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Anaconda Copper Mill, Anaconda

The Anaconda Copper Mill was the main refining mill for the Anaconda Copper Company. It operated from the 1890s to 1977 when the company was acquired by ARCO and all production at Anaconda and Butte, Montana, were halted. The Anaconda Copper Mill is located near Butte, Montana.

The Anaconda Company

The Anaconda Copper Company was actually founded in 1881 as a silver mining venture in the town of Anaconda, which is 20 miles northwest of Butte. Copper was found in Butte, and this proved more profitable. By 1892, the copper hill in Butte was known as "The Richest Hill on Earth", and Butte had gone from a poor immigrant community to one of the richest towns in the United States.

From 1892 to 1903, the Anaconda mine was the largest copper producer in the world, and the Anaconda copper mill processed all of the ore being extracted from the ground. The mill operated until 1977, when it was purchased by ARCO and idled for economic reasons. Today the site is owned by British Petroleum, though they refuse to acknowledge their liability in the environmental cleanup procedures.

Environmental Impacts of the Mill3

Anaconda and Butte were highly contaminated by the operations of the company. The Clark Fork River, which runs through the area, was used for dumping tailings that contained arsenic. The smelting procedures at the mill produced wastes with high concentrations of arsenic, cadmium, lead, zinc and other toxic metals.

In the 1980s, the environmental problem was recognized and the need for cleanup became apparent. The Environmental Protection Agency designated the Upper Clark Fork river basin and many associated areas as the largest Superfund site in the United States.

ARCO was named as the potentially responsible party and required to clean the site, though that was rendered moot when ARCO became a subsidiary of British Petroleum, an entity that refuses to acknowledge responsibility.

Asbestos and Aluminum Smelters

In cases where fire or heat was a concern, various forms of asbestos were the insulator preferred by builders for much of the 1900s. Plants like the Anaconda Copper Mill in Montana, therefore, were usually built with materials containing asbestos. Resistance to electricity is another property of asbestos. As a result, asbestos was used throughout practically all aluminum plants, since creating aluminum not only involves extremely high temperatures but also utilizes large amounts of electricity. Counter tops and lab equipment were also constructed of ACM (asbestos-containing material) because of its resistance to caustic chemicals. Asbestos, however, had a notable downside that was not known or sometimes deliberately ignored: serious and often lethal diseases were found to be the result of asbestos exposure.

Chrysotile was most often the kind of asbestos utilized in these plants. Corporate interests for a long time insisted that chrysotile was "environmentally friendly" and the "good asbestos" - even in the face of scientific proof to the contrary. This chrysotile or "white" asbestos was often mixed with brown or blue asbestos and used to create asbestos transite, which appeared for many years before it was outlawed for construction purposes in the 1970s.

Similar to cement, asbestos transite could be molded into working surfaces and sprayed onto pipes and ductwork. As long as it was solid, this form of asbestos offered no immediate risk. As transite with asbestos containing material (ACM) grows older and become prone to becoming powdery, however, lethal, tiny fibers can float into the air. In this state, it is said to be friable, a term used for materials that are easily crushed.

Why Friable Asbestos Is Bad

Friable asbestos is dangerous because in this form the fibers can be readily dispersed in the atmosphere. Inhaling asbestos fibers can lead to conditions such as asbestosis. Another uncommon, and generally fatal, asbestos-related disease is mesothelioma. The pleural form of mesothelioma cancer, which attacks the lining between the lungs and the chest cavity, is the most prevalent. Ingestion of asbestos fibers, which is easy to do when those microscopic fibers are released into the air and settle on food or drinks, may result in pericardial or peritoneal mesothelioma.

In the past few decades scientists and researchers have discovered a lot about the risks that accompany asbestos exposure, and therefore there are strict rules controlling its use. When foundries like the Anaconda Copper Mill in Montana were constructed, however, the use of asbestos was much more commonplace. And even now, asbestos from long ago may be the source of problems when it is not disposed of properly during demolition projects.

The Lurking Hazard of Asbestos

Asbestos cancer, in contrast to many on-the-job injuries, which are easily observed and known about soon after the incident, may take many, many years to develop. When a worker begins exhibiting symptoms such as breathlessness and a chronic cough, his or her doctor may not immediately recognize asbestos exposure as a cause, leading to delays in diagnosis and treatment. Men and women who worked in or spent much time near foundries like the Anaconda Copper Mill in Montana should tell their physicians about the chance of asbestos exposure. New methods for treating mesothelioma cancer are being discovered, and early detection gives patients the highest chance to beat the previously always-fatal form of cancer.


Sources - Anaconda Copper

TOSC - Anaconda and Butte, Montana

University of Wisconsin - Asbestos Containing Material (ACM) - Laboratories and Shops

University of Wisconsin - Asbestos Disposal

Mesothelioma Cancer Alliance Blog



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