From immigration to community-building, from industrialization and growth to environmental devastation, the history of Butte, Mont., is something of a microcosm of United States history.
That’s the idea behind the film “Butte, America,” which follows 100 years of the hard-rock mining city’s history.
“Butte,” which was shown on PBS last year, will be screened Saturday as part of the Olympia Film Society’s Documentary Film Festival, and filmmaker Pamela Roberts will be on hand to answer questions.
The city is a dynamic and multicultural place where people from many backgrounds worked hard both to make money for a wealthy few and to build a community.
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“I used to visit Butte when I was a young girl,” said Roberts of Bozeman, Mont. “I fell in love with the place. Coming from a small town in Southeastern Montana, it was like going to New York City.”
It’s also a place where mining has left a hole — literally: the Berkeley Pit, a former open-pit copper mine 11/2 miles long and a mile wide that is now full of acidic water.
“Butte folks jokingly refer to it as ‘Lake Berkeley,’ ” she said. “From a distance, it looks similar to any other man-made lake. But once you come closer to the pit’s edge, you can see the toxin-laden water — an ominous mix of brown, green, orange and red hues.”
The filmmakers were given permission to take a small boat around the pit’s perimeter and film it. “It was an unnerving experience, to say the least,” she said.
Capturing both the ugliness and the beauty of Butte was a passion for Roberts.
“To much of the rest of the world, Butte, Montana, is known as home to an enormous, toxic hole in the ground, an emptiness where once stood the richest hill on earth,” wrote a reviewer for The Missoulian. “But for most of her life, filmmaker Pam Roberts has understood that the beauty and richness of Butte is a living, breathing thing.”
In 1980, the entire city, along with 100 miles of the Clark Ford River downstream, was designated a Superfund site. State officials estimate that the cleanup effort will take another 20 or 30 years, Roberts said. And even then, the land will never be the same.
“The treatment plant that will remove metals from the water in the Berkeley Pit, for example, will have to operate forever — because groundwater will continue seeping into the pit forever,” she said.
The story has a worldwide relevance, she said. The worldwide market for base metals continues to grow.
“Hard-rock mining, especially the excavation of immense open pit mines, has become more prevalent,” she said. “The Butte experience is being duplicated around the world.”
It was a visit to Butte to do location scouting for another film that led Anderson to decide to make “Butte, America.”
“As I looked out at sunset over the abyss of the pit and the abandoned minescape, I realized the immensity of Butte’s history,” she said. “Something big, really big, had happened here. And I wanted to tell that story.”