Grad School Orientation: Butte Superfund Site

After 2,324 miles and 6 days of traveling (we obviously made some of the trip our vacation!), I finally made it to Missoula to start my graduate school orientation last week. During the week, we spent some time talking about what journalism is and what it entails. I learned how intense the reporting can be, but also how satisfying the end result is when you spend time and energy on a good article.

This is an example of a larger mine used in the 1900's during the copper boom.
This is an example of a larger mine used in the 1900’s during the copper boom.

On Friday, we traveled to the largest EPA Superfund site in the United States, located in Butte, Montana. Our tour guide for the morning, Tom Malloy, drove us around the site, the old abandoned copper mines, and the toxic waste dumps in the valley. In the late 1800’s, miners came to Montana from California after the Gold Rush. These miners started digging mine shafts and eventually found copper in Butte. Most of the tour consisted of driving through locked gates to places never seen by the public. So, we visited many mine shafts and structures used by these miners in the 1900’s. It is also interesting to note that the wood from these mine operations and other structures was shipped in from Missoula and Bitteroot Valley, where I now live and go to school. The carpenters built square-set timbers like Lincoln Logs in order to provide structural support, hence why the larger structures are still in tact today.

Because Butte is often regarded as “the richest hill on Earth” in terms of minerals in the soil, the miners went to town on the natural resources. Because the industry created 500 underground mines in this area, tailing ponds and waste dumps popped up all over the mining sites. These by-products of the mining caused heavy contamination of the soil in the area. Because of this contamination, the EPA designated this as a Superfund site and began clean-up in 1988. One of the methods that the EPA uses to clean up contaminated soil is top soil replacement. However, hardly anything seems to be growing in these areas despite the EPA’s efforts. Below is a good example of these clean-up efforts: the left is inside the contaminated area, and the right is a feeble attempt of growth:

Left: contaminated site. Right: EPA removed top-soil
Left: contaminated site. Right: EPA removed top-soil

Last in Butte, but certainly not least, came the Berkeley Pit. This originated as an open-pit mining operation that grew and grew into the about 1 square mile pit that it is today. It is the second largest man-made object to be seen from space, just smaller than the Great Wall of China. Because of fear of groundwater contamination from the pit and entire mining site, freshwater has to be pumped in from elsewhere for the residents of Butte. The pit has a pH of 2, which makes it highly acidic. Below is a picture of the pit – and believe, the picture does nothing to convey its grandeur.

Berkeley Pit

Of more importance to me was the pit’s effect on groundwater and aquifer contamination in the future. Tom explained that there is about 5 million gallons of contaminated water in the pit, which is the volume of about 8 Olympic sized swimming pools. Water is steadily rising due to groundwater that is current feeding it. The water rises about 10 feet per year, so in 8 years, and about 80 feet, the contaminated water will make its way back into the freshwater supply. How can this be stopped, and can it be? Perhaps this will be a question for my masters project.

You can see the lone smelter stack in the background next to the electricity pole. In the foreground is a representation of the contents of a smelter stack.
You can see the lone smelter stack in the background next to the electricity pole. In the foreground is a representation of the contents of a smelter stack.

Next, we headed to Anaconda, Montana to start the journey of seeing the results of the Superfund site from Butte to Missoula down the Clark Fork River and visited Anaconda Stack State Park. The smeltery and stack were created in Anaconda to hold waste material from the mining done in Butte from 1884 to 1980, according to the EPA.  The stack, pictured in the photo to the right (in the distance), was larger than the Eiffel Tower and wide enough on the top to drive a car around (it can also comfortably fit the Washington Monument inside it). The EPA explains the purpose of the stack and what was stored:

 Milling and smelting produced wastes with high concentrations of arsenic, as well as copper, cadmium, lead and zinc. These contaminants pose potential risks to human health, to life in nearby streams, and to plants and animals in adjacent lands over some 300 square miles. In addition to the millions of cubic yards of tailings, furnace slag, flue dust, and square miles of soil contaminated by airborne wastes, millions of gallons of ground water have been polluted from wastes and soils. Arsenic is the primary contaminant of concern and drives the remediation. — Anaconda Superfund Site

After the smeltery was shut-down and the area cleaned up by the EPA, with other material deposited in a pile, the stack remained as a reminder to the community of the history of the region. Below is a pile of material from the stack behind a representative stack.

stack state park and materials

Next, we headed farther down the Clark Fork River to Dry Cottonwood Creek Ranch in Deer Lodge, MT, which is owned by the Clark Fork Coalition (an organization centered on environmental clean-up on the Clark Fork River and which pushes for clean water). The Clark Fork Coalition purchased part of the ranch in order to be the first private party to undergo EPA Superfund clean-up efforts. The goal is to remove the slickens, dead-zones in the ranch, mostly near the river, that have little to no growth because of pollution from Butte. A slickens is pictured below. When looking closely, you can see discolored soil (it looks blue) from the copper and zinc reactions.

A slickens near the Clark Fork River at the Dry Cottonwood Creek Ranch
A slickens near the Clark Fork River at the Dry Cottonwood Creek Ranch
Blue soil from zinc and copper contamination
Blue soil from zinc and copper contamination

Soil that is contaminated more than 12 inches deep will be completely removed from the ranch: the new soil will come from Beck Borrow Area and the contaminated material will go to dumps in Opportunity, Montana. The EPA will reseed the new soil with native grasses, but Maggie, who manages the property and works for the Clark Fork Coalition, is skeptical of the growth in the future. She said that the EPA promised growth in 5-10 years, but is worried about that timeline. The EPA is also staying out of the river and creek beds and providing compensation to the ranch because the Clark Fork Coalition is providing funds and materials for waterfowl protection. Also, the EPA is compensating the ranch for food lost from grazing lands being dug up. The EPA is fencing off 200 acres of land to work on for the next phase, which is set to last about 2 years.

Lastly, we visited the Milltown Dam in Missoula. Health officials in Missoula found arsenic in freshwater wells near the Milltown Dam in the 1980’s, according to the EPA’s Superfund report. Because of these contaminants, EPA created an alternative water supply and removed the dam. Also, the EPA reconstructed the river and replanted along the riverbed. Below is a photo of the reconstructed river: notice that since 2011, the growth still has not come back as rich as it once was. The river is pictured on the left.

reconstructed river

After this day of orientation, a few things are clear to me. One, I am glad that I came to school in Montana. Although I was aware of some of the environmental issues in the Western US, I was again surprised at the connectivity of these issues and how actions taken by people 100+ years ago can still be affecting the landscape now and will continue to affect the landscape in the future if nothing is done. Secondly, I am thankful for the Environmental Protection Agency. Even though sometimes, as a government organization, the methods that they take are provocative and may not be the exact right thing to do (like attempting to replant the river banks at the ranch), there is potential for growth and change in the future. Third, I have never seen such a large-scale clean-up, and since this is the largest in the United States (so far), I may never see another.

It has become clear why I chose this path, because the Earth does not speak on it’s own. Even though the EPA and people surrounding the Superfund sites are passionate about clean-up and aware of the actions of the EPA, I still did not know the intricate details. I strive to tell these stories when I am an environmental and natural resource journalist and hope that my stories can bring these problems to life because even though the clean-up and contamination has seemingly been going on forever, it is still important to remember.

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