Open Pit Copper MiningI spent a night in Butte, Montana after my transmission failed on my Jeep. I had reached the top of a mountain when all of a sudden my car sounded like I was reving the engine and then I couldn’t get it into gear. I coasted to the bottom of the mountain, which brought me to an exit about 20 miles east of Butte. I made a call to AAA and soon found myself in a wrecker on my way to a car repair shop in Butte.

The driver of the wrecker gave me a quick overview of the copper mining history and culture of Butte although he lived in nearby Whitehall, where he had been born and bred except for a stint in the Navy. As we rolled into town, the open pit mining (strip mining) that is a part of the heritage of this area came into view.

I tried not to be judgmental after what I have heard about strip ming as an environmental disaster so I could learn more about it. Although mining is still happening in Butte, the Berkeley Pit, originally opened in 1955 by Anaconda Copper is now closed and the site of one of the major environmental superfund projects. As stated in Wikipedia, “The pit and its water present a serious environmental problem because the water, with dissolved oxygen, allows pyrite and sulfide minerals in the ore and wall rocks to decay, releasing acid. When the pit water level eventually reaches the natural water table, estimated to occur by around 2020, the pit water will reverse flow back into surrounding groundwater, polluting into Silver Bow Creek which is the headwaters of Clark Fork River,” (where I will be fishing next week.) As best as I can discern, this is one of twelve superfund sites in Montana.

I cannot speak for the residents of Butte and their response to this environmental hazard, although I did see a fierce pride in their city and Montana. The workers at the mine made a decent living and worked hard to provide for their families. So, who do we point our fingers at when these affronts happen to our land? Are we so naive to think that our land can withstand this kind of abuse? What will happen to the Silver Bow, Clark Fork and other rivers affected by this? I know I will try to keep my eye on this as I’m sure Trout Unlimited will as well.


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