The legacy of capitalism in Butte, Montana

In Butte, Montana, an 1,800 foot pit has the pH level of battery acid.

Photo: Bethany Malmgren
One hundred sixty miles northwest of Yellowstone National Park is a body of water that’s deeper than Lake Superior. The 1,800-foot-deep Berkley Pit was created from an open-pit mine in Butte, Montana. Seven million gallons of water flow into it each day. That’s roughly 5,000 gallons per minute.

The pit has become the town’s main tourist attraction. However, tourists don’t come to Butte to water-ski or get a suntan. Rather, they come to marvel at the massive hole in the ground, which contains water with a pH balance of 2.5. Battery acid has a pH balance of 2; drinking water has a pH balance of 7. The pit’s water is so acidic that it melts boat propellers.

Although situated in a region of natural beauty, the environment in and around Butte has been irrevocably damaged by a century of exploitation. It’s a tragedy caused by capitalist plunder. But Butte also has a rich history of struggle, both against environmental degradation and for workers rights.

History of workers’ struggle

The creation of the Berkley Pit is tied closely to the history of Butte. And Butte’s history is emblematic of the spread of capitalism throughout the western half of the United States. All over the United States, capitalism brought death; environmental, social and cultural destruction; and exploitation for the emergent working class. The western frontier, including Butte, was no exception.

In the decades prior to 1900, Butte was the largest city between Chicago and San Francisco, with a population of around 100,000. The economy, the politics and the culture in Butte centered on copper mining and the town’s sole mining company—the Anaconda Copper Co. It is estimated that one-third of the copper used in World War I came from Butte.

Tens of thousands of Butte’s citizens worked in the mines. They were mostly recent immigrants from Germany, Ireland and Serbia. In the early 1900s, more than 18,000 laborers in Butte belonged to various trade unions: waitresses and bartenders, typesetters and sawmill workers, blacksmiths, brewers, teamsters, newsboys and more.

Anaconda was notoriously anti-union, especially after Standard Oil absorbed it. Standard Oil had zero tolerance for labor unions and set out to destroy Butte’s miners’ unions. They hired private agents from Pinkerton to infiltrate the unions and sabotage them from the inside. Pinkerton goons developed a “red-list” of union leaders, labeling them as socialists, that Anaconda used to fire 500 workers.

Unsafe working conditions and no wage increase for over 30 years prompted Anaconda workers to strike in 1914. The strike elicited a violent counterattack from the bosses. The miners’ union hall was dynamited and several workers were killed. A few weeks later, Anaconda refused to recognize the legitimacy of the Western Federation of Miners.

But the union organizers kept at it with the help of radical organizations like the Industrial Workers of the World. The state of Montana soon moved against the IWW, officially banning the organization and enacting the Sedition Act. The Act—aimed at working class organizers—outlawed all “disloyal, profane and scurrilous” writings and speeches.

From 1917 to 1921, Butte was virtually occupied by the U.S. Army and National Guard. They were brought in to assist Anaconda in crushing workers’ attempts to organize. Nonetheless, courageous workers in Butte continued to fight Anaconda for better wages and working conditions.

Butte was aptly dubbed “Poisonville” by novelist Dashiell Hammett in his 1929 book “Red Harvest.” The book spun a tale of a town fueled by corruption and corporate greed where the rights of workers were disregarded along with the worsening environment. Hammett described the place as “an ugly city of forty thousand people, set in an ugly notch between two ugly mountains that had been all dirtied up by mining. Spread over this was grimy sky that looked as if it had come out of the smelters’ stacks.”

More than seven decades later, the city of Butte looks roughly the same as “Poisonville,” although its population is even smaller now.

Mining was the heart of Butte’s economy for decades.

Move toward higher profits

Anaconda didn’t care about the well-being of workers, nor was it ever concerned with the environment. All of its decisions were meant to advance one goal—increasing profits.

To reduce costs, Anaconda switched to open-pit mining in 1955. The change devastated the surrounding environment, stripping away Butte’s hillsides and destroying homes.

