Postcards from the Edge
All roads in Butte, Montana, lead to Barb, because she is the keeper of the Pit. Not a barbecue pit, not a beach volleyball pit, not a bone pit. Something far more interesting, far more deadly; something many people travel hundreds, if not thousands, of miles to see. Barb is waiting for me in the Pit’s gift shop, which glints of copper products, copper being the stuff the Pit once produced. She has long, silver hair pulled back taut behind a Nike cap, and long-lashed eyes that twinkle when she talks. She is wearing black shorts, a black shirt, and white sneakers. She looks like a PGA Tour star or a middle school gym teacher. “They flock!” Barb proclaims, “Flock!” Flock to the Pit, that is.
“Every year people from Australia come—they have a toxic pit themselves,” says Barb. “They come from China; Germany; Nashville; Elko, Nevada; Guatemala; London.” A coworker produces the visitor log. Approximately 35,000 tourists visit each year.
It’s a warm summer evening in Montana, and Barb has been at work tending the Pit since 8 a.m. She is weary and eager to get home to her 28-year-old son, nicknamed the Gaberator, but she’ll stay for one final show. Barb will guide us personally to the Pit’s rim. No gas mask or Ebola suit necessary,. You don’t even need a visitor badge. Despite my protestations, I have been comped the $2 entrance fee, and Barb leads me and a photographer past the copper butter molds and copper Moscow mule mugs and Pit T-shirts that say things like Berkeley Pit Diving Team alongside an image of a scuba-diving skeleton, and we enter a white tunnel. It is meant to recreate a mine shaft, I believe. But it is more like the approach to heaven.
The soothing whiteness. The clop of our footfalls. Everything echoes, my mind goes blank, and suddenly I am thinking of a Toaster Strudel and all that goes into the maw of a toaster, whose heating element contains copper. The same is true of televisions, microwaves, smartphones, wind turbines, solar panels, hybrid cars, stealth bombers, and electrical wiring. In fact, in a single year, Americans consume so much copper that were it all hammered into a common copper wire that wire would wrap around the earth 2,250 times, or go to Mars and almost make it back. I’m lost in a copper haze, then suddenly there’s a flash of light. We’ve exited the tunnel. Glowing green before us is the Berkeley Pit, perhaps the most famous toxic body of water in America.
This open-pit copper and molybdenum mine began operations in 1955 and ended production in 1982. Shortly thereafter operators turned off the pumps that were keeping it dry and the pit flooded. Rainwater, along with subterranean water, which in flowing through mining tunnels underneath Butte, had picked up a zesty load of naturally occurring toxic heavy metals. It had all flowed, as water does, downward into this human-made hole. Think of what happens when you dig a pit at the beach, then the tide comes in. By the beginning of 1984, there was 53 feet of toxic water in the Pit. By 1985, the water level had risen more than 250 feet. Every year since, the levels have risen.
The Pit, which is shaped like an inverted pyramid, is now filled with 1,085 feet of toxic water. Imagine a triangle-shaped hole nearly as tall as the Empire State Building and as wide as 20 city blocks. We’re talking about more than 51 billion gallons of arsenic, lead, and cadmium-laced liquid so noxious that when a flock of migratory snow geese landed in the Pit in November 2016 to rest and refuel, the water, which the poor creatures invariably drank, caused, according to an article in the Montana Standard, a local Butte paper, “lesions in the stomach, intestines, and throats.” More than 3,000 geese died what were surely horrible deaths—some of them washed to shore dead, others sunk into the Pit, while still others took off and were found dead days later in parking lots and other places around the region. And yet right now, before us, the Pit shimmers like a Tahitian lagoon, and I am fully seduced by its aural glow. “Isn’t it something?” whispers Barb.
According to the EPA, a Superfund site is land that has been contaminated by hazardous waste and identified for cleanup because it poses a risk to human health or the environment. There are more than 1,300 Superfund sites in the United States—everything from a plutonium-manufacturing facility in Washington state to a Connecticut quarry stashed with toxic waste barrels. Silver Bow Creek/Butte Area is one of the nation’s largest Superfund sites. It encompasses much of the city of Butte, the Berkeley Pit, and many nearby creeks. Mining, which has occurred in this area since Civil War times, has honeycombed its underground with more than 10,000 miles of mining tunnels, and covered its surface in toxic mine tailings, the powdery or sludge-like residue left over from the mining process. Thanks to this long arc of mining history, groundwater in Butte is contaminated and undrinkable. Arsenic dust from decades of unregulated copper smelting still laces many attics. And numerous front yards are spiked with lead. To visit Butte, Montana, and its infamous Pit, means walking on and over a toxic wasteland.
