A river (of copper) runs through it

Bitterroot Valley

Due the influence of private industry, the Bitterroot valley of southwest montana is facing some expensive environmental issues.  Butte is home to a copper mine that produced half of americas copper for decades. The town of 100,000 quickly declined after the mine shut down in the early 1980’s.  After losing nearly seventy-five percent of its economy, Butte is now home to a mere 30,000 residents. At the height of copper production in Butte, the mine was mining using an open pit, known as The Berkeley Pit.  The Berkeley Pit is the largest, and most expensive superfund site in the country. For decades, polluted silt and dirt from the mine have been leaching pollutants such as arsenic, copper and lead into the clark fork river.  One of the most controversial effects of the leaching of these chemicals has been the accumulation of polluted sediments behind Milltown Dam, on the Clark Fork River near the bitterroot valley. The Clark Fork River supplies drinking water to the city of Missoula, Montana; the largest town in the state.  If the dam were to collapse (which is predicted will occur sooner or later) 6,600,000 cubic feet of polluted sediments would rush into the river thus rendering Missoula’s drinking water unsafe to drink. Mining is one of the major causes in the Bitterroot Valley, and it is commonly discussed that Montana, and the U.S. may have actually saved money by purchasing all copper from Chile, and allowing them to externalize the costs of mining on the Chilean ecology.  

Montana provides an example internationally of what can happen if private companies and not held accountable for the environmental problems they cause. Often, state officials have a difficult time securing funds to fix environmental issues. Those responsible in the past have gone out of business and cannot pay for the costs to right their wrongs.  Officials from developing countries see Butte as a landmark example of what not to let occur.

1 thought on “A river (of copper) runs through it”

  1. I agree with a lot of the statements you’ve made throughout this post, Edward. I similarly feel like the Bitterroot Valley and Montana’s environmental struggles are an excellent example of what can happen when people, particularly corporations are not held accountable for their lack of foresight and damage caused to the surroundings of mines. I also think it was a good point to bring up how dramatically Butte’s economy and population have fallen over time. What do you think the best strategy for mines, and more specifically the Berkeley Pit, would be, looking forward? Would it be better to try to maintain the damage control approach and attempt to minimize the amount of chemicals leaking into the soil, or to take the dams down as described in the text? Also, considering how influential mining has been historically on the economy of Montana despite its damaging side effects, would it have been better to simply import ore from foreign countries such as Chile?

Leave a Reply