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.


| November 2014



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

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.





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