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Pennies From Hell – The Complete Series
Edwin Dobb, the Butte born writer, reporter and professor, passed away from complications of the heart July 26th, 2019.
Whether writing stories for Reader’s Digest, Vogue, Discover, National Geographic, Harper’s or an op-ed for his hometown daily newspaper the Montana Standard, Edwin Dobb was a master of wrapping universal issues and topics in his own personal narrative. This narrative often included his experiences in Butte, Montana and the universal matter of extraction.
A prolific journalist that traveled widely, he often used his political, economic, social and environmental understanding of the Berkeley Pit as allegory to expose injustice and apathy in the world. In October of 1996 he published Pennies From Hell, a potent and thorough study of this enormous toxic lake and the web of agency it lies at the center of.
In “Nothing But Gifts,” his last published article for Harper’s Magazine, Edwin writes about community, family and defining ‘home.’ In that essay he construes that, “The enigmas and burdens of existence are inescapable…” For those that live in Butte, Montana, nowhere are the enigmas and burdens more apparent than in the milky depths of the Berkeley Pit.
As a memorial to the life of Dobb and this piece work, KBMF in Butte, Montana presents Pennies From Hell, read by Olivia Everett, annotated by Daniel Hogan with music by Clark Grant.
When Harper’s Magazine published Edwin Dobb’s essay Pennies From Hell in 1996, the Berkeley Pit was a notably different animal than it is today. When the pumps that carried water from the Pit were turned off in 1982 the crumbled mineral walls of the Berkeley’s cone, as well as the 10,000 miles of underground tunnels began to come in contact with liquid water. When minerals like iron pyrite mix with oxygen and water, sulfuric acid is created. This acidified water in turn leeches more metals from the surrounding rock.
The acidity of the of the water has fluctuated over time between a pH of 2.5 and 3.5, this change in pH has also resulted in dramatic changes in color; from steely blue to browns and reds. Presently, the jade green hue of the water looks lagoon like and inviting, if it were not for the “sterile and incandescent” terraces that surround it.
In 1995, at the time of Dobb’s writing Pennies From Hell, the toxic lake contained around 28 billion gallons of acid mine drainage and had killed at least 342 snow geese in a single incident.
In 2016, Lake Berkeley held about 45 billion gallons of poisonous water and killed another 3 to 4 thousand snow geese in November of that year. Acid and metals were named as the killers in this instance as well.
The Berkeley Pit Mine Flooding Operable Unit or, as the Superfund connoisseur calls it, BMFOU, a diminutive of the acronym, is simply and literally the high water mark in a 100 mile long complex of sites deemed toxic enough to be put on the Environmental Protection Agency’s National Priority List.
Decrees, laws, rumors, intelligence operations and now Tweets have all altered Butte’s trajectory since wealth was discovered here in the late 1800’s. The decision to clean up the damage done by decades of unregulated extraction is second only to the decision to dig up ore in the first place. The financial and lawful ability to clean up that damage was only possible because of the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability act of 1980. Better known as the Superfund Program.
In the first selection of Dobb’s essay we just heard, he warns against bills that would reverse the environmental protections put into place under the Carter administration, the Superfund Program being chief among those, and uses a bill brought forth by Rhode Island Senator John Chafee as alarming in that it would absolve some polluters responsibility to clean up sites such as Butte. Ironically, a decade and a half earlier, John Chafee was one of the architects of the Superfund Bill and his republican support of the program was fundamental to it’s passage before the Senate flipped from blue to red under Ronald Reagan.
To say that the Superfund process is flawed is like saying the Earth is round; some will tell you it isn’t, and those people are mistaken. The process in Butte had only really begun when Pennies From Hell was written and years of litigation and negotiation precede every action by parties responsible for cleanup. Dobb saw this and miscalculated that “reform was likely sooner or later.”
Reform has not come, cleanup is not complete and some of it has not even begun.
Not a mine within a city or a city within a mine, the intersection of the two is more character than mere setting in the story; past, present and future, of Butte, Montana.
