Deep Pit Mining: Violating Life on Earth

Abandoned and Deadly: Deep Pit Mining

1973, Butte's Berkeley Pit photo by Harvey Richards
1973, Butte’s Berkeley Pit photo by Harvey Richards

Deep Pit Mining in Butte, Montana

Harvey Richards photographed Butte, Montana’s deep pit mining during his three visits to Butte, Montana, first to photograph the miner’s strike of 1959, then again in 1966 and 1973. The huge gaping hole known as Butte’s Berkeley Pit operated from 1955 to 1982. Excavations went deeper into the earth, dwarfing the city of Butte.  Open pit mining provides a dramatic example of the disasters that unbridled free enterprise perpetrate upon the earth and the future of mankind. It is a scale of destruction that must be seen to be believed. And it promises nothing good.

The indigenous tribes that inhabit Montana are the Cheyenne, Blackfoot, Cree, Crow, Assiniboine, Chippewa, Gros Ventre, among others. These people had lived on the land for thousands of years and had flourished, along with the land and living creatures around them. When the miners arrived in the 1860’s, the tribes had treaties with the United State recognizing their homelands.

When Montana became a state in 1889, these treaties were no longer honored and the new settlers pushed the tribes’ reservations back to their current size. The way was clear for the land grab and exploitation of mining and other resources which has led us to the situation we face today.

In many history text books, this aspect of our history is ignored, swept under the rug of “Manifest Destiny” or some other high sounding phrase to cover the dirty truth. What it comes down to is that private property had its way with the land. Fortunes were made.  Miners did the work, fought for unions and better conditions from deep below the surface in tunnels that went down 4000 feet below ground, almost a mile deep. All the while, the tribes, invisible to most settlers, witnessed the demise of their lands.

“When the pit was closed, the water pumps in the nearby Kelly shaft, at a depth of 3,800 feet, were turned off, and groundwater from the surrounding aquifers began to slowly fill the pit, rising at about the rate of one foot a month.[1] Since the pit closure on Earth Day 1982, the level has risen to within 150 feet of the natural groundwater level.The pit and its water present a serious environmental problem because the water, with dissolved oxygen, allows pyrite and sulfide minerals in the ore and wall rocks to decay, releasing acid.

When the pit water level eventually reaches the natural water table, estimated to occur by around 2020, the pit water will reverse flow back into surrounding groundwater, polluting into Silver Bow Creek which is the headwaters of Clark Fork River.[1] The acidic water in the pit carries a heavy load of dissolved heavy metals….  The Berkeley Pit has since become one of the largest Superfund sites.”

Buy or license the use of these photos. All images are copyrighted © Paul Richards 2001-2020.

MEDIA – For photos & interviews: Paul Richards (510) 967 5577;

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