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Lessons from Anaconda

Smelter shutdown still resonates 30 years later



Exactly 30 years ago this week, the Anaconda Smelter was shut down after nearly a century of operation. Hundreds of millions of dollars have been spent since then trying to undo the massive pollution from the operation of the smelter and mines in Butte. This should remind all Montanans of the lessons to be learned from this historic corporate manipulation of our political system and the abuse of our shared resources for private gain. Those lessons are even more important now, as, once again, our state is being willingly pawned off to corporate interests by self-serving politicians.

For the benefit of those who were not around when Black Monday hit Anaconda, the story is worth telling. Mel Stokke, supervisor of the smelter operation for the Anaconda Company (ACM), had just finished announcing that ACM had no intention of permanently closing the smelter. Then, at noon, the word came down from the East Coast boardroom of "The Company" that the closure would indeed be permanent and poor old Stokke had to break the grim news to his own community.

Anaconda was a strong union town and hard fights with The Company were nothing new. Long shutdowns and threats of closing the smelter permanently were the standard weapons The Company used to intimidate smeltermen (and women) into accepting dangerous working conditions and settling wage and benefit levels.

ACM didn't stop at mere threats. In 1917, union organizer Frank Little was murdered in Butte. As The New York Times story noted on Little's murder, six masked men broke into his hotel room, beat him, tied him by rope to a car, and dragged him out of town, where he was lynched from a railroad trestle. He was found with a note pinned to his chest reading, "First and last warning," along with the initials of other union leaders. Compared to that, another threat of a permanent shutdown seemed pretty tame.

But this time, it was more than a threat. For weeks afterward, it was easy to stop by the Mill Bar, the JFK, or just about any of Anaconda's many drinking holes and hear the smelter workers loudly denouncing the closure as bogus. "They'll never shut the smelter" was the most common line, but as weeks turned into months, the inevitability of the future became more obvious. The Company, after a century of operation, was gone.

What remained behind, however, was a disaster that took many forms. First, there were the toxic remains of the dead smelter. Those who worked the site for most of their lives—which was virtually everyone in town—knew that the smelter produced numerous incredibly dangerous by-products. Tales of workers whose septum had been eaten through by arsenic, of highly toxic beryllium buried in the tailings ponds, and other equally alarming incidents were common.

And then there was the economic impact to the town itself, which continues to devastate the community and county to this day. The tax base was severely diminished and the suddenly unemployed ran the gamut of predictable consequences. Spouse and child abuse skyrocketed while alcoholism, violence and thefts plagued the local police just as their funding was drying up. Scammers swooped upon the several million dollars ACM had pledged to help the town "transition," and it soon disappeared with virtually no effect on Anaconda's condition.

Superfund was a brand-new federal hazardous waste clean-up program, and when ACM hired an out-of-state company to come tear down the smelter works, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) office in Helena didn't even know it was happening. When notified by local residents that highly poisonous flue dust was blowing into town from the demolition, EPA officials denied that anything was being torn down because they hadn't authorized any demolition.

The EPA was wrong, however, and the townspeople and their children were further victimized by the dead smelter until a citizens' group, the C.I.A. (Citizens in Action), forced the EPA to monitor the demolition and hold regular meetings in Anaconda to explain what was going on. After discovering smelter pipes were being used in playgrounds, and timbers were being used for bridges in the Big Hole River, they eventually forced a complete halt of materials from the polluted site to anyone but similar industrial facilities.

Now, 30 years later, a mountain of metals-laced slag still sits at the entrance to the town, and the massive tailings impoundments near Opportunity continue to leach heavy metals into the groundwater, added to by the trainloads of toxic sludge dug out from behind the Milltown Dam and deposited there.

The story of Anaconda is heartbreaking, but it is only the closing chapters of the century-long tale. For all those years, the Copper Kings successfully fought regulation, polluted at will, and bought the legislators they needed with sacks of cash thrown over transom windows in Helena. They owned the newspapers and printed what they wanted, truth be damned. And even after the shutdown, corporate-stooge legislators blamed environmentalists for the closure, even though the smelter had a 10-year variance from air quality standards.

It was this long-standing corporate domination of the state that fueled the writing of Montana's 1972 constitution and brought us the "open government" and "clean and healthful environment" provisions lauded worldwide. Montanans knew what it was like to live under the boot of unethical and voracious corporations, and they pledged to the future that it would never happen again.

Yet now our governor hawks the state as "energy country" to anyone who will listen, and is more than willing to site massive transmission lines to export power, pipelines to export oil and gas, and develop new mines and railroads to serve them through rural agricultural areas. In every respect, these policies turn Montana back into a playground for extractive industries.

Anaconda and the still-polluted basin of the nation's largest Superfund site remains a tragedy. But if we forget the lessons we once learned, we will repeat that sad history—and that would truly be an even greater tragedy.

Helena's George Ochenski rattles the cage of the political establishment as a political analyst for the Independent. Contact Ochenski at

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