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Opportunity readings

July 23, 2010

I just finished reading Ivan Doig’s new novel Work Song, which I’m reviewing for the Missoula Independent. I mention it here because the book is set in the copper-mining boomtown of Butte, Montana, in 1919, at the height of labor unrest between the Anaconda Mining Company, the miners union, and the Industrial Workers of the World.

The copper mined in Butte, and smelted in nearby Anaconda, produced an enormous amount of America’s industrial wealth in the first half of the 20th century, feeding demand especially for the metal that wired America for electricity on the heels of Thomas Edison’s invention of the electric light.

The waste from that mining and refining is what buried Opportunity, Montana under a century’s worth of toxic waste, and fouled the Clark Fork River into the largest Superfund site in the U.S.

Work Song is a novel, but it hews pretty close to its historical setting, and though Doig never mentions Opportunity by name, he does describe the landscape when two of the main characters travel into the valley near the smelting town of Anaconda:

The ground changed here. The soil, to call it that, had an unhealthy grayish hue, like the pallor of a very sick person.

“Here,” says the character named Sandison, who had once owned and ranched this valley floor, picking up a handful of the gray dust. “Have some arsenic.”

“It kills cattle like picking them off with a rifle. The first year after the smokestack came in, we lost a thousand head. Hell, it wasn’t ranching anymore. All we were doing was burning carcasses … We sued the mining company every way there is. The Anaconda bunch had the big money for eastern lawyers, so they beat us.”

In fact, after Anaconda beat the valley ranchers (and the Teddy Roosevelt administration, which had joined the suit because of the smelter plume’s killing effect on broad swaths of federal timber (see Smoke Wars: Anaconda Copper, Montana Air Pollution, and the Courts, 1890-1920, by Donald MacMillan), it bought them out, founded the village of Opportunity on their former land, and began surrounding it with deep pits filled with smelter waste.

I’ll post my review when it’s published in a week or so.

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