Landscape of Copper

The Landscape of Copper is a layer of land use that runs throughout the United States (and the rest of the world), emerging in places where the mineral is extracted, processed, and used. This industry forms some of the most dramatic "anthropogenic" landscapes on earth, and is therefore a special focus area for the CLUI, which has been cataloguing copper-related sites in its database and photographic archives since the inception of the organization. Recently, two public programs focused on the Landscape of Copper, in the form of an exhibit at the Center’s Los Angeles exhibition hall, and presentations by two individuals who, unknown to each other, have been working independently on sites on separate ends of the industry: at the source, and at the finishing end of copper production.

About the Landscape of Copper
Copper was the first metal to be used by humans, as much as 10,000 years ago. Though prized for its properties (and in associated alloys such as bronze), it wasn’t until the industrial age that the landscape itself began to be significantly transformed by this metal. In the 1870's, copper became the metal of choice for the emerging electrical and telegraph cable industries, which became the largest market for copper.

The 1960's were the peak of copper production in the United States, a time when the US generated (and consumed) more copper than anyone else. Huge pits, like Utah’s Bingham mine, formed quickly throughout the west, aided by the invention of giant haul trucks in the 1950's that move the overburden and the ore of the generally low grade deposits much more quickly.  Smelters created factory towns in remote corners of many western states. Processing and finishing plants were built closer to population centers in the West and back east.

After the 1960's, production had globalized. American copper companies had spread their operations to other countries, especially South America. The Bingham Pit was no longer the "largest open pit copper mine in the world," instead it was an American-owned mine in Chile (that is now controlled by the Chilean government), a country that now produces nearly a quarter of the world'’s copper. So much copper has been produced in the world that the existing copper that is reused and recycled, as industrial applications change, accounts for more of the raw stock than what is generated out of all the world’s mines put together.

The industry remains strong in the US, the world's second largest producer (around 18% of world production). Though some big pits are idle (like Ruth, Nevada and Bisbee, Arizona), many are still being worked. And though some of the massive refining and finishing plants are gone, some of the largest ones are still being upgraded and modernized.

1062 View of Todd Trigsted’s display at CLUI Los Angeles. CLUI photoTodd Trigsted
Views from the Pit

IN LATE 2000. THE CENTER'S Independent Interpreter program (supported by the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts), invited Todd Trigsted to present material about the copper landscape of Butte, Montana, where he has been living and working for several years as an information specialist for the Environmental Protection Agency. Trigsted brought with him a vast collection of images, samples, teaching aides, and a CD-ROM he had prepared for the Center.

An exhibition of this material was prepared, and opened to the public on January 19th, 2001, when Trigsted presented his material to a packed house on opening night. Trigsted used the CD-ROM, which was projected onto a screen, as the basis of his presentation, and spoke lucidly about the landscape around Butte.

Among the superlatives of the region is "the nation's largest superfund site," which, more accurately, is probably the nation's longest. It runs 120 miles from the Berkeley copper pit area, next to downtown Butte, down Silver Bow Creek to the Clark Fork River towards Missoula. It is within this stretch of drainage that the costs of a hundred years of copper mining in Butte are being assessed.

Butte, Montana exists amidst one of the most churned-up landscapes in the country. Within the circus of mining landforms (impoundment dams, tailings piles, shafts, drainage sluiceways, etc) is the Berkeley Pit, a veritable landmark in the landscape of copper. Though the pit is  large by most standards, 1.5 miles wide and 1,800 ft deep, it was started as an open pit only in 1955, before which copper was extracted from the earth through 10,000 miles of mineshafts underlying the region (some of which can be seen poking in to the sides of the pit). Though the substantial town of Butte exists because of the mines, portions of the town have ceased to exist because of it too, removed to accommodate the growing pit.

The mine shut down in 1982, a year after it was purchased by the oil company ARCO. When ARCO shut off the pumps that kept the pit dry, in order to save money, the pit began filling with water laden with heavy metals, flowing through the mineral rich-rock. The water is still rising in the pit, and will reach the water table as little as 15 years from now, at which point the aquifer for the entire region will be engorged with this concentrated, acidic (pH 2.6) water, which will then flow down gradient, towards the Columbia River.

