by TED S. McGREGOR JR. & r & & r & & lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & E & lt;/span & verybody knows money doesn't grow on trees -- you have to dig it out of the ground in places like Butte. Known as the "Richest Hill on Earth," Butte was sitting on mountains of copper just when the world needed to be wired more than a century ago. One nasty method of mining is to retrieve the metal from an open pit, and that's just what they did at Butte's Berkeley Pit. Today, $2 buys you a spot on the viewing platform above the pit. At one of the oddest tourist attractions in the West (there's even a gift shop), you can see exactly what greed looks like.
It comes in the form of nearly 20 billion gallons of water -- water that started filling the pit after 1982, when copper prices had fallen far enough to shutter the mines and end the pumping of the excess water. And the Berkeley Pit has been filling ever since -- by more than 10 feet a year over the past dozen years.
To call the toxic brew "water," however, isn't accurate -- it's mostly water, but it's laced with deadly amounts of arsenic, copper, cadmium, cobalt, iron, manganese, zinc, sulfate and a few other nasty elements. When a flock of geese landed there in 1995, 350 of them died from the contact.
The Berkeley Pit is also the centerpiece of the American taxpaying public's largest and most expensive Superfund site -- and it will only get more expensive when elaborate pumping and treatment will be required sometime in the next decade or so when the water level will exceed the rim of the pit. Without such measures, a poison flood, like some kind of Old Testament deluge, would literally spill out over Butte and the surrounding countryside and waterways.
Although copper mining has resumed in recent years, the corporations and speculators left Butte long ago, taking the lion's share of the money back to Wall Street. Butte and its die-hard residents, meanwhile, were left to sell tickets to see the giant poison lake.
& lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & I & lt;/span & doubt that's what convinced Barack Obama to spend his Fourth of July in Butte last week. He probably just saw it as a middle-class town in a state he'd like to steal from the Republicans. But to me, all that sad history makes Butte a kind of metaphorical centerpiece for this presidential election -- a cautionary tale to consider as America ponders this crossroads.
Montana is the America of the imagination, held up as an example of all that is pure and true about the national character. And I felt it as I spent the week of the Fourth driving around the beautiful Big Sky Country. But there's also a lot of good old American hype behind the myth of the West -- the notion of unlimited resources, endless prosperity and the promise of a new life just over that next ridge. Butte proves the reality is that resources are limited, prosperity is a struggle and there are no more empty valleys to move to after we've fouled the last one. It's time to figure out how to live on this land, not exploit it, and to be guided by the common good instead of greed.
Obama sees something in Montana -- an open mind to change, perhaps -- much bigger than the state's paltry three Electoral College votes. As Montana goes, he may be thinking, so goes the Mountain West, from New Mexico to Nevada to Colorado.
& lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & W & lt;/span & hen you consider the state's history, it makes sense that Montanans may welcome change. For a more recent example of exploitation, consider the demise of Montana Power. It all started in 1997, back when any company with a "dot-com" at the end of its name seemed licensed to print money. The mania even crept into Helena, where lobbyists and Republican legislators, led by then-Gov. Marc Racicot, rushed through a bill allowing Montana Power to sell its assets. For nearly a century, the utility's stock had been as solid as any of its 11 hydroelectric generating dams; it was owned by a lot of conservative Montanans planning for retirement.
Soon enough, Goldman Sachs executives started coming out to the state to convince the Montana Power board -- without consulting stockholders -- to get out of the boring old power business and get into the fast lane of telecomm. Within a few months of the new law's passage, Montana Power started selling its electrical generating facilities -- many to Pennsylvania Power. It ultimately shed all its assets, raising nearly $3 billion to fund a new company, Touch America, which planned to lay fiber-optic line all over the state.
What happened? Touch America has since gone bankrupt, long-time Montana Power investors lost their nest eggs and electricity rates in Montana shot up by 20 percent or more. Power generated on Montana rivers is now sold on the national market by Penn Power. Still, executives from Goldman Sachs and Montana Power got their healthy cut of the deal.
But since then, the citizens figured out who was in on the theft, which is a big part of the reason Montana has turned on its once-beloved Republican Party and instead elected Democrats like Gov. Brian Schweitzer and Sen. Jon Tester.
On my trip, I couldn't help but notice all the multi-million-dollar McRanches dotting the landscape from Missoula to Bozeman. Yep, the speculating is on again, and as usual, it's being driven by out-of-state forces.
In the 2000 presidential election, all eyes were on Florida, while in 2004 it was Ohio that made the difference. But in 2008, I'm watching Montana as the state that could swing the election.