But Eric Hassler, manager of the Butte Silver Bow Health Department’s Residential Metals Abatement Program, says both government and independent studies have shown the area is safe for residents and tourists. His program assesses hundreds of properties annually, and each year remediates about 100 attics and 30 yards, meaning the program pays for the removal of attic dust and yard soil containing toxic heavy metals like lead and arsenic. Thanks to the Superfund program, many miles of streams and wetlands in Butte and surrounding Silver Bow County have also been rehabilitated. Life in Butte marches on, as it does for hundreds of other communities across America with Superfund sites nestled within their borders. But Butte is different. With the Chamber of Commerce offering guided trolley tours to the Pit three times a day, Butte has proactively used the most glaring emblem of its Superfund status as a lure to draw visitors. In doing so, local officials have catapulted their small city to the frontlines of a nascent movement that University of Colorado Boulder cultural anthropologist Phaedra Pezzullo has termed “toxic tourism.”
The trope seems perfectly fit for our scourged times, with human emissions warming the planet, rising the seas, acidifying the oceans, and sending scores of species into extinction. With millions of Americans drinking contaminated water and breathing polluted air, and with 40 percent of our rivers too polluted to swim or fish in, and with the Environmental Protection Agency run by a coal magnate—well, toxic tourism seems like a uniquely American solution to the problem of poisoned landscapes.
It is not exactly unique to America, though. The world is already acquainted with “dark tourism,” visiting places where great massacres have occurred, such as Auschwitz, Hiroshima, the 9/11 Memorial, or a Russian gulag. (There’s a new Netflix series called Dark Tourism in case you still have questions.) Rising in popularity is “doomsday tourism,” seeing the last of some great environmental wonder before it splinters into oblivion, such as the polar bears of North America’s Hudson Bay, the ice fields of Antarctica, or Australia’s Great Barrier Reef. “By definition, tourists are invasive and ignorant of their surroundings,” Pezzullo writes in her 2007 book Toxic Tourism: Rhetorics of Pollution, Travel, and Environmental Justice. “Tourists make waste, take resources, destroy—or, at minimum, transform—places, and encourage local communities literally to sell themselves and to commodify their culture for money.”
Even when that culture is years of toxicity. “I just decided that at some point we have to hit this thing head on and try to make lemonade out of lemons,” says Marko Lucich, who was executive director of the Butte-Silver Bow Chamber of Commerce from 2003 to 2016, and came up with the idea of formally marketing the Pit at the beginning of his tenure. At the time, says Lucich, tourists would stop by their office asking for directions to the Pit. Employees obliged, but once visitors got to the rim, where it is possible to look directly down into the bowl of the Pit, they were faced with an ugly fence, an aging viewing platform that had been around since 1978, and port-a-potties. Not exactly a pleasant tourist experience. “It was ugly,” says Lucich. “It was horrible.”
But the Pit itself, a swirling mess of water that, at that time, was the color of a volcanic sunset, had its charm, and the tourists weren’t going to stop coming. “I was watching all these people go to the Pit, and I thought, Holy cow, if we charge just a dollar a person, we could make some money,” says Lucich. Thanks in part to a grant from a foundation operated by local mining icon Dennis Washington, the Chamber was able to install restrooms, redo the viewing platform, and hire master gardener Norm DeNeal to plant the hillside next to the viewing area with mallow, ragged robin, lemon fluff, and yellow yarrow.
On my first evening in Butte, after checking into my hotel, a copper-laden Art Deco masterpiece that once hosted John F. Kennedy called the Finlen, I wander the city and discover people dancing in the street outside a cavernous bar called Party Palace. It’s the weekly Music on Main event, featuring local favorites the Freakin Old Guys. As they dive into a cover of “Sweet Caroline”—Good times never seemed so good/I’d be inclined/To believe they never would—I can’t help thinking of how pleasant Butte is. The days are warm, the evenings are cool, the air is dry, the vibe is relaxed, the people are friendly. And yet, the Pit looms before us all, like a psychedelic sponge cake.
