According to the U.S. Department of Labor, 2019 marked the 125thanniversary of Labor Day. Started by the 19th-century organized labor movement and first recognized by President Grover Cleveland in 1894, Labor Day is a tribute to the social and economic achievements of the American worker.
Butte was a stalwart of America’s early labor movement, earning the nickname “the Gibraltar of Labor.” With a union workforce of over 15,000 strong at one time, Butte’s mines were a global leader in copper production from the late 1800s through the 1920s.
The mines of our “Richest Hill on Earth” were some of the world’s most productive. They were also some of the most dangerous. Over 2,300 men died underground or in other mining-related accidents over the course of Butte’s underground mining.
All of Butte’s mines were shut down by 1983, while the smelter in Anaconda closed a few years earlier in 1980. The latter was the same year Congress passed the Superfund environmental cleanup law. Lucky for the reeling economy, mining resumed in Butte in 1986. Montana Resources (MR) bought the concentrator and Continental and Berkeley Pit properties from Atlantic Richfield (ARCO) and save for a brief hiatus in the early 2000’s, has been mining ever since.
Just last week, the State of Montana DEQ approved an amendment to MR’s permit that will allow them to keep mining until at least 2031. That’s a good thing for the 370-plus workers MR employs at the mine. It’s also a good thing for a lot of Butte businesses and the many vendors, contractors and service providers that do work with the mine. The mine’s tax revenues are also foundational to the operations of both local government and the school district.
Superfund has had its grip, so to speak on Butte, Anaconda and the Upper Clark Fork River basin for over 30 years. Over $2 billion is spent to date cleaning up and restoring the watershed, from the top of the hill in Walkerville to the removal of the Milltown Dam over a hundred miles away near Missoula. The work has been completed in fits and starts, for sure. And even though it hasn’t been perfect, Superfund is arguably as vital to Montana’s economy as it is to our environment.
Former Governor Brian Schweitzer referred to it as “The Restoration Economy,” back when Superfund was cranking full tilt in the Upper Clark Fork around 2008. Silver Bow Creek was undergoing its transformation near Butte. The Milltown Dam and its contaminated sediments were being removed by Missoula. And in Anaconda, the Opportunity Ponds were being capped with the wastes hauled upstream from Milltown. The “green collar workforce” numbered over 700 in the area, according to a survey done at the time.
While much of that environmental work is done now, there are still hundreds of jobs supported by Superfund cleanup, design, management and monitoring in Butte and our surrounding areas. Think about how many local businesses are in this line of work – Water and Environmental Technologies, Pioneer Technical Services, Jordan Contracting, Western Reclamation, Wasley Excavating, Copper Environmental, TREC, Big Sky Reclamation, ICS and the list goes on. In fact, Butte-Silver Bow local government has nearly 30 employees working in Superfund alone, not to mention the State of Montana and EPA.
With work ongoing at the Berkeley Pit, Phase 2 of the Parrot Tailings removal right around the corner and tons more remediation and restoration coming soon in Butte, Anaconda and the Clark Fork River, Montana’s green collar workforce may even surpass the “700 Club” of the Schweitzer years. That’s good for our economy and for the environment!
PHOTO CUTLINE: The ongoing Superfund cleanup in Butte, Anaconda and other reaches of the Upper Clark Fork River are a pot of gold to the local economy. In this 2015 photo, a rainbow arcs over the Butte Hill, central to the Butte Priority Soils Operable Unit Superfund site. (Photo by Matt Vincent)