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Silver Lining In A Toxic Copper Town


Letter From Butte, Mont.

SILVER LINING IN A TOXIC COPPER TOWN

Third-generation Butte resident John S. Cote grew up knowing this copper town was a dangerous place. A saloon-keeper's son, "Harp" Cote--his childhood nickname came from his freckle-faced, Irish looks--talks of boyhood friends who made firecrackers from blasting powder and pipe. He remembers when his schoolyard caved in because it was undermined by tunnels and the time a group of children in McQueen, the Austrian district, were killed playing with dynamite.

"But we were never told the dumps were toxic," says Cote, 69. Those piles of contaminated tailings, the leftovers from processing copper ore that leach into Butte's water, may pose the greatest danger of all. They're loaded with lead, cadmium, zinc, copper, and other metals linked with health problems.

Harp Cote knows all about the dumps now because Butte is the center of the country's largest Superfund site--actually four sites that stretch northwest 100 miles from Butte almost to Missoula. He is a leader in Superfund cleanup as chairman of Montana Energy Research & Development Institute Inc. Its Montana Technology Cos. subsidiary may earn as much as $10 million this year testing techniques for treating contaminated soil and water.

The Environmental Protection Agency and ARCO, which is liable for the sites because it purchased Anaconda Co. in 1977, have committed $100 million to the first stage of the cleanup, which started in 1985. The final cost could be two or three times that amount. The cleanup is a blessing both environmentally and economically. Unemployment has rebounded from 20% after the pit closed, but is still 9% and the town is smarting from the shift to low-wage service jobs. So local entrepreneurs hope that, by cleaning up their own backyard, so to speak, they can develop the expertise to perform similar work elsewhere.

"As ironic as it seems, there's a real possibility Butte will be on the cutting edge of cleanup technology," explains Montana Governor Marc Racicot during a visit to Butte. The irony, he notes, is that if all goes well, Butte will profit by cleaning up the very mess that enriched it for over a century.

BLOODY DAYS. In the old days, Butte was known as "the richest hill on earth." Thousands of miners worked underground in mines like the Neversweat and the Speculator, where 166 men were killed in an underground fire in 1917, the worst hard-rock mining disaster in U.S. history. Over the years, the mines were consolidated into Anaconda, which eventually switched from underground to surface mining. Its giant Berkeley Pit consumed many of Butte's ethnic communities such as Finntown and Parrot Flats, where the Slavs lived, until it was shut down in 1983 by Arco, Anaconda's parent. Today, the pit, which is filling up with 5 million gallons of water a day, dominates Butte like a gigantic, open sore.

During its heyday in the first half of this century, Butte was a prosperous, bawdy town. The last whorehouse on "Venus Alley" was shuttered just a decade ago. Dashiell Hammett, once a Pinkerton agent in Butte, called it Personville (pronounced "Poisonville") for his bloody detective novel, Red Harvest.

"We took in a dollar a minute--back when we had silver dollars and food was reasonable," says Carl Rowan, 83, who operates Gamer's, a restaurant. He tells of a time when Gamer's sold its own candy in huge copper-colored boxes and packed miners' lunch buckets with pasties, the traditional Cornish meat pies. One weekend, Gamer's baked 125 birthday cakes and 12 five-tiered wedding cakes, Rowan says.

This is Rowan's last day at Gamer's. After 50 years, he's a statewide celebrity and his retirement brings out hundreds of friends, including Cote and the governor. Butte is a closely knit town, where the past is always present. People are quick to reveal their ethnic origins and tell family stories. They're proud that in the old days, when America thought of copper, it thought of Butte.

Now, residents hope that when Americans think Superfund, they'll think of Butte. Scores of companies are springing up with methods to clean up Butte's soil and water. Eventually, says Evan D. Barrett, executive director of Butte Local Development Corp., they may create 1,000 jobs in the next few years, and that doesn't include spin-off employment.

"We'll clean up the city and provide an economic base as we export these services," says Joseph F. Figueira, associate dean for research and graduate studies at Montana College of Mineral Science & Technology in Butte. There, environmental engineering is the hottest major. Superfund technology accounts for 20% of the college's $3 million research budget and could reach 40%, he says.

"There's not a better test lab than this. It's got all the raw materials--dead ground, toxic metals that leach into the waterway," says Rick Foote, editor of the Montana Standard, Butte's daily newspaper, over Chinese food at the Pekin Noodle Parlor. "This is a fish-killing son of a bitch." The Pekin is a Butte landmark, and so is Foote, a onetime miner whose grandfather he, confides, was killed in a Butte saloon brawl.

GRUNT WORK. One of the startups is TransMar Inc. On the flats south of town, TransMar feeds slurried mill waste from Butte's last underground mine into a machine that uses pulsation and centrifugal force to separate toxic heavy metals. Nearby, engineers at Mycotech Corp. work with soil from the "pole yard," one of the four Superfund sites where poles were once painted with creosote to keep them from deteriorating. They treat the dirt with fungi that produce enzymes to break down the toxins and render them harmless.

Clifford Bradley, Mycotech's director of research and development, hopes another type of fungus could be used to clean up water in the Berkeley Pit, removing the toxic metals in such a way they could be sold to pay for the treatment. "Five hundred dollars' worth of copper could stick onto $100 worth of fungus," he claims.

Other businesses here prosper from Superfund grunt work. "A lot of the cleanup is not high-tech, whiz-bang stuff," says David K. Nation, vice-president and general manager of Special Resource Management Inc., a subsidiary of Montana Power Co. His company loads trucks with contaminated material from the old smelter at Anaconda, 25 miles away, and moves it to a secured area.

The Superfund could bring another significant long-range benefit to this historic town: increased tourism. Only 7% of the tourists who zip by on the highway between Glacier and Yellowstone National Parks stop in Butte, and they stay only a few hours. Butte has plenty of tourist potential with its copper-king mansions and old storefronts. There's an extensive mining museum, a restored part of town called Hell-Roaring Gulch, and the famous Butte hill pockmarked with mine pits and dotted with superstructures known as "gallows frames."

Mark A. Reavis, the local historic preservation officer, hopes to raise $35 million over 15 years and turn Butte into a national landmark district on the order of Lowell, Mass., where the old mills and boarding houses have been preserved as a sort of living museum. He envisions a raft of improvements including a tourist railroad called the Neversweat & Washoe--and a 20% increase in jobs. The money, he says, will come from preservation grants, private contributions, and even the Superfund. ARCO has already spent $250,000 on historic work.

Preservation underscores another irony in Butte, points out Sandra M. Stash, ARCO's Superfund manager. Over lunch at Columbia Gardens (named for the turn-of-the-century amusement park subsumed by the Berkeley Pit) she says with a laugh: "One man's toxic waste is another man's historic resource." And a proud old coppertown's economic future.Sandra D. Atchison


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