Butte, Montana is famous. It was at one time the biggest city between Chicago and San Francisco. It’s in the heart of the Rocky Mountains, and sits at the headwaters of the mighty Columbia River, which flows all the way to the Pacific Ocean.
Butte boomed and thrived for almost a century because of one thing: copper. Butte’s massive copper deposit was key to America’s success. The “Richest Hill on Earth” literally electrified the nation, and made the brass in bullets that won World Wars I and II.
But in the 1980s, the last of the big mines shut down. Now, most of the riches are gone, and Butte is struggling.
All that mining left a big toxic mess – so toxic that for the last 30 years, Butte has become famous again. This time, for being the epicenter of America’s biggest and most intractable Superfund site. [Superfund is the federal program designed to clean up the nation’s worst contaminated land and water].
But this could be a big year. President Trump’s Environmental Protection Agency says it’s going to solve the problem no one else has been able to. It’s going to clean up Butte.
How did Butte become one of the biggest toxic messes in the country? What will it take to really clean it up? What could Butte’s future look like? And who gets to decide?
That’s what our new project, Richest Hill, is all about. Richest Hill will explore the biggest changes and toughest questions facing the Mining City. We’ll look at where Butte came from, what’s happening right now, and where Butte might be headed.
Our reporter, Nora Saks, is embedding in Butte to be on the ground for these major developments as they unfold in real time. Our goal is to follow this transition closely and with compassion, and approach Butte with a fresh perspective.
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