When is a hole in the ground more than just a hole in the ground? For Butte's Berkeley Pit, the accumulating layers of sedimentary meaning have outpaced even the rise of arsenic-infused water puddled in the terraced bowl of one of the largest humanmade artifacts on the planet.
In Edwin Dobbs' 1996 Harper's essay "Pennies From Hell," the pit was profiled as the industrial maw that swallowed Butte, murdered migrating geese and left as its legacy a toxic lake now 1,024 feet deep and rising. Five years later the pit made headlines with a plan, more cognitively absurd than controversial, to process its 38 billion gallons of battery-acidic water into a municipal drinking supply—a proposal ultimately judged less cost-effective than the current treatment, by which the pit water is re-mined for its suspended copper. In 2006, Jon Stewart's "Daily Show" arrived in Butte to mock the seemingly desperate civic pride boostering the pit (somewhat successfully) as a tourist attraction. More recently, Montana Tech made news for discovering an evolving contingent of highly adaptive and potentially beneficial microbes that live nowhere but in the otherwise barren ecosystem of the poison pond.
So Butte's hole in the ground is simultaneously a relic of Montana's hyper-extractive history, an active copper mine, an ongoing environmental disaster area, a magnet for emerging reclamation technologies, a roadside attraction and a sci-fi petri dish.
One might have thought the pit had been mined of all the meaning it could hold. But now along comes Timothy J. LeCain, a Missoula native and assistant professor in Montana State University's department of history and philosophy, with yet another take. LeCain's Mass Destruction: The Men and Giant Mines That Wired America and Scarred the Planet—the American Society for Environmental History's best book of 2009—positions the pit as emblematic of a tipping point in technological history, a marker of the moment when 20th-century America's explosive engineering ingenuity outstripped its ability to control the flood of unintended consequences that ingenuity unleashed.
For all of Butte's long litany of conflicted superlatives—what was once the "richest hill on earth" now squats at the headwater terminus of the largest Superfund remediation complex in the United States—the Berkeley Pit, which began operations in 1955, was not the nation's first open-pit copper strip-mine. That dubious honor belongs to Utah's Bingham Pit, the largest open-pit mine in the world, and the brainchild of an early-day copper-mining tycoon named Daniel Cowan Jackling, who more or less invented open-pit strip-mining. Jackling died in 1956, leaving behind his ornate 17,000-square-foot 1926 mansion near San Francisco. Though Jackling himself has long receded from memory, his copper-fixtured house continues to make news for local preservationist's attempts to save it from the wrecking ball. LeCain extracts a nice book-opening irony from the identity of the home's current owner, who would rather demolish and rebuild. That would be Steve Jobs, CEO of Apple, a corporation with a stable of products entirely dependent on the cheap copper that Jackling's strip-mining innovation ensured.
The Bingham Pit's copper was so low-grade and dispersed that the site could hardly be considered a mine at all. To get the copper out, Jackling had to dig and crush tons of mineral-bearing rock to release mere ounces of copper. And to do that cost-effectively, he had to abandon men with picks and dynamite in favor of energy-intensive new technologies like steam shovels and massive trucks. Jackling's process turned formerly marginal copper deposits into pay dirt, but it also dramatically upped mining's ante in terms of waste. It was scale that tipped the balance, and technology that enabled the scale. What Jackling inaugurated, LeCain argues, is a technology of mass destruction.
Where Jackling led, Butte followed, and much of LeCain's evidence is drawn from the Anaconda Company's Butte mines and Anaconda smelter, where the logic of scale reigned for the better part of a century. With every advance in power and speed came a corresponding environmental consequence, and LeCain tracks the almost touching belief of mining engineers that their technology could not only squeeze mass profits from the earth, but mitigate the environmental impacts. As modern-day Montanans well know, that wasn't the case. A denatured Clark Fork River, the Superfund-riddled landscape of Anaconda, and a five-square-mile sacrifice zone of tailings ponds near Opportunity all stand as testament to the shortcomings of technological arrogance.
Only now, 100 years after wandering onto industrialization's bigger, better, faster path, are we beginning to figure out how to repair the damage, at enormous cost, and imperfectly.
There's an uncomfortable argument to be made that it was worth it, that refrigeration, hot water, telephones, electric lights, military superiority, iPads and all the rest of copper-dependent modernity justify the wholesale demolition that enabled it. And of course there's an argument to be made that it wasn't. LeCain doesn't make or counter either argument, but he makes a compelling case that the faith that got us here, and its failures, are worth remembering.