Montana, Anaconda, and the Price of Pollution

By Bakken, Gordon Morris | The Historian, Spring 2007 | Go to article overview

Montana, Anaconda, and the Price of Pollution


Bakken, Gordon Morris, The Historian


THE WORDS "Anaconda" and "Montana" are intertwined in history. (1) Early histories of Montana focused mostly on the emergence and dominance of the Anaconda Copper Mining Company. The "War of the Copper Kings" depicted the romance of corporate struggles for the control of the Butte mines. Montana politics were "Company" politics whether in Helena or Washington, D.C. In the last quarter century, however, Montanans have demonstrated less concern about the "Company" and more about the future of the environment. In the 1970s, the people of the state ratified a new state constitution guaranteeing a right to clean air and water. In 1998, the people passed Initiative 137 banning cyanide leach mining operations. Six years later, the mining interests funded by Canyon Resource Corporation launched an initiative to restore cyanide leach operations: Initiative 147. The mining interests pitched jobs, economic prosperity, and environmental controls in their print and television advertisements.

Environmentalists attacked on multiple fronts, dredging up the cyanide disasters of the past and the threats of environmental degradation of critical trout and wildlife habitats. (2) American Indians came out against 1-147 on the basis of their sacred tribal responsibility to protect nature. (3) In November 2004, I-147 lost at the polls, thereby preserving Montana's ban on cyanide processing of ore. The mining industry lamented the loss as "obviously a significant defeat for mining in general in Montana and a stinging blow to Canyon Resources Corporation, the principal proponent of I-147." (4) Montana Trout Unlimited rejoiced. (5) Montana River Action applauded the voters and declared "gold mining had been a burden on the world since its inception." (6) Fish and game now dominate the Montana mind and its economy. (7) Tourists bring in dollars, but it was not always so. As Jared Diamond argues in Collapse: How Societies Choose To Fail or Succeed (2005), Montanans decided to reverse a century of environmental degradation and address one of their environmental problems. (8) This article examines the rise of "The Company" and its demise under the common law of Montana and national environmental statutes. Although Anaconda failed, in part because of corporate culture, other mining corporations survived the environmental age. Their mines are open, but most smelters are gone. Mining has changed since 1880 and so has the law.

In the fall of 1880, Marcus Daly reached an agreement to buy the Anaconda Mine in Butte, Montana, and set in motion what would become American's largest copper mining enterprise. (9) Daly paid $10,000 to Michael Hickey, the locator of the claim, and $20,000 to Charles X. Larabie, the co-owner. Daly made the Anaconda into a paying mine with the financial support of the San Francisco-based partnership of George Hearst, James Ben Ali Haggin, and Lloyd Tevis. (10) Daly took the case of the Anaconda to the partners in the spring of 1881 and, having secured financing, set out to expand and improve the Anaconda mine. (11) In June 1881, Daly's crews sunk an eight-by-twenty-foot, three-compartment shaft, drove crosscuts at one-hundred-foot intervals, and ran three- to-five-hundred-foot East-West drifts finding silver and copper ore. At the three-hundred-foot level, Daly struck the largest deposit of copper sulfide that the world had ever seen. (12) Daly also started to buy up adjacent properties. (13) During 1882-1884, the syndicate shipped thirty-seven tons of high-grade ore to smelters in Swansea, Wales, and Baltimore. (14) Shipping ore to the East Coast and across the Atlantic, however, posed a problem. Shipping and reduction costs ate away at profit. Daly began searching for a smelter site to cut costs and increase profits.

He selected a site on Warm Springs Creek, twenty-six miles west of Butte, because of its abundant water supply. (15) Water in high volume was essential for the operation of any reduction works, and Anaconda took full advantage of the water resources of the Warm Springs Creek and the Deer Lodge Valley. …

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