It’s no small feat to tell an enjoyable story about a Superfund site, but, so far, “Richest Hill,” which weaves the story of Butte’s past and future into well-paced scenes, pulls it off.
One of my favorite things about the podcast-boom era is the flourishing of in-depth regional stories—many of them intrepid early ventures into long-form narratives by local public-radio stations. Some recent standouts include “The Promise,” from WPLN, about a daring public-housing gambit in Nashville; “Bear Brook,” from NHPR, about a revelatory cold case in New Hampshire; and “The Big One,” from KPCC, which imagined a devastating earthquake in Los Angeles. “Richest Hill,” a new podcast from Montana Public Radio, made me care intensely about the former copper-mining boomtown of Butte, Montana—and urgently want to understand it better. Reported and written by Nora Saks and edited and produced by Nick Mott and Eric Whitney, “Richest Hill” has a mood of straightforward friendliness, but it’s also full of surprises. For those unfamiliar with Butte, one of these surprises comes early on: every night at bedtime, Saks says, “I close my eyes and wait for the soothing sound of the Phoenix Wailer to lull me to sleep.” We hear car-alarm-like mechanical whooping. Later, we learn what it means.
Saks establishes a vivid and immediate sense of place. We learn that Butte is “full of stately Victorian-era brick buildings and ornate mansions right next to ramshackle cottages,” and built into a steep hillside in the Rocky Mountains. It overlooks a “mile-high valley ringed with gorgeous snowy peaks.” It’s a rowdy party town with no open-container laws (a Montana woman asks if she’s allowed to describe Butte as “badass”); it has a folk-music festival; it played an essential role in industrial history. And it’s home to environmental contamination on an epic scale—Superfund sites that are mind-boggling in their surreality.
In the first episode, a local man recalls a memory from childhood, about playing on a pipe in a contaminated Butte creek. “You’d end up in the creek, and about two days later your shoelaces are gone,” he says. “And, about a week later, your shoes are gone.” Elsewhere, on the edge of town, is the mile-long Berkeley Pit, an old open-pit copper mine, abandoned in the eighties and now a toxic lake—thirty-nine billion gallons of water with the acidity of orange juice—a site “so big you can see it from space,” Saks says. When birds land on it, they die. In 2016, thousands of migrating snow geese died after taking refuge from a storm there. Outraged locals held an Irish wake for the birds—they called it Hope for Snow Geese—and we hear impassioned singing, by a man, and speaking, by a young kid. “Birds are a big part of everybody’s lives, so they should not be dying from toxic pit water,” the child says.
In the next episode, we visit the pit. Saks puts on a hard hat and safety glasses and enters the highly restricted area early one morning with Mark Mariano, the pit’s bird-protection specialist. There, we learn that after the 2016 snow-geese incident the companies in charge of the pit invested half a million dollars in tools that scare waterfowl away from it—sirens, lasers, drones, and an air cannon—some of which we hear. The Phoenix Wailer, from the first episode, is one of them. They sound like tools of war—they’d scare off anything. Mariano talks about the bird monitoring that he does, and then there’s another surprise: miners from a nearby active copper mine are in on it, too. Saks says that Mariano is training a “small army of miners”; part of their job, currently, is patrolling for waterfowl. “They’re the ones that do the rifle hazing,” Mariano says. Over all, the bird-fending-off program has been highly effective in preventing bird deaths—and the careful observation and monitoring it includes has led to unforeseen discoveries. One day, Mariano saw “a Bonaparte’s gull mixed in with probably forty American avocets,” he said. “I had to take a video so that people would believe me.”
It’s no small feat to tell an enjoyable story about a Superfund site, but, so far, “Richest Hill” pulls it off. (A third episode, out of a planned eight to ten, will be released in early April.) Saks weaves the story of Butte’s past and future into well-paced scenes—it’s not all cadmium, lead, and arsenic—and makes use of a range of unexpected sounds. There’s a snippet of tape from a portentous but entertaining promotional video for a local distillery, in which a man rhapsodizes about Butte’s coppery past and invokes Thomas Edison and Alexander Graham Bell; a “Daily Show” clip about a pit-tourism scheme; labor-union members singing “Solidarity Forever” at the grave site of a long-dead union leader; the firing up of a long-dormant hoisting engine by a ninety-three-year-old former hoisting engineer; and quite a bit of pleasant fiddling. The interviewees’ quotes are varied, well edited, and well chosen. An impassioned local man says, intensely, “If it was not for Butte and Anaconda”—the company in charge of the Berkeley Pit—“you and I might be doing this interview right now in Japanese or German.”
Another, more familiar sound we hear in “Richest Hill” begs the question of what will likely be the podcast’s biggest challenge: addressing policy and politics. That sound, inevitably, is that of our President at a rally, lathering up a crowd. “From the Rocky Mountains to the Great Plains, the people of Montana love our country, love our country so much,” Trump says, nearly singing, after the crowd chants “U.S.A.! U.S.A.!” Saks tells us that some believe that Trump may be “an unlikely new ally” for Butte. Trump’s E.P.A. has named Superfund as a top priority, and it’s targeted Butte for “immediate and intense attention.” I found this surprising—when I think of Trump’s E.P.A., ecological revitalization isn’t what comes to mind. But, Saks says, “Butte is on the verge of a final Superfund deal that E.P.A. promises will clean up the mining city once and for all, by 2024.” The E.P.A. has repeatedly pushed back the timeline of that deal, which will delay not only cleanup but the rest of the series, which plans to cover the Superfund news in real time. I’m eager to hear how “Richest Hill” incorporates the E.P.A.’s proposals. Will it manage to enlighten us and stay colorful? I’m optimistic.
Audio narratives, like novels, force your imagination to do the visualizing, and your experience is shaped by whatever you’re able to conjure. Listening to “Richest Hill,” despite Saks’s use of phrases like “mutilated industrial landscape,” I somehow imagined something beautiful; I was startled when a Western relative of mine who’s visited Butte described being struck by “how desperately sad the whole place felt.” Saks’s brio, the vividness of the history and stories she presents, and the proud locals who want to make Butte better had left me feeling resolute, even protective of this town I recently knew little about. As Saks says of the Berkeley Pit, after looking at it through high-powered binoculars and learning about Mariano’s discoveries of exotic birds, “I see it now not just as a toxic pit of death but also a bewildering source of life.”