It is located on the side of a large hill on the north side of Butte, less than a mile from Main Street, which means one can see the rim of the Pit, with its patchwork yellow, orange, gray, red, and umber coloration, from virtually everywhere in town. You can see it from the stoop of the Party Palace, the Muddy Creek Brewery, Rocky Mountain Archery, the Butte Rescue Mission Bargain Center—where everything is half-off and I buy an airbrushed painting of a sunset for $2.50—and the historic Metals Banc Building, which once held the fortunes of the richest copper kings in Butte. The building was designed by nationally renowned architect Cass Gilbert, who crafted such structures as New York City’s Woolworth Building and the US Supreme Court. One afternoon, I meet Metals Banc Building owner and Butte entrepreneur Ray Ueland in the Metals Sports Bar and Grill, a restaurant he opened in the old bank lobby in 2008.
“It was quite a city in its day,” says Ueland, showing me an impressive picture of Butte circa 1924, the street filled with Model Ts and men in tweed flat caps. The population at that time was around 100,000. (Butte, says Ueland, was the third American city to get electricity, which made sense because you can’t electrify a city without copper, and Butte had the copper.) According to Ueland, the 1880s through the 1920s were good for mining. This was an era of industrial revolution in America: factories were opened, cities grew, and metals were needed. Copper was in particularly great demand because it was during this period that American cities and towns were electrified. Copper is a necessary element in electrical wiring, and the earth under Butte, and the hills and mountains surrounding the city, were loaded with copper, so Butte boomed. During World War II, which required a lot of copper—as all wars do, since most bullets contain the substance—times were again good. Then mining became more mechanized. Instead of using humans to crawl around underground tunnels and dig out ore, massive machines were used to dig out vast areas of earth and gigantic trucks hauled away much more material than any single human ever could. As these large surface mines, called open-pit mines, became more common across the American West, large machines took the jobs of men, and employment in places like Butte plummeted.
In 1955, when the Berkeley Pit opened, the city was still doing all right. During the 1950s and ‘60s, there was a viewing stand at the Pit and visitors could peer into the ever-forming gash to watch the men work like ants. Ueland remembers the scores of travelers who would camp out in trailers in the parking lot for hours, mix a cocktail, and watch capitalism in action. But in the late 1970s and early ‘80s the bottom dropped out of the metals market, in part because so many new mines were opening in places like South America. In 1982, the Atlantic Richfield Company (now owned by BP) shut the pumps off, and the Pit began filling with toxic water. Whether this closure was an intentional way to save the millions of dollars it was taking yearly to run the pumps or part of the typical process of shutting down this type of mine is something that is still disputed. What is certain is that no one anticipated the epic disaster that exists today. “The Pit went from being a point of pride,” says Ueland, “to a point of embarrassment.”
The mechanization of mining caused Butte’s population to fall, according to Ueland, from 55,000 in the mid-1960s to 30,000 in 1986, which is right around the same time that Ueland opened his first restaurant, McDuff’s Pancake and Steakhouse. It was a local joint, serving breakfast, lunch, and dinner, but many tourists stopped by, too. “At McDuff’s the number one question I got was, ‘How do we get to that Pit?’” Ueland recalls. “That was the first inkling.”
Ueland worked with Marko Lucich and the Chamber of Commerce to spruce up the tourism experience for Pit visitors, upgrading the bathroom facilities and refurbishing the viewing deck. He is happy where things stand now, some 13 years later. “There’s an increased synergy of rehabilitating and rebuilding,” he says, without clarifying what, exactly, constitutes “increased synergy.” Ueland is bright-eyed about the city’s future. And he pins a lot of it on the Pit. But he has an even grander plan, a truly masterful vision for the Pit.
“Here would be my dream,” says Ueland. “If I were a billionaire, I would build a mining museum right in downtown Butte. Even Evel Knievel would be a part of it. And there would be an IMAX theater showing the mining history, from underground mines to the huge haul trucks to the evolution of the Pit.
“And here’s my clincher: you’re sitting in the IMAX theater, and you’re looking at the IMAX screen, and the film ends, and then you turn this way,” and he pivots his body, now facing one of the old bank’s magnificent arched windows and toward Arizona Avenue, “and a wall opens up, and you are looking right into the Pit!”
Ueland pauses, allowing time for the pixels of his vision to properly affix themselves in my mind’s eye. “Would that be a tourist attraction?” he says. “You bet! That would be my dream. If we had that, we’d have thousands of people coming every year, and then—” and he looks out the window again. “Wow! You’d have the hotels and the motels. Wow! And then you’d have the bustle that we saw back in that picture.” He means the one from the 1920s, when the city was filled with men in tweed flat caps and Model Ts.