The question of how to clean up the pit water before this happens, and how to clean up the rest of the region, has produced a new local industry for Butte. Scientists are working to characterize the pit water itself, performing chemical analysis and biological surveys. Some believe that the microorganisms in the pit, strangely adapted to thrive in such an acidic and toxic environment, may hold the key to bioremediation of the water. Others are studying these unique organisms for a possible cure for cancer and other diseases, as these are indeed unusual creatures. Some, even, have yet to be identified.

Meanwhile, a plant on the edge of the pit intermittently pumps water out of the pit and through an ion exchange process, extracting some of the estimated $800,000,000 of the metal that is suspended in the chemistry of the water. And copper mining continues by another company, in a new pit, now forming adjacent to the Berkeley Pit.

Other remediation projects in the area are on a similarly grand scale. 26 miles of the Silver Bow Creek, which was the first stage of the "conveyor belt" for the mine’s waste water over the years, is being entirely re-engineered. The contaminated stream bed is being removed, and placed in sculpted piles above the banks, and a new bed is being laid. This portion of the clean-up project is estimated to cost ARCO and the State at least $200 million.

This is the landscape that Todd Trigsted inhabits, along with a few hundred scientists and 26,000 residents of the Butte area. Trigsted's job for the past few years has been to assimilate the various scientific approaches being applied to the clean-up projects around Butte into a format that is legible to a broader audience. Through funding from ARCO and the EPA, Trigsted has created public displays, multimedia programs, and physical as well as computer-based models. He has conducted videotaped interviews with most of the scientists involved in the project, which include geologists, sedimentologists, seismologists, biochemists, microbiologists, mining engineers, and hydraulogists.

Some people wonder if someone funded primarily by the company with so much at stake in Butte (Arco), can maintain their independence, objectivity, and even if they can be trusted at all. However, anyone who came to see Trigsted's presentation will no doubt have been convinced that Trigsted is indeed able to convey the contentious issues about Butte in a manner that adds to the overall knowledge about the problems there, without endorsing one view over another. Trigsted, who was originally trained as an artist, is a coherent, entertaining and engaging medium, and a portal to the vast and fascinating world at the upstream end of the landscape of copper.

1063 Laurel Hill Works, before demolition. Curtis Cravens photoCurtis Cravens
Laurel Hill Works

REPRESENTING THE DOWNSTREAM END OF the landscape of copper, independent researcher Curtis Cravens lectured at the Center in March, 2001. He presented documentation of an abandoned (and now razed) copper and chemical works on the Newtown Creek in Queens, NY. The Laurel Hill Works, a copper extraction and smelting plant, was a massive industrial site in the shadow of Manhattan, with over 100 buildings, partially built on the detritus of its own production- the slag from the plant itself. The site was owned by mining conglomerate Phelps Dodge, who, after closing the works in 1983,  sold the land and its contents to the US Postal Service. This contract was rescinded four years later as the extent of the contamination at the site was uncovered.

The Laurel Hill Chemical Works was founded at the end of the 1880s by the Walter and Nichols Company, who used sulfuric acid to refine copper ore. By 1930 Phelps Dodge Corporation, which had a long history of association with the works, absorbed the company. Phelps Dodge continued copper production there until the 1960s, when the smelter was shut down because of the rising price of raw materials and the plant's inability to comply with New York State's emission regulations. By the 1980's copper prices had fallen, leading Phelps Dodge to halt production at many of its locations, and to close the refinery at Laurel Hill (continuing some of the facility's functions at a large plant in El Paso, Texas). Until the demolition of the buildings on the site last year, it had been a starkly abandoned place, both a museum and a mausoleum to the industrial past, containing file cabinets full of company records, employee health reports, and other artifacts.  

Several years ago, due to an "unreasonable and sustained interest in unloved and unseen urban places" as he puts it, Cravens first entered, through a hole in fence, into what would become a six-year relationship with the silent ruin. He soon set up an office there, and began an artistic/archeological investigation and interpretation of the site, otherwise occupied only by pigeons, feral dogs, and a few homeless people. Over time, the Works revealed traces of the history of labor, and the changing nature of heavy industry. He tracked down former workers and interviewed them. He photographed the site thoroughly - the last captured views of a now disappeared place.

Cravens published his research in a booklet called Copper on the Creek: Reclaiming an Industrial History, (available from the CLUI for $9.95) that documents the otherwise ignored story of this remarkable site, and which chronicles his personal odyssey into this monumental hulk, before it was erased from the landscape of copper. In his presentation at the Center, Cravens told the story of the site and his unusual interaction with it, and showed his images along with historical maps and photographs.