What’s Left Behind
A Flooded Copper Mine Outside Butte, Montana, Is the Largest Contaminated Body of Water in the Country. And It Contains a Slime That Could save the Mine, the Town, and Maybe Even the World.
If you’re from Seattle, like me, you learn early in life that Montana is spacious, touristy, and full of wayward relatives who knocked off the grid a long time ago. You know about Glacier and Yellowstone and the lax speed limits on the swaths of flat, endless highway beneath limitless skies. And of the few big towns in the state, you know sparse details: Helena is the capital, Missoula is a liberal stronghold, and in Butte a flooded copper mine—the nation’s biggest body of toxic water, called the Berkeley Pit—functions as a town monument, a plaguing reminder of the price of industry, and, for some, a lab of curiosity. Montana is a weird, wide-open space—it’s the fourth-largest state in the country, but forty-eighth in population density; a place where you can still write personal checks for groceries, where bars feature attractions like live mermaids, and where Americans and mine waste alike are seemingly left alone to do whatever they want.
For years, as you approached Butte along I-90, all-you-can-eat-buffet-style billboards recommended the bizarre detour of the Berkeley Pit, marketing mine waste as historic pollution worth visiting. A massive hole filled with battery-acid-strength water, the signs suggested, isn’t a far stretch from picnicking at a battleground or an old fort, retired sites from a different sort of war. Eventually, administrators realized that advertising the pit as a tourist attraction was damning to the town’s reputation and took down the enticing signage, but visitors can still pay two dollars and, from a viewing stand, enjoy a recorded history of the town and the breathtaking vista of one of the greatest American copper-mining calamities of the twentieth century.
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