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Richest Hill Episode 01: Butte's Precarious Arrangement

Richest Hill: a podcast about the past, present and future of one of America's largest Superfund sites in Butte, MT
Richest Hill: a podcast about the past, present and future of one of America's largest Superfund sites in Butte, MT

Richest Hill episode 01: Get to know Butte, Montana, one of America's biggest Superfund sites and one of Montana’s most compelling places. Richest Hill is a new podcast about the past, present and future of Butte, America, "The Richest Hill on Earth."

Butte, Montana is a beautiful old copper-mining city that's on the National Register of Historic Places. It's full of stately Victorian-era brick buildings and ornate mansions right next to ramshackle cottages. And it's in the most dramatic setting possible. The city itself is built right on the side of a steep hill in the northern Rocky Mountains and overlooks a mile-high valley ringed with gorgeous snowy peaks. Butte is like nowhere else.

Butte was at one time the state's economic and political powerhouse because of one thing: copper. People here will tell you that Butte's mountain of metal built Montana. "The Richest Hill on Earth" literally electrified the nation and made the brass in bullets that won both world wars.

But all that mining left a toxic mess, and now Butte is at the epicenter of one of America's biggest and most notorious Superfund sites. The Berkeley Pit, a colossal hole in the ground flooded with one of the largest contaminated bodies of water in the United States sits right on the edge of town. The entire Butte Hill where thousands of people live is covered with 100-year-old mine waste contaminated with nasty stuff like arsenic and lead.

The cleanup in Butte has been dragging on since the 1980s. Locals have watched as contaminated areas downstream and west of Butte are reclaimed one by one. While there have been remediation efforts in Butte, a lot of people look around and see dead zones on the Hill, a sewer ditch where a creek used to be, and tons of buried mined tailings. They ask why the cleanup job here at the origin point for all the historic mine pollution isn't done yet.

But now Butte is on the verge of a final Superfund deal that the EPA promises will clean up the mining city once and for all by 2024. A lot of folks here see the potential for a renaissance.

So how did we get here? What will it take to really clean it up? What happens next? And who gets to decide? Richest Hill digs into these questions and more.

Tune in next time on Richest Hill to find out what it took to get Butte's copper out of the ground and where it all came from.

Nora Saks is a reporter and producer based in Butte, MT.
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