."

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