Copper Mining in Montana: The Environmental Impacts

Copper was vital to industrialization and is still widely used today. In places like this forgotten Montana town, however, the practice of copper mining has disastrously polluted waters, severely degrading water quality and killing aquatic life.

Copper Mining

You can see where the sediments have settled down around coppices of riverside ghost willows, choking the roots and killing them where they stand. Their spindly stalks are brittle and bleached, two heads high and shining matte silver on shores punctuated with anemic green shrubs. Where especially high metal concentrations have congregated, plant life is absent entirely.

Photo by Fotolia/siimsepp

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In 2002, journalist Brad Tyer strapped a canoe on his truck and moved to Montana, a state that has long exerted a mythic pull on America's imagination as an unspoiled landscape. Tyer was looking for a pristine river to call his own. What he found instead was a century's worth of industrial poison clotting the Clark Fork River, a decades-long engineering project to clean it up, and a forgotten town named Opportunity. The following excerpt from Opportunity, Montana (Beacon Press, 2013) relays the story of progress and its price, of copper mining and water pollution, and of our attempts to redeem the mistakes of the past.

You can purchase this book from the MOTHER EARTH NEWS store: Opportunity, Montana.

Copper: History, Uses and Mining Effects

Native copper, the orange-pink variety scattered in plain sight, is rare, and mostly picked over. The metal is more commonly found in ore form, bound in rock. The word “ore” is derived from an Old English combo of ora

, meaning unworked stone, and ar, or copper. The almost alchemical art of turning stone into metal is called smelting, from the Old English meltan: to melt. Copper’s inaugural liquidity is unrecorded, but metallurgy was probably born by accident in the unexpected leakage of a fireplace stone.

Smelting refines metal from ore, a reduction from the many to the one, but the word “smelting” also applies to the melding of different metals, the combination of elements into alloy. Bronze, the earliest alloy, is copper combined with arsenic or tin. Brass—copper fused with nickel—came later. The Bible uses “brass” and “bronze” interchangeably. Either way, it’s a biblically base metal, defined by impurity, associated with snakes and symbolic of God’s judgment, humankind’s technological rise and moral fall epitomized in a single candlestick.

Smelter sites in modern-day Israel, Jordan, and Syria date to 4,500 BC. Sumerians introduced copper craft to the Egyptians, who turned it into farm implements, cookware, razors, and tools. Egyptian temples built five thousand years ago featured copper plumbing that is functionally intact today. Smelting opened the door to the age of industrial pollution. Ore samples from Greenland’s ice caps track global copper contamination, like frozen tree rings, to the dawn of metallurgy, between seven thousand and eight thousand years ago, spiking during the age of the Roman Empire. Having plundered Cyprus, the Romans sourced far-flung ore all across Europe and the Mediterranean, inducing slave labor to produce as much as 17,000 tons of refined copper annually for architectural accents, pipe organs, and coins.

Millennia-old Roman smelters in Jordan, Cyprus, and Sinai are still littered with mountains of glassy black slag, a waste-metal byproduct of the smelting process, and browsing livestock at southern Jordan’s Wadi Faynan, home of the Middle East’s largest historic copper deposits, show elevated levels of copper in their tissues even today.

After a mine’s easy ore gives out, water tends to leach out of underground workings, picking up residual heavy metals as it flows. At the Rio Tinto mine on the Iberian Peninsula, Roman copper scavengers faced with diminishing returns discovered that such wastewater could be poured over iron to precipitate the suspended copper. They regraded the works to facilitate drainage and sent laborers underground with brass-rimmed leather buckets. For latter-day Roman slaves, mining copper became a matter of carrying water. Their feet developed stinging sores from walking in the acidic wet. Producing the stuff is filthy work, but the result is paradoxically self-cleansing. For the same reason that copper is bad for riverine macroinvertebrates—i.e., fish food—it’s repellent to germ life everywhere.  The Chinese were probably the first to use copper for coinage, and Roman coins were called coppers. Gold and silver were too valuable for common cash, and copper was well suited as a medium of hand-to-hand exchange due to the oligodynamic effect, documented in 1893 when a Swiss scientist found that ions of certain heavy metals—silver, copper, and copper alloys foremost among them—have a deleterious effect on bacteria. If your home features brass doorknobs—and it’s been estimated that a billion American entries are so adorned, accounting for more than 500 million pounds of zinc-alloyed copper—you’ve probably been saved innumerable sick days. A brass doorknob disinfects itself in about eight hours.