In this installment of Edwin Dobb’s essay Pennies From Hell, the author narrates the transition in mining from the use of man power in the lush early days of vein exploration and extraction to the use of land mass as a last ditch effort to streamline and cut costs. The delicate structure of those 10,000 or so miles of passageways beneath Butte took thousands of highly skilled workers to create and maintain, the miners of Butte during peak underground operations were geologists, plumbers, machinists and carpenters while at the same time brute force laborers. As the labor that made gargantuan wealth for owners and investors of the Anaconda Company began to organize and demand recognition of their worth, streamlining the mining process became more and more appealing to the profit savvy. In an open pit, one man in a mechanized bucket could move the earth of 20 pairs of picks and shovels with a short series of lever pulls. The Company was then only bound by where they could break ground.
Butte is unique, a special place, the last of it’s kind, different, strange… a novel landscape. These are much repeated captions by both outsiders and insiders when, say, pausing for a commanding view at the Hill. The city is not adjacent to the mine, for workers there was no commute to and from work. Butte was the mine, it was next door, underneath your bed and in the air you breathed. The neighborhoods of the hill grew up and around sunken shafts as close as they could get.
Those same neighborhoods were disposed of when the Berkeley came into non-being.
When it came to private property, the neighborhoods of McQueen, Meaderville and East Butte were fairly easy to buy out; families and whole homes could be moved to other parts of the valley. With land cleared and the promise of a return to riches, the Berkeley Pit was begun in the early 1950’s and widened with each passing day without the public outcry that many would wish for in retrospect.
Even though the Pit was turning a profit, the real money maker for Anaconda was the Chuquicamata mine in Northern Chile’s Atacama Desert, averaging 500,000 tons of copper a year in the 1960’s, Chuquicamata was the foundation that enabled the Anaconda Company to maintain it’s other workings around the U.S. including Butte.
When, in 1971, Chile elected socialist leader Salvador Allende and his administration nationalized extraction operations in the country, Anaconda was left without it’s largest bankroll and had no choice but to begin scaling back operations. In Butte, a new Pit, the Continental, was set to be dug. In the way of the dynamite and shovels was the Columbia Gardens, a community treasure since the turn of the century. The Summer of 1973 was set to be it’s last season and on September 3rd it closed it’s gates for the last time. 8 days later, in Santiago, Chile the C.I.A. backed a coup at the urging of many western economists and corporations, including Anaconda, that led to President Allende’s overthrow and death, installing the puppet dictator Augusto Pinochet who would allow the Neo-liberal West a return to Chile.
To Anaconda’s dismay, and most likely surprise, Pinochet and the new Chilean regime chose to keep the countries mines as state run entities, pushing Anaconda to near bankruptcy and forcing them to sell it’s Montana holdings to the bumbling and braggadocios Atlantic Richfield Company.
Newly replete with substantial amounts of cash due to inflated oil prices surrounding the OPEC embargo, ARCO’S choice to get into the mining business was met with a series of disasters for the company; a general lack of experience in hard rock mining, poor management and copper falling to less than 70 cents per pound leaving the company with an enormous financial liability.
In 1983 all mining operations ceased, the hill was all but dead and water slowly began to fill the Berkeley pit.
That extraction is destruction is an easy argument to make. In the final paragraphs of this installment of Edwin Dobb’s Pennies From Hell, he compares the destruction of other open pit mines in the world to the “backyard scratchings of children,” here in Butte’s Berkeley and Continental pits.
The Grasberg Mine in Papua, New Guinea, known as Irian Jaya until the year 2000, is the largest producer of gold and the second largest producer of copper on Earth. The open pit there, begun in 1972 at an altitude of 14,000 feet, reaches 1,800 feet below the rim. Each year the mine dumps tens of millions of tons of waste into the surrounding watershed, overtime many of the rivers and bays have become uninhabitable for aquatic life and pushed the indigenous populations, many of which are already on the verge of extinction, to the periphery.
Though culturally and ethnically distinct from the rest of Indonesia, Papua has been essentially occupied territory within that state since 1969, due in most part to it’s immense mineral wealth. Mines such as Grasberg, owned by the American company Freeport-McMoran whose board of directors has included former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, make up the bulk of Indonesia’s tax base. The Grasberg Mine also employs Indonesian soldiers as guards of their operations.
