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Wealth and waste

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Museum of the Rockies hosted its final Extreme History lecture of the year on Thursday, Nov. 15. Jennifer Dunn, a Ph.D. candidate at MSU, took her place at the podium on a dark and cloudy evening. Her lecture focused on the history of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Superfund program and its impact on the effects of extensive mining and smelting in Montana.

Dunn started off rather light-heartedly with a quick joke. When she travels outside of Montana to discuss her research on environmental history, people often ask if she studies “superfun” sites, to which she usually responds that “no, it’s the exact opposite!”

The remainder of Dunn’s presentation, however, was far heavier. Dunn spoke about the environmental repercussions of early perspectives on industrialization. The Industrial Revolution caught on like wildfire in America in the mid-1800s, and the country prioritized progress and growth over environmental concern. Industrialization was celebrated rather than critiqued. Even obvious signs of pollution, like chemical-laden smog, were thought to be images of progress rather than indicators of death.

Everything changed during World War II. After that, the ramifications of air and water pollution began to come to light. Highly visible environmental disasters like Love Canal and the Cuyahoga River galvanized the American public, and new views on environmental issues took hold. The EPA was founded in 1970, and Superfund was created to treat contaminated waste sites across America that taint the environmental health of the nation.

The U.S. remains impacted by its industrial past. Today, 17 percent of Americans live within three miles of a Superfund site, and Montana is a prime example of this prolific issue. Over 6,700 abandoned mines litter the landscape, and the legacies of mining and smelting efforts throughout the 19th and 20th centuries are rooted within the land. Butte and Libby are two significant Superfund sites that have greatly impacted public health and the environment in Montana.

Butte, the “Richest Hill on Earth,” holds the title of the largest Superfund site in America. The Berkeley Pit was created near the town in the 1950s for strip mining, and it is now overflowing with water contaminated with toxic chemicals that could overwhelm the town. Libby, a less well-known Superfund site, was the world’s largest exporter of vermiculite, which contains a toxic form of asbestos. Libby’s vermiculite was “popped” to be used as insulation, and leftover toxic waste made its way into every part of the community. In addition, Libby’s vermiculite was used as spray-on insulation in New York City during the high-rise craze of the 1970s. When the World Trade Center fell, the asbestos spread throughout the city and exposed hundreds of thousands of people to the toxin.

Dunn discussed the overall significance of Superfund sites and their continued struggle to recover from contamination, as well as the global paths of pollution stemming from Superfund sites in Montana. Her discussion of economic issues and effects on minority groups revealed unique perspectives on environmental concerns. She was well-informed and included plenty of details, maps and photographs on the topic.

Dunn’s refreshing take on a key Montana issue was a great way to wrap up the series. And as for the new Extreme History lineup, I can’t wait to see what 2019 brings.