Butte, Montana


A former boom town perched high in the Rocky Mountains, Butte-Silver Bow lies atop a labyrinthine network of dormant copper mines, once known as the “richest hill on earth” for its mineral wealth.

Eighty years ago, at the peak of the copper boom, Butte’s population was three times what it is today. Historically, Butte-Silver Bow’s population, development, and economy rose and fell with the volatile price of copper. From its peak in the 1920s to a halt in mining activity in 1982, Butte-Silver Bow’s fortunes eventually dwindled to that of a once-storied mining town without a mine.

Today, after a return of mining operations in the late 1980s, mining/energy companies are still an important employer in the area, offering some of the highest paying jobs; however, efforts are ongoing to diversify the economy into tourism, recreation, and more. Although mining activities in the area peaked decades ago, the community exists and has developed because of the value of the precious metals found within the earth beneath it. Said to be the most heavily mined ground in the world, Butte sits atop an estimated 7,000 miles of abandoned mine tunnels and smelting waste pits that have since slowly filled with a neon blue “plume” of toxic wastewater in an aquifer 50 to 60 feet below the surface.

  • Overview

    Population and Demographics

    Population: 34,462

    U.S. Census Bureau; photography courtesy Flickr user Tracy-CC BY 2.0.

  • Context and Actions

    Community Context and Challenges

    • Nearly 30% of the county’s children live in poverty, compared to 20% in Montana.
    • Groundwater contaminated with the byproducts of copper mining and smelting continues to seep closer to the water table that the community relies on.
    • Mine waste contamination directly correlates to cancers of the lungs, bladder, kidney, and liver, as well as autoimmune diseases, tissue damage to the respiratory system, and neurological damage.
    • Public opinion has long been at odds with the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) cleanup methods, which include a controversial “waste in place” strategy.
    • Butte-Silver Bow residents struggle with high rates of emotional and behavioral health problems; between 2011 and 2013, the county had a much higher number of emergency room visits for injury from intentional self-harm than the state (197 cases per 100,000 versus 105 per 100,000).

    Montana Department of Public Health & Human Services. (2015). Community health profile 2015.Butte-Silver Bow County.

    Professional Research Consultants, Inc. (2014). 2014 PRC community health needs assessment report. Primary service area.

    Taking Action

    County residents maintain hope for a Butte-Silver Bow that more closely resembles what it once was: the pride of the Rocky Mountains.

    With larger scale environmental cleanup efforts on the horizon, residents, local organizations, schools, and county and state departments are united in their commitment and efforts to make Butte-Silver Bow a thriving community once more.

    These baseline reports, created in 2016, reflect our initial observations on select community programs and initiatives to gauge ongoing, as well as newer, efforts to improve community health. Future reports will provide more in-depth insights and analysis into this community's activities.

    Community Engagement and Cleanup

    While Butte-Silver Bow faces significant environmental and health challenges, residents are active in ongoing discussions and plans to improve community health. The county, with support from community groups and residents, has negotiated with the EPA to reach a consent decree settlement over the extent and design of future cleanup. The settlement will dramatically affect the tenor, extent, and focus areas of many collaborative partnerships across the community, with restorative efforts resuming at key sites. Meanwhile, local organizations and schools, with support from the state health department, are engaging in community-wide efforts to address the youth mental health crisis in Butte-Silver bow.

    Restore Our Creek Coalition

    Restore Our Creek Coalition is a multi-sector collaboration that fights for comprehensive cleanup of the Parrot Corridor. The Coalition upholds public forums and “visioning workshops” for the community to comment on future uses for the corridor, including enhanced recreation, arts, and culture and small business opportunities. 

    Residential Metals Abatement Program

    The Residential Metals Abatement Program (RMAP), run by the Butte-Silver Bow Health Department, has been in place for 18 years and is designed to mitigate residents’ exposure to heavy metal particulates. The program has cleaned nearly 1,000 homes and educates the public by distributing informational materials to contractors and housing authorities about preventive measures.

    Statewide Partnership

    Since 2000, the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services has led a statewide partnership of private organizations, individuals, and government agencies that is active in Butte-Silver Bow to address the prevalence of suicide. Butte-Silver Bow's suicide prevention coalition, formed in 2013, has given away at least 1,500 gunlocks to local parents as part of a larger statewide distribution initiative.

  • Going Forward

    Questions for Consideration

    From Berkeley Pit to the steel elevator towers throughout town to the dust in their attics, Butte-Silver Bow residents know how deeply ingrained their mining past is in their community and their families’ lives. The county’s future, its freedom from copper’s poisoned environmental legacy, and thus its health, depend on continued community involvement, successful decontamination efforts, collaborative partnerships, and the outcome of EPA’s pending consent decree. Additional surveillance, data and information gathering, and analysis will examine some of the ways in which Butte-Silver Bow is navigating collaborations and meaningful cross-sectoral action to improve its community’s health.

    The following questions could provide insights into the degree to which meaningful change is taking place and can be sustained:

    • In what ways can residents engage more fully in the Superfund efforts, through educational seminars, public forums, or other?
    • Would the community embrace and benefit from a central agency to better coordinate resources and programs aimed at improving public health outcomes? How should such a resource be established?
    • In what ways is the mining industry currently contributing to the community (e.g., economically, socially), and how can these contributions be expanded or encouraged?
    • To what extent have Butte-Silver Bow’s suicide prevention programs affected awareness, suicide rates, and other related outcomes?
    • What steps has Butte-Silver Bow taken to diversify its economy to improve the median income of its residents?
    • What is the long-term plan for attracting tourism to Butte-Silver Bow?
  • Downloads

    Community Snapshot Report

    Community Portrait Report

    Community Landscape Report