The modern American quarter and dime are 92 percent copper, and the nickel is 75 percent. Between 1793 and 1981 the U.S. penny fluctuated between 88 and 100 percent copper (excepting 1943, which any casual coin collector can tell you produced a warshortage version of zinc-coated steel). Only in 1982 was the one cent coin rejiggered to its current composition of 97.5 percent zinc, with just 2.5 percent copper in the plating to maintain the look. The price of the metal had surpassed the nominal value of the coin containing it. Americans were melting pennies and selling the copper, at a profit, for scrap. In 2012, Canada, faced with the fiscally suspect prospect of paying 1.5 cents to produce each one-cent coin, abandoned the penny entirely.

In 2010, Serbian scientists uncovered a seven-thousand-year-old village near Belgrade littered with copper axes, hammers, needles, and hooks, bumping the Chalcolithic back another 1,700 years before Ötzi and shifting its center westward. History rewrites itself each spring, cutting fresh channels into the past, like a river running off.

Unalloyed Copper: The Electricity Conductor

Twenty-one post-Davy inventors laid claim to advancements of the incandescent light bulb before Thomas Edison struck gold with a refined carbon filament in 1879, but the bulb itself wasn’t Edison’s money moment. The invention that would make Edison’s glass globe more than a glowing curiosity was the electrical system into which he plugged it: a coal-fired steam engine driving a high voltage dynamo generator packed with heavy copper and brass bars. In 1892 Edison expanded on his Menlo Park demonstration system with his first electrical power station and distribution hub, built around a twenty-seven-ton dynamo named Jumbo, after an elephant then in the employ of P. T. Barnum. Jumbo fed 100-volt direct current through twenty miles of underground copper wiring and set the stage for the nationwide electrification that would follow, rendering gas lighting obsolete and creating overnight demand for the system’s core metal.

Edison’s first customer, recipient of the world’s first electricity bill, was the Connecticut-based Ansonia Brass and Copper Company, with offices a few blocks from Edison’s Pearl Street Station. The bill came to $50.44 and marked the early co-dependence of commercial electricity and copper.

In 1911, at a luncheon feting guest of honor Edison at a New York City “Electrical Exposition,” copper producers gave the inventor a gift: a cubic foot of solid Cu, a 486-pound squared-off Ontonagon boulder of appreciation inscribed with statistical gratitude.

In 1868, the year Edison’s first patent had been approved, annual copper production in the United States had amounted to 378 million pounds. By 1910, it was 1.9 billion pounds and rising. It was 1886 when the French military inaugurated full metal jacket bullets encased in a copper alloy called cupronickel, and by 1924, in the interim between two world wars, The Story of Copper author Wade Davis could write, “A man cannot be killed in a modern manner without copper.”

Neither can a person live in a modern manner without copper. Electricity flipped the switch. While the premodern world’s use of copper depended on hardened alloys with other metals, the industrialized world’s dependence relies on unalloyed copper, purged of impurities, to conduct electricity. Today an average American home is laced with 439 pounds of copper wiring and plumbing, with another hundred pounds embedded in household appliances like water heaters, air conditioners, and refrigerators. The average American car contains almost a mile of copper wiring, and a typical commercial jet is strung with more than 600,000 feet of the stuff. In the United States alone, 130 million cell phones are retired every year, containing 2,100 metric tons of copper—enough to build twenty-six new copper-sheathed Statues of Liberty. Craft beers and liquors are brewed in shiny copper stills. Fly fishers ply Copper John trout flies, wound with copper-wire abdomens, in running waters everywhere. The shiny raw copper color attracts trout—just one form in which the metal slays unsuspecting fish.