Protests are common in the area, but journalists are rarely let in by the government. In 2016 an Australian human rights fact finding mission to the region reported that the indigenous population of Papua is in danger of becoming “an anthropological museum exhibit of a bygone culture,” and is on the verge of genocide. 2019 has seen the largest student led demonstrations in a decade fighting for Papuan self determination. The struggles have resulted hundreds of civilian and military deaths.
The non-executive chairman of Freeport-McMoran, the internationally traded company that owns the Grasberg Mine in Papua, is Gerald J. Ford, he has a net worth $2.3 billion
The owner of Montana Resources, the operator of the Continental Pit in Butte, Montana, is Dennis R. Washington, his net worth is $6.4 Billion.
For better or worse, Dennis Washington’s Continental Pit has outlived the projected 25 years it’s ore body was supposed to be able to turn a profit. Now, Montana Resources’ officials regularly state in interviews with the press that operations should have no trouble lasting another 30 years, into 2050. There’s ore all around us here in Butte, Montana, it’s just a question of getting to it.
Getting to the ore use to be a question of mere determination, but if you talk to a miner now the there is really only one thing holding them back and that’s regulation. Permitting process’ in Montana are now decades long affairs with serious environmental reviews and long lists of engineering “what if’s” that need planned for ahead of time.
One large financial hurdle mines face in Montana is a bond they must post with the state Department of Environmental Quality to ensure that once extraction is finished there will be enough money to clean up the site and make sure another Butte doesn’t happen. At the time that Edwin Dobb wrote Pennies From Hell, Montana Resources’ bond was $15 million, currently its just shy of $60 million.
The concessions given to Dennis Washington by Don Peoples Sr.’s City/County Government insulate the Yankee Doodle Tailings Dam and the Continental Pit from the Superfund process, but these sites will still require extensive reclamation.
As of April 2019, Atlantic Richfield has claimed to have spent over $1.4 billion on remediating the upper Clark Fork, from the Berkeley Pit to Milltown Dam. Operations and maintenance for the site are funded for roughly the next century and many of the sites will need supervision in perpetuity. Any claim that the Yankee Doodle Dam or the Continental Pit will be significantly different is looked at with suspicion. a $60 million bond will likely only get the ball rolling once mining has finally ceased in the Mining City.
Talking about the Berkeley and the Continental Pits in Pennies From Hell, Edwin Dobb offers that “the juxtaposition of these two holes… …reflects the schizophrenic attitude the United States has adopted toward an appetite it cannot yet face forthrightly.”
Facing these appetites becomes both more likely and more frightening by the hour.
Butte’s place in history is that of mining camp. The narrative of industrious workers and bright individuals making something out of another god forsaken patch of dirt in the new west generates a meaningful few paragraphs in the creation myth of the American Century, but often ignored are the struggles of everyday life faced by laborers and families.
Labor as a force opposite of and emancipated from capitol and profit is something Edwin Dobb explored previously in his essay, but this excerpt highlights the animosity faced by workers not only from corporate interests, but The State as well. Once the United States entered World War I the only purpose of Butte’s workforce, and therefore it’s citizenry as a whole, was to maintain production. Any threat to quota was an impedance to the war effort and soon became a criminal act of sedition. Anaconda’s control of the state government and sizable influence in Washington D.C. easily turned the control and repression of workers and their families into a patriotic act; a necessary sacrifice made by brave industrial citizens, willingly or not. The Anaconda Company, beginning at the onset of World War I, was privately owned but taxpayer funded, they enjoyed subsidized infrastructure tailored to their needs, endless demand from a hungry imperialist machine and a workforce who’s productivity was guaranteed by troops with rifles.
The site of the Anaconda Road Massacre, where a crowd of 400 striking miners was fired upon by deputized Company guards, is now part part of an extensive system of trails through reclaimed areas in uptown Butte that have been “made safe” by the Superfund process. Walking the trails and streets in Butte from the sight of the massacre, one could follow the wake of blood that solidified the labor movement here. From the overlook at the Mountain Con where 186 men lost their lives to shameful working conditions, down to the sight where IWW organizer Frank Little was dragged from his bed and hanged.
This area is now one of the jewels of the city, a web of paths free from exhaust or speeding commuters, it is a living museum that runs through districts of historic mansions, timid shacks in all stages of disrepair and gentrification, barren landscapes made so by incredible pollution and rolling reclaimed grassland all the way from Walkerville to Anaconda. It is an area that has more intact historically significant resources than any National Historic Landmark District in the United States.
