Berkeley Pit, Butte Montana

by Tim LeCain

High in the northern Rocky Mountains, at the headwaters of the Colombia River basin, the giant Berkely Pit copper mine marks one end of America’s largest government mandated toxic waste clean-up site. For almost three decades, the Anaconda Corporation blasted millions of tons of low-grade copper ore out of the pit, until the company decided to shut the operation down in 1982. Since then, the pit has been steadily filling with groundwater that is nearly as acidic as battery acid and carries toxic levels of arsenic, cadmium, and other heavy metal poisons. In 1995, a flock of migrating Snow Geese mistook the pit water for a natural lake and more than 300 died from drinking the poisonous water.

Today, the pit and the surrounding area where the ore was processed and smelted are recognized as one of the United State’s worst examples of environmental devastation. However, current on-site interpretive efforts struggle to convey both the history of the open pit operations and their enduring ecological consequences in an effective manner. Most interpretations adopt the standard modernist and anthropocentric paradigm in which humans are portrayed as extracting passive natural resources in ways that damaged the environment. This compartmentalizing view is further reinforced by the literal absence of the copper ore itself, the memory of which is suggested only by the immense hole left in the ground.

Recent work in the so-called “new materialism,” however, has suggested powerful new interpretive strategies in which the material and ecological are unified in a manner that decenters the human and gives greater agency to even inorganic matter like copper ore. In this sense, we can begin to see the Berkeley Pit copper and the electrical machines it created not merely as passive natural resources or human-made artifacts, but also as expressions of the inherent creative materiality of the copper itself. By centering the interpretation on the copper as an actor, the pit becomes not just a discarded human artifact, but rather a product of the enduring creative and destructive power of our material world.

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