Paddling the Polluted Waters

The recorder is for taking notes with my hands busy paddling. It doesn’t strike me that there might be anything weird about floating down a Superfund site under blue skies in a broad Montana valley, talking to myself.

The water is translucent brown tinted algal green, shallow and riffled and warm under the sun, and the little boat twitches from side to side under my knees. In deep water you can brace a paddle in the current and lean on it for stability, but there’s hardly enough water here for a paddle blade to find purchase. The streambed is about twenty feet wide and twisty, and not all of it is deep enough to float a boat. I have to hug the shore in the deeper water, swinging around the bends, and stay off the shallow sandbars sweeping out from the insides of turns. Where the bed drops slightly—and it can be hard to remember, paddling through prairie, that water is always running downhill—small ripples pile up over stony miniature spillways and I have to watch close for the telltale tongues of smooth green water that mark the marginally deeper channels. They are the difference between weightless transit downstream and scraping the canoe’s ass across rough rock or, worse, hanging it up entirely and having to get out and drag. There’s nothing so objectively terrible about stepping out of a canoe in ankle-deep water to nudge it off an obstruction, it’s just embarrassing, whether anyone’s watching or not. Choosing a course on moving water is called picking your line, and to pick a viable line you have to correctly read the river. Ass-dragging through shallows and head-butting banks means you missed your line. It means you weren’t paying attention. It means you don’t know how to read.

The banks require translation too, layered and crumpled like a cake that’s been left out in the sun. Rising out of the water they’re soil-brown, as you’d expect them to be, but without vegetation to hold them in place. They crumble and slump toward the water, and into it when it rises. On top of the soil you can see why: another three-foot layer of sediment, sickly orange fading to gray. This is mine waste, pulverized rock washed down from the tailings piles of Butte in high water and deposited on the floodplain when the waters receded. In addition to nutrients and organic matter, the normal freight of floodwater, Silver Bow carries copper, cadmium, arsenic, and lead, thus the dearth of plant life—and fishers. Every time it rains the water erodes the poisoned banks and what fish have braved these extremities die.

You can see where the sediments have settled down around coppices of riverside ghost willows, choking the roots and killing them where they stand. Their spindly stalks are brittle and bleached, two heads high and shining matte silver on shores punctuated with anemic green shrubs. Where especially high metal concentrations have congregated, plant life is absent entirely. Acreage-sized swaths, especially at the bends where water slows and sediment drops, are entirely lifeless, just sunburned scabs.

About a mile down I pass under Opportunity’s Stewart Street bridge. Even in the low flow I have to duck. I pass a beached tube of rusty culvert, then a USGS gauging station, a pale blue outhouse-sized shack dangling a flow meter into the channel. Farther down, a profusion of wild pink roses has managed to blossom on top of a dead-dirt bluff.

Then I’m at the triple-bridged takeout. There’s one bridge for the access road that feeds Interstate 90, which has followed my meander downstream in a straight line, another for the railroad track that follows I-90, and finally the bridge carrying I-90 itself.

I’ve paddled just three or four miles. I’ve seen a few ducks, some swallows, and a deer browsing on a sandbar. I had wanted, improbably enough, to find some huge hunk of copper half-buried in the bed, but no such luck. The only things glinting are tiny flakes of fool’s gold swirled into the cocoa-colored sand.

Within the year, everything I’ve just seen will be gone but the water, scooped up and trucked to Opportunity’s ponds and replaced. The birds and deer will return, and trout as well. The next paddler will have a different river to read.

Excerpted from Opportunity, Montana: Big Copper, Bad Water, and the Burial of an American Landscape by Brad Tyer. Copyright 2013. Excerpted with permission by Beacon Press. Buy this book from our store: Opportunity, Montana.