I truly believe this is a fabulous dream. Don’t deny the Pit. Embrace the Pit. Recognize its powers; recognize its allure. Recognize, as Ueland did back in the 1980s at McDuff’s Pancake and Steakhouse, that the Pit is what the people want to see. “Is it appropriate to make the star out of something so toxic?” I ask Ueland before leaving the Metals Banc Building. “I don’t know,” he says. But he does know this: when the high school basketball team plays away games, the other schools chant at them rudely, “Dirty water, Dirty water.” The Pit can be cruel too.
The Berkeley Pit is a slowly unfolding catastrophe. Lately, the toxic water in the pit has been rising at a rate of about seven feet a year. This means that, sometime around February 2023, the water will breach the zone of bedrock where it’s presently confined and merge with more loosely packed surface soils. (In some inner chambers of the Pit, the water is a mere 40 feet from this critical level.) Soon after that point is hit, the toxic water will seep out of the Pit’s southeast face and flood much of downtown Butte.
There is a detailed plan to halt this catastrophe currently being executed by the Environmental Protection Agency and Montana Resources, a mining company which operates a still-active copper and molybdenum mine called the Continental Pit, which is located just a few thousand feet to the east of the Berkeley Pit. The remediation plan entails continuously treating water from the Pit to remove heavy metals and other chemicals such that Montana Resources can use the water in their mining operations. This water would by no means be fit for drinking, but would be suitable for industrial purposes. In turn, Montana Resources will draw water from another toxic sink they have on site, known as the Yankee Doodle Tailings Pond; bring it through not just one, but a series of treatment plants that thoroughly remove toxic metals and chemicals; then discharge it into local waterways. Taking old toxic water out of Yankee Doodle will create space for new toxic water from the Pit to be pumped in.
This water shuffle must be done carefully, because if too much water is drawn from the Pit, the tunnels that underlie the city of Butte will lose pressure and collapse, and vast sections of the city could sink into toxic hell. If not enough water is drawn, then the Pit overflows and seeps out the weak southeast wall. The game must be played “in perpetuity,” Montana Resources vice president of human resources Mike McGivern explains to me on a tour of their facilities. Although it isn’t the subject of discussion for much of the mainstream public, this seemingly absurd cleanup timespan that stretches to infinity is normal for big mining operations. Having big pits fill nearly to the brim with toxic water, though, is not normal, and by most accounts this outcome was not predicted when the mine first opened.
It is an unfathomable block of time. And everyone around town seems convinced that the plan, buttressed by an agency the current administration has promised to practically eliminate, will go off without a hitch. Everyone, that is, except for former state legislator Fritz Daily. Daily lives in a gray ranch house on the side of town that will flood with toxic Pit water if the plan goes awry. When I enter his living room, I find him practically submerged in a Berkeley Pit–size brown recliner, watching golf with his wife, Gay. “The Environmental Protection Agency, the state of Montana, and the local government have totally failed this community,” says Daily. “We’re getting a Band-Aid cleanup.”
“Are you concerned about a slip-up,” I ask, “because it’s such a Band-Aid job?” He is very concerned, he says.
“Perpetuity is a pretty long time,” Daily explains. “They are going to be required to do this forever. If they make a mistake they will contaminate all of Summit Valley.” He adds another geographical gem that no one else in town has mentioned: Silver Bow Creek, where the treated toxic water from Yankee Doodle will be discharged, the first creek bed that a leaky Pit would find, is one of the headwaters of the Columbia River, which eventually forms the border between Washington and Oregon, and flows right by downtown Portland and into the Pacific. If the remediation project goes wrong, says Daily, “it would probably be the worst environmental disaster in the history of the United States.”
But out past the Pit, opportunity twirls in the dust fragments, the copper catching gold in the sun, flickering in the atmosphere, bouncing and drifting in the wind, and it drifts back down to earth in the form of flecks of green—yes, green!—because located directly across the street from the Pit is Montana Natural Medicine, “Western Montana’s Original Provider,” according to its business card.
Inside the dispensary, beside a display case featuring mason jars of Purple Cane, Gorilla Glue, Brain Wreck, Liberty Haze, and Sour Diesel, I find Mark Gibbons Jr., who looks a bit like a motocross star and has intentionally placed his marijuana operation across from the Berkeley Pit to capitalize on its tourist stream. “It used to just be a locked-up hole, a joke around town, something people were ashamed of,” says Gibbons. But how the tables have turned. Now, says Gibbons, “I am actually counting on the toxic tourism.” He opened in 2010. Legislation that legalized medical marijuana in Montana was first passed into law in 2004. Although the law has seen a number of tweaks that have restricted operators, medical marijuana remains legal. It has been getting busier every year since the Chamber of Commerce finished the Pit’s renovations in 2009, he says. “If marijuana goes legal here,” says Gibbons, referring to a vote on recreational use in the Montana legislature in 2020, “I am going to be getting most of my business from the Pit.”
