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Anaconda Copper Mill, Butte

The Anaconda Copper Mill at Butte is one of the oldest copper production facilities in the United States and was once the most lucrative and productive.

History of Anaconda in Butte

Founded in 1881 as a silver mining venture, Anaconda began to develop a large copper deposit in a hill adjacent to Butte, Montana. By 1892, the hill 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 copper mill at the mine processed all of the ore being extracted from the ground. Over the course of the 20th Century, the mine and mill was purchased and sold several times, eventually exhausting its productivity.

Today the mine and adjacent facilities (including the mill) are idle. They reside on one of the most polluted patches of ground in the United States.

History of Mergers and Acquisitions

The first attempt to acquire Anaconda Copper was made in 1899 when the Rockefellers began to negotiate for the company. Through a series of financial maneuvers, the directors of Standard Oil acquired Anaconda from the original owner for $39 million. The newly formed Amalgamated Copper Mining Company was one of the largest trusts in US history.

In 1971, Salvador Allende, the socialist president of Chile, confiscated and nationalized Anaconda's holdings in that country. This was a tragic blow to the company's profitability and the company suffered - as well as Butte, the town that had been so intimately intertwined with Anaconda for more than 80 years.

In 1977, a weakened Anaconda was sold to ARCO (Atlantic Richfield Company) along with all of its assets. The Butte facilities were idled and would never again go into production.

Arco was subsequently purchased by British Petroleum. BP now owns the Butte facilities, though they are considered only to be an environmental liability.

The Anaconda Copper Mill at Butte and Asbestos

If extreme heat or flame was a danger, various forms of asbestos were the insulator of choice in most of the last century. Facilities like the Anaconda Copper Mill at Butte, as a result, were usually made with materials containing asbestos. In addition to being temperature-resistant and fireproof, asbestos is also impervious to electrical current. Because smelting not only requires high temperatures but also uses large amounts of electric power, asbestos was used throughout most copper refineries. In addition, asbestos' resistance to chemicals caused it to be useful in counter tops, lab equipment and safety clothes. And while the asbestos did well in preventing the spread of fire and in protecting people from extreme temperatures, it also exposed those same people to serious health risks.

Chrysotile was often the variety of asbestos utilized in these facilities. For a long time, chrysotile was touted by corporate interests as the "good asbestos", even in the face of mounting evidence to the contrary. Used for decades in the form of asbestos transite in copper smelters across the United States, chrysotile - frequently mixed with amosite or crocidolite - was finally banned in building materials in the 1970s.

Asbestos transite could be sprayed onto ductwork and pipes and molded into working surfaces just like cement could. As long as asbestos transite was solid, this form of asbestos posed little danger. Tiny fibers of asbestos are released into the air, however, as this transite grows older and becomes prone to becoming powdery. In other words, such asbestos is friable, a term that is used to describe materials that are easily pulverized.

The Dangers of Friable Asbestos

Friable asbestos is hazardous because in this form the particles are readily dispersed into the atmosphere. Diseases such as cancer and asbestosis can result from breathing asbestos. Pleural mesothelioma, a rare but often lethal cancer of the mesothelium (the tissue that lies between the lungs and the chest cavity), has been shown to be linked with inhaling asbestos. If those particles of asbestos in the air land on food or drinks and are subsequently swallowed, pericardial or peritoneal mesothelioma may occur, though they are less common than pleural mesothelioma.

In the last few decades scientists and researchers have uncovered a lot concerning the risks associated with asbestos exposure, and therefore there are strict rules controlling its use. Asbestos use was much more prevalent, however, when facilities such as the Anaconda Copper Mill at Butte were first operating. Before modern rules were put into place, employees often labored without respirators or other protective gear in environments where asbestos particles filled the atmosphere.

A Ticking Bomb

Asbestos cancer, unlike many workplace injuries, which are easily observed and known about immediately following the incident, can take ten, twenty, or even thirty years to manifest. When a former worker starts showing signs such as a chronic cough and dyspnea, his or her doctor might not at first recognize asbestos exposure as a cause, leading to delays in diagnosis and treatment. It is very important, therefore, that everyone who were employed by or lived around places such as the Anaconda Copper Mill at Butte inform their health care professionals about the chance of exposure to asbestos. Moreover, even people who commuted in the same cars with these people are also at risk, since unless effective decontamination protocols, such as the use of on-site uniforms and showers, were in place, it was easy for personnel to bring home particles of asbestos on themselves or their clothing.


Sources - Anaconda Copper

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

University of Wisconsin - Asbestos Disposal

Mesothelioma Cancer Alliance Blog



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