By the 1970s, copper mining had become more profitable in less industrialized countries, and the company wanted to move most of its mining activities south of the border. Anaconda sought to concentrate its copper mining in resource-rich places like Chile. But the government of Salvador Allende stood in the way. It had nationalized the copper mines owned by Anaconda in the early 1970s. To reinstate Anaconda’s private holdings, then-President Richard Nixon and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger backed a bloody coup that ousted the government and killed Allende in 1973.

Chile was then fully reopened to U.S. and other foreign capitalist investment. Anaconda’s mines were protected by a military dictatorship headed by General Augusto Pinochet. In Chile, Anaconda used the same open-pit techniques it used in Montana.

In 1977, the Atlantic Richfield Company acquired Anaconda, making it a global giant. ARCO officially closed the Berkley Pit in 1982 to cut costs further. All mining stopped one year later. When the mining stopped, so did the water pumps. Water soon flooded the underground mines and moved toward the lowest point in the pit, filling it with contaminated water.

Butte was suddenly left without its lifeblood industry. Unemployment soared to 22 percent and the environmental disaster caused by a century of mining demanded immediate attention. With the conditions changed, the focus of struggle for workers and activists shifted more toward environmental justice.

Butte marked for cleanup

The Environmental Protection Agency added the Berkley Pit to the nearby Silver Bow Creek Superfund site in the 1980s after activists forced the issue. This made it the largest Superfund site in the country.

The Superfund program is a government-administered system that prioritizes land in the United States that has been contaminated by hazardous waste and marked by the EPA for cleanup because of the risks posed to human health and/or the environment.

The Silver Bow Creek/Butte Area Superfund site is number 48 on the EPA’s list of the most hazardous sites across the United States. In the top 50, the majority of the sites are landfills or waste disposal locations. The list also includes several military complexes, like the Pearl Harbor Naval Complex, which borders a national wildlife refuge.

The workers of Butte have been combating the industrial pollution created by the copper mines and their corporate owners since 1880, when they fought to abolish “heap roasting.” Heap roasting was a process that created dense clouds of low-lying sulfuric smoke. Farmers were enraged by heap roasting because air pollution killed their crops and livestock.

The people of Butte eventually organized and forced an end to the process. Air pollution persisted in Butte, however, until the smelters were moved 26 miles away to the city of Anaconda. This move didn’t terminate the root problem. It simply transferred it to another place.

In 2002, ARCO, 76 other companies and the city of Butte were finally made responsible for cleaning up the Berkley Pit. A water treatment plant has since been built near the pit and is currently treating water around it. The price of copper has gone up and pit mining is again active in Butte. Yet, residents of the city are still struggling to ensure that the pit will be cleaned up.

No lasting solution with the EPA

The EPA decided that it was unrealistic to expect those responsible for the environmental disaster to clean the entire pit. After secret negotiations with the company, the EPA unveiled a long-term plan to start treating the water in the Berkley Pit in the year 2018. That’s when the water level in the pit is expected to reach ground water level. The plan has been roundly condemned as inadequate.

Fritz Daily, Butte’s local watchdog over the Superfund site, compared the water treatment plan to “horses and buggies in the time of modern transportation.” He expressed disgust at the way the EPA conducted closed-door negotiations with the company, preventing the public from having any say in the clean-up process.

The water treatment plant will need to run continuously for many years to prevent the water levels of the Berkley Pit from poisoning the ground water. However, the EPA has made ARCO responsible only for the next 50 years. The projected cost for the 50-year cleanup is $87 million.

British Petroleum bought ARCO in 2000. The sum of $87 million is nothing to them. BP reported record profits of $16.7 billion in February 2005. But few, if any, of BP’s profits will ever flow back to Butte.

The faults in the EPA’s plan expose a problem with the agency—namely, its refusal to have the site cleaned up by the company that created it. But the EPA isn’t the source of the problem. The capitalist system itself is to blame.

Back in 1970, University of Montana professor Samuel B. Chase reported that 95 percent of pollution in Butte could be “wiped out” within five years if industries made the necessary investment. As long as the system protects corporations’ interests over humanity’s, the resources necessary to ensure clean air, food and water will never be allotted.

In Butte and cities throughout the United States, the struggle for workers’ justice and the fight for environmental justice go hand in hand.

Bethany Malmgren lived and worked in Butte, Montana, for several months during 2004

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