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Digging a Hole

October 7, 2010

The Missoula Independent just published my review of Mass Destruction: The Men and Giant Mines That Wired America and Scarred the Planet by Montana State prof Timothy J. LeCain. It’s an eminently readable environmental history that spends a lof of time in my central Montana wheelhouse exploring the Butte copper mines, the Anaconda copper smelter, and the Opportunity dead zones. Here’s an except of my review:

When is a hole in the ground more than just a hole in the ground? For Butte’s Berkeley Pit, the accumulating layers of sedimentary meaning have outpaced even the rise of arsenic-infused water puddled in the terraced bowl of one of the largest humanmade artifacts on the planet.

In Edwin Dobbs’ 1996 Harper’s essay “Pennies From Hell,” the pit was profiled as the industrial maw that swallowed Butte, murdered migrating geese and left as its legacy a toxic lake now 1,024 feet deep and rising. Five years later the pit made headlines with a plan, more cognitively absurd than controversial, to process its 38 billion gallons of battery-acidic water into a municipal drinking supply—a proposal ultimately judged less cost-effective than the current treatment, by which the pit water is re-mined for its suspended copper. In 2006, Jon Stewart’s “Daily Show” arrived in Butte to mock the seemingly desperate civic pride boostering the pit (somewhat successfully) as a tourist attraction. More recently, Montana Tech made news for discovering an evolving contingent of highly adaptive and potentially beneficial microbes that live nowhere but in the otherwise barren ecosystem of the poison pond.

So Butte’s hole in the ground is simultaneously a relic of Montana’s hyper-extractive history, an active copper mine, an ongoing environmental disaster area, a magnet for emerging reclamation technologies, a roadside attraction and a sci-fi petri dish.

One might have thought the pit had been mined of all the meaning it could hold. But now along comes Timothy J. LeCain, a Missoula native and assistant professor in Montana State University’s department of history and philosophy, with yet another take. LeCain’s Mass Destruction: The Men and Giant Mines That Wired America and Scarred the Planet—the American Society for Environmental History’s best book of 2009—positions the pit as emblematic of a tipping point in technological history, a marker of the moment when 20th-century America’s explosive engineering ingenuity outstripped its ability to control the flood of unintended consequences that ingenuity unleashed.


One Comment leave one →
  1. October 20, 2010 9:33 am

    Nice review, Brad. I’m happy to have found your site.

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