The dance between historic preservation and environmental cleanup has made some former industrial sights available to the public in ways that would have surprised a lot of people back in 1996 when Pennies From Hell was published. The New York Rapper Ghostface Killah released his solo debut Ironman that same year. That he would perform under the canopy of the Original Headframe one day was certainly beyond the most gifted of imaginations.
The Original Mineyard has become a successful example of this play between environmental cleanup, historic preservation and community organizing. As the centerpiece of Butte’s biggest party, The Montana Folk Festival, it entertains tens of thousands of guests every year. The former mine has been made “usable” again, so as to not be forgotten. The chain link fence surrounding it however remains, so this piece of the past is only usable with a reservation.
Many other sights, either more historically intact or worse for wear than the Original depending on who you talk to, also remain on the verge of re-use behind a locked chain link fence. Mark Reavis’ sentiment that “clean does not always mean pretty, and pretty is not always attractive,” still divides the people of Butte over what should be done with these historically significant places.
Given even the most brief exposure to the environmental disasters in Butte, and it becomes clear that water is the issue at the center of everything.
Before Butte even existed water was the defining feature of what was an undisturbed valley. An article appearing in the October 21st, 1906 Anaconda Standard describes the christening of both the creek and the district that would one day become known as Butte.
In the organization of the district it was necessary that a name be given the new discovery. Tradition says that the afternoon was a warm and sunny one and after the work of locating the claims had been finished the entire party climbed to the top of timber butte, in whose shadow the rich discovery had been made, to survey the extent of the their new discovery. Stretching away, above and below, with the water gleaming like silver in the brilliant sun was the creek, bending and twisting as it hunted the easiest grade down the valley. Just below the butte, the creek made a wide bend to the north and along the center of the valley led an Indian trail. It looks like a silver bow.
“A silver bow it is”, said Seven-Up Pete, “and that is the name we will call this creek and district.”
Time was when Silver Bow Creek was a pretty one as it curled around the foot of the hill and dashed along the natural water course in the valley, singing merrily as it thought of the wonderful wealth of gold which it hoarded and which had been carried down from some place in the mountains so long ago that it had no recollection where or how it came to be gathered upon its bedrock. In the valley, grass grew and the meadows were smiling and green. Mountain trout slept lazily in its deep pools and darted back and forth in the shallows seeking food. The deer and antelope came to the creek’s edge at evening time and drank fearlessly. Buffaloes laid about in the shade of the willows lazily during the heat of the day or else they stood knee deep in the water, chewing their cuds contentedly.
If, in fact, the creek was singing to itself merrily, it was certainly not due to it’s knowledge of the enormous ore body underneath it’s waters, but because Silver Bow Creek was still ignorant of prospectors like Seven Up Pete and their plans to unearth it.
When this Anaconda Standard article was written in 1906, Silver Bow creek was already the milky, caustic sewer that older generations in Butte remember. Not only was waste from smelting being dumped directly into it’s waters, it also acted as the drainpipe for the an entire watershed, collecting every contaminated drop of rain that fell on the hill.
Butte’s aquifer was so badly polluted by mining that the entire groundwater system was written off before the year 1900. The mining companies active at the turn of the century went to great lengths to secure potable water from far away sources. Two reservoir systems at the northern and southern reaches of Summit valley, the Big Hole River to the southwest and a 40 mile long pipeline from Silver Lake to the west. In an act of resourceful gerrymandering Silver Bow County itself extends a small gratuitous straw to the Jefferson River in the southeast so that water rights would be available if needed.
Catastrophic floods in the spring of 1908 defecated football fields of waste down the creek into the Clark Fork River all the way to Milltown Dam near Missoula. Sediment ponds were put in place at Warm Springs near Anaconda in 1911 and have been added to over generations by Atlantic Richfield and the EPA, all in an attempt to slow the never ending deluge of pollution downstream.
Ironically, the Berkeley Pit keeps much of the pollution that would otherwise flow freely from groundwater to surface water all in one place as long as it doesn’t reach the critical water level in which it would begin to interact with the alluvial aquifer.
