Smoke Wars: Anaconda Copper, Montana Air Pollution, and the Courts, 1890-1924
Book Portrays Early Environmental Battleground
The fight to clean up the polluted air around Butte and Anaconda, Montana, is waged across the pages of Smoke Wars , a new book published by the Montana Historical Society Press.
The book, subtitled Anaconda Copper, Montana Air Pollution, and the Courts, 1890-1920 , captures the drama and legal intrigue of one of the first major actions of the environmental war in the West.
It confronts issues of corporate responsibility, the rights of citizens, the costs of industrialization, and the relative value of the environment—issues that are still hotly contested today.
Richard Manning, veteran Montana journalist and author of six books on environmental politics, said the book is essential reading for anyone interested in environmental issues.
"This bit of bare-knuckled environmental and political history is alive, just as surely as the arsenic and sulphur compounds it describes still poison the Deer Lodge Valley's soils and the water behind Milltown Dam," Manning said.
The book was researched by Montana historian Donald MacMillan in the early 1970s for his Ph.D. dissertation at the University of Montana. MacMillan died in 1996, and the book is being published posthumously with an introduction by William L. Lang.
Lang, director of the Center for Columbia River History, Washington State Historical Society at Washington State University-Vancouver, notes that MacMillan based his observations and conclusions on careful research and a "sizeable body of evidence."
The book opens in the 1880s when copper companies in Butte processed ore by roasting it in open-air heaps, creating dense clouds of low-lying, noxious smoke.
MacMillan grabs his readers and sets them down in the midst of the hell that his book confronts.
His well-written narrative recounts a visit to Butte in 1885 by Granville Stuart, one of Montana's early pioneers, and a visiting dignitary from England.
"The two men carefully made their way to Butte's small [train] depot, its lights barely discernible though the volumes of yellowish smoke thick with the fumes of arsenic and sulphur," MacMillan writes.
Stuart remembered: "We could not see and we could scarcely breathe. The Marquis grabbed my arm and between sneezes gasped, 'What is this to which you have brought me?'"
MacMillan mixes compelling topics with scholarly research in a style that is a treat to read.
"MacMillan's study of the Anaconda smoke cases stands as one of the earliest environmental histories in Montana historiography, but it is also a considered evaluation of hotly contested political and economic disputes," Lang says.
The contestants include members of the Butte Citizen Smoke Committee, farmers and ranchers of the Deer Lodge Valley, the attorney generals under Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft, and attorneys and spokesmen for the Amalgamated Copper Company, including the famous Cornelius "Con" Kelley.
"The arenas included public meetings, press stories and public relations campaigns, courtrooms and other places where representatives of each side hammered out compromise agreements," Lang says.
The Butte and Anaconda smoke war of 100 years ago still has repercussions today.
For example, the Company in 1910 laid the groundwork for "smoke rights" around the Anaconda smelter stack that have been resurrected today in the form of pollution credits that can be purchased and traded among industrial polluters.
"The issues raised in MacMillan's narrative are still relevant and find their way into discussions throughout the American West," Lang says.
The 304-page book that includes three maps and six illustrations sells for $40 in cloth and $18.95 in paperback. It is available at bookstores or can be ordered directly, plus shipping and handling, by calling the Montana Historical Society toll-free at 1-800-243-9900.Order