So the Pit has become its own economic engine, and what better way to celebrate the Pit than by smoking a blunt? What better way to come down off the Pit than by smoking a blunt? What better way to heal yourself of the possibility—even if experts say it is remote, or nonexistent—of toxic exposure than by smoking a blunt? Gibbons is not alone. He is just the pioneer. “My hope is one day the town will expand around the Pit,” he says. “I just think it’s one of the nicest parts of town.” And as one can find in any buzzing quarter in any hipster town, there is an energetic couple across the street from Gibbons who are in the process of opening a boutique coffeeshop.
“Basically, we saw an opportunity,” says Randi Wedlake, who I find inside the small building, painting a back wall a hue of copper. “There was no specialty coffee on this side of town, and we thought, What a great location, because of tourism traffic to the Pit.” Randi and her husband Doug intend to open before summer is out, and they will be diving headlong into Pit kitsch. They plan to call the place Perkeley Pit Coffee, Wedlake says, as she produces a newly minted list of the shop’s specialty coffees and other drinks. The Copper Ditch will be a nonalcoholic Moscow mule, made with spicy ginger beer, sparkling water, and fresh lime. The Tap’er Light—what Butte underground miners famously said before lighting dynamite—will contain four espresso shots and white chocolate syrup. And what will surely be a hit among the Pit’s toxic tourists, Pit Water is a caramel macchiato with chocolate syrup. All made with fair trade Montana-roasted coffee.
Laugh all you want, but don’t you kind of want to see the Pit and maybe order a Pit Water? “Most of us have been or will be tourists at some point in our lives,” Pezullo writes in Toxic Tourism. “We will travel to someplace at some moment in time in which we are visitors and are not planning to settle. It might be a trip to the coast or to the mountains or to a city, but we will be touring. Disliking tourists, therefore, is really a way to express a dislike for ourselves, our culture, and who we have become. Tourists dislike tourists because people dislike people. We dislike the fact that we always appear to want to consume more.”
But what about when there are no more tourists? When there is nothing left to consume? When humans are gone from this landscape, or at least from Butte or the United States of America as we know it and its Environmental Protection Agency and the Butte Silver Bow Health Department are gone. Who, then, will take care of the pit “in perpetuity”?
Standing on a pile of toxic mining waste rock looking out over the Pit, former Montana Department of Environmental Quality hydrogeologist Joe Griffin listens to my persistent line of questions: Just how do you hire someone for that sort of thing? Who will run the pumps, the water treatment plants, make the workers’ sandwiches? Griffin appears to have done some thinking on this thing too. “What I always think of,” he says, “is what are the longest-running human institutions?”
I see where he is going, and his answer makes sense to me: the Catholic Church. “We could have a little monastery over there,” says Griffin, pointing to the north rim of the Pit, and together we stare out at the vast toxic lake. All that would stand between environmental ruin, a booming tourist destination, and the town of Butte would be a crew ordained by God. “The monks,” Griffin says, “will take this over.”
As my final evening at the Berkeley Pit comes on, the wildflowers planted by master gardener Norm DeNeal blow about in the blue sky breeze, the sprinkler spray dances in the sweet air like golden raindrops. The medical-marijuana man, Mark Gibbons Jr., is still in his shop. The coffee couple, Randi and Doug Wedlake, have gone home. The sun is setting, and all is beautiful in this happy little Superfund valley. Presently, what appears to be a pair of young lovers arrives at the viewing deck. They have on dark sunglasses and stare intently into the slowly filling toxic wound, then leave. But soon there is another couple. Him in blue jeans and a cowboy belt, shirt tucked in, looking very smart. Her in a flowing gray dress. They are on their way to the Silver Bow Drive-In for a double feature—Hotel Transylvania 3 and Skyscraper. “What drew you to the Pit?” I ask. Neither of them has been here before. He is from the nearby farming community of Three Forks. It seems they were just curious. “Everyone jokes about the Pit,” he says, “that it poisons the people and makes them crazy.”
But no, no, he has it all wrong. The Pit is beautiful. And I watch it shimmer one last time, go from green to gold as the shadow of the rim creeps across with the setting sun. The city darkens behind it, becomes completely invisible, everything else fades away, everything except for the great lake of waste lying before me. This strange toxic time bomb glows surreally in the evening light. The Pit is the star.