As Edwin Dobb points out in this excerpt of Pennies From Hell, while the water brews in the pit it becomes laden with metals, some of them valuable, and trying to extract them has become a fantasy for scientists and venture capitalists. Montana Resources currently runs pit water through a precipitation plant which bonds the copper to scrap iron so that it can be harvested, but other metals still remain.
In 1993 Metanetix, a division of the investment company Hariston Corp., came to Butte claiming it had technology that could clean the water in the flooded mines at a profit and give hundreds of high paying jobs to local residents.
The city county government was hot for anything that promised economic development and the added promise of cleanup was all the more appealing. The companies campaign was so convincing that it’s stock prices began to soar with many Butte residents buying shares for themselves at $10 a pop.
What no one knew, or bothered to find out, was that Hariston was involved in a similar extraction scheme in Europe that tanked spectacularly. When fountains of gold and zinc failed to spurt from Metanetix’s base of operation at the Kelley mineyard, stocks plummeted and the parent corporation liquidated it’s assets in a “rebranding” effort.
For now, the “perpetual solution to the perpetual problem” that is the Berkeley Pit is a trial run of a pump and treat plan that drains to the confluence of Blacktail and Silver Bow Creeks, much to the chagrin of those that want to see an active first mile of Silver Bow Creek through town.
Get Drunk by Charles Baudelaire
You have to be always drunk.
That’s all there is to it—it’s the only way.
So as not to feel the horrible burden of time that breaks your back and bends you to the earth, you have to be continually drunk.
But on what?
Wine, poetry or virtue, as you wish. But be drunk.
And if sometimes, on the steps of a palace or the green grass of a ditch, in the mournful solitude of your room, you wake again, drunkenness already diminishing or gone,
ask the wind,
everything that is flying, everything that is groaning, everything that is rolling, everything that is singing, everything that is speaking. . .
ask what time it is
and wind, wave, star, bird, clock will answer you:
“It is time to be drunk!
So as not to be the martyred slaves of time, be drunk, be continually drunk!
On wine, on poetry or on virtue as you wish.”
The Romantic approach to life is to act on impulse. To be, as Baudelaire suggests, independent of time and of The Times by maintaining a buzz using the intoxicant of your choice.
This notion may seem luxurious, but as a wage slave in boom era Butte, Montana some form of intoxicating refuge must have been absolutely necessary. In this pre-Vegas sin city “flamboyant, promiscuous, grotesque and cruel” you were your vice because your vices kept you going. After the red herring of striking it rich revealed itself as such, few options remained but to resign oneself to impulse and the drunken pleasures of wine, poetry or virtue. Surely the company man indulged in all three, but the love of alcohol has made the most lasting impression on the town.
Butte has adopted intoxication as part of it’s identity, it’s one of the few places left in the United States with no open container laws. Meaning you are free to buy a fifth of the good stuff, find the nearest park bench, or the more available abandoned stoop, and party to your hearts desire in full view of the world from 8 a.m. to 2a.m. so long as no other laws are broken. Only a precious few that are saturated in the true spirit of the Romantic poets engage in this sort of behavior on a regular basis, but it is available to all, whenever the moment is right.
This free-wheeling drinking culture of Butte, Montana has also opened up the city as a playground for others as they visit here for events like the St. Patrick’s Day Parade, The Montana Folk Festival and up until recently the revelrous Evel Knievel Days. Though never directly cited, the tourism economy of the town greatly benefits from this freedom.
A 2017 Community Health Needs Assessment for Silver Bow County found that 21.4% of county residents can be classified as “excessive drinkers” and that this is on par with the national average.
The metrics this study used, self reporting either 2 or more alcoholic beverages per day or 5 or more alcoholic beverages on any single occasion during the past month, would have certainly garnered much more fascinating results in the era of the “ten day man.”
Finding an underground miner on a bar stool in uptown Butte is now much less common than it was when Pennies From Hell was written, but it’s still possible. In the class hierarchy of the Mining City, those that worked underground have always been celebrated dignitaries. As their ranks dwindle much is being done to preserve “the welter of tales, fables and downright lies they tell about the place.”
Separating fact from fiction is now a distant second to celebrating the character.
The music for KBMF’s production of Pennies From Hell is from Clark Grant’s album Conclusions. Find it and more of Clark’s music here.