Superfund Me: Stories of Environmental Tragedies Across the West

At the tail end of a groundbreaking wave of environmental legislation, Congress passed the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act in 1980. It was designed to investigate and clean up locations contaminated with toxic waste. The Environmental Protection Agency began work immediately, designating places that are dangerous enough to merit federal assistance “Superfund” sites.

Since the law was passed, the EPA has created over 1,600 Superfund sites. The extractive industries that have exploited the rich deposits of resources in the West are responsible for some of the biggest and most toxic sites on the EPA’s list. From copper in Montana and Utah, to silver in Colorado, and Uranium in New Mexico, mining and smelting operations have done untold damage to the environment and endangered local populations. Even though the EPA officially listed many of these Superfund sites almost 40 years ago, the oft delayed clean-up process is constantly mired by politics. When considering the history of these sites and their current state, we must learn to better help those who are ostracized by capitalism’s unrelenting demand for mineral extraction.

Murray Smelter: The Purpose of the Superfund Program

The Murray Smelter Superfund demonstrates the potential of the ambitious Superfund program and stands as a testament to its limitations. Modern industry has had staggering destructive impacts across the West. Clean-up processes have been complicated…

Monticello Mill: Federal Government Forces Locals to Unite

When a new government-owned mill opened in 1942 in the small town of Monticello, Utah, the local response was overwhelmingly positive. The local paper rejoiced, “Monticello is feeling the influx of much more money… Owners of restaurants, markets,…

Run Like Hell: The Libby Asbestos Story

In 1999 the EPA began to investigate claims that an alarming number of residents of Libby, Montana were experiencing health problems from exposure to asbestos. This was linked to nearby mines and Libby was placed on the superfund list in 2002. In…

Becoming a Ghost Town: The Superfund of Hayden, Arizona

Unlike scenic towns in Colorado and Idaho, Hayden, Arizona has been unable to shift its economic focus to tourism. According to one article, it lacks “charm” and is too polluted to attract visitors. Today Hayden’s very existence is threatened by…

The Gold King Mine Disaster: EPA’s “Help” Not Wanted

In 2015, the EPA hired private contractors to clear the entrance to the abandoned Gold King Mine outside of Silverton, Colorado. They sought to determine the mine’s impact on contamination of the nearby Animas River. There had been a steady trickle…

Lead Heads and a Toxic Timebomb: The Bunker Hill Superfund Site

The Coeur d’Alene River Basin in Idaho has earned its nickname as “The Silver Valley.” Since the late 19th century over 140 million tons of ore have been mined and processed from the surrounding mountains, including silver, zinc, and lead. Mine waste…

The Berkeley Mine Pit: Butte’s Scenic Toxic Lake

Butte, Montana’s history is inseparably tied to mining. A gift shop on the outskirts of town sits next to a massive man-made pit filled with 40 billion gallons of water. Some visitors comment on the beauty of the contrast between the “blue sky and…