Since its founding in 1884, this dowdy community of 12,000 has been visibly a company town. Named for the Anaconda Copper Co., it's lived literally in the shadow of the firm's 585-foot-high smelter stack. The plant provided 25 percent of local jobs and spewed masses of sulphur over the area.

Last September, faced with costly new federal and state environmental requirements, the mining company abruptly shut down its smelter operation, saying from now on it would send its arsenic-heavy concentrates to Japan for processing. Sulphur emissions evaporated, but so did nearly 1,000 jobs.

The impact, predictably, has been traumatic: Unemployment here already has tripled to 17.3 percent and is likely to surge again this summer. Real estate values have plummeted. Fifteen local businesses have shut down. And the city is facing a financial crunch: The company has been paying $2.4 million a year in taxes.

Today, residents of this still-stunned community slowly are trying to recoup. A task force of city officials is struggling to attract small manufacturing plants to give the town a new, broader economic base. Even the most undaunted optimists believe success is still at least two years away.

But the experience, which has left many Anacondans bitter about their nearly century-long relationship with "The Company," has sparked a new debate locally how far the government ought to go in requiring businesses to meet strict environmental and safety standards.

Says Sandy Puccinelli, whose husband Tony, a 31-year-old ironworker, was among those left jobless in the Anaconda Copper shutdown: "We've got all our money, all our life, invested in this town. I'd sacrifice some of the clean air if we could continue to work."

The smelter is part of a three-city complex the copper company had built up over the years. The ore was mined from a pit at Butte, hauled to Anaconda to be melted into concentrate, then shipped to Great Falls for refining. The shutdown here affected all three cities. But tiny Anaconda was hurt the worst.

At the copper company's skyscraper headquarters in Denver, it's a matter of straightforward economics. The firm, a division of the Atlantic Richfield Co., was faced with stringent federal and state environmental and safety demands it says would have taken $400 million in refurbishing to meet.

Although the company probably could have won a two-year grace period, corporate President James L. Marvin says the outlays would have pushed the smelter's operating costs, which already were high, to an unacceptable level and wouldn't have included anything to increase efficiency.

Moreover, Marvin says even if the Anaconda company agreed to do everything the Environmental Protection Agency was asking -- or else built a new, more efficient smelter nearby -- there's no guarantee the regulators wouldn't have stepped up their demands further.

The company already had poured a substantial $65 million into pollution control equipment and planning since 1970, only to see the officials impose tougher standards each time new flues and furnaces were put in. Arco Vice President Ralph F. Cox calls it "the moving-target syndrome."

The Anaconda company is considering building a new smelter, possibly along the Gulf Coast, where proximity to port facilities would justify a giant cost-efficient smelter that could process concentrate from other firms, as well. However, construction will take at least seven years, too late to help laid-off workers.

The rationale from Anaconda Copper's Denver headquarters doesn't stike much pay dirt here in the company's namesake community. Local residents, many of whom first got word of the layoffs in a radio newscast Sept. 29 at the end of a 4 1/2-month strike, feel they were sold out for a tax write-off or to bust the unions.

For the workers who were laid off, the impact has been grim: Puccinelli, 31, was earning $413.90 a week -- $301.71 in take-home pay -- as an ironworker before the shutdown. Today, he's getting $231 a week, $131 in Montana state jobless payments and $100 in company-paid supplemental unemployment benefits (SUB).

Nick Reiss, 56, forced to take early retirement, also will get $231 a week in benefits until his pension takes effect next Oct. 1. From then on, he'll get $212.50 a week, an income he says is livable but still well below the $390 a week he'd have earned as a pipefitter with 34 years' seniority.

For the moment, the situation is glum here, but the community still is intact. Of the 15 businesses that have boarded up their doors, most were in tight straits anyway or else shut down for unrelated reasons. And bankers report loan delinquency rates here still aren't rising. Savings levels actually are up.

Frank Bennett, president of Anaconda's First Security Bank, credits the city's seeming resilience with the fact that 55 percent of its population is 55 or over. "Actually, the primary economic base here hasn't been the smelter, it's been retirement income," he says.

But most Anacondans agree the situation will be a lot grimmer six months from now when the mothballing operation at the smelter ends and the state jobless payments and company SUB benefits run out. Warns Jim Liebetrau, the foundry's new owner: "I don't think the impact has really been felt -- yet."

Moreover, even if Anaconda does attract some new businesses, it's not at all certain the new firms will need the same skilled -- and highly paid -- crafts that the smelter did. As a result, says Dick Verstraete, president of the First National Bank here, many who do get new jobs may have to settle for less.

In fairness, the Anaconda company didn't simply close its doors without lifting a finger for the local community. Along with the shutdown announcement, Arco unveiled plans for a special $3 million "readjustment fund", now being administered by a city task force, to provide loans to attract new industries.

It also donated 55 acres of land on which the city could build an industrial park, asked nearby companies to hire some of its laid-off workers and virtually gave one group of former employees the smelter's tiny offshoot -- and semi-independent -- foundry operation. And workers over 55 also were allowed to retire early.

Smelter manager Melvin A. Stokke says of 1,220 workers on the payrolls at the closing, 446 are still working in temporary billets, 226 took early retirement and 49 have transferred to other Anaconda Copper facilities nearby. The remaining 499 either have taken other jobs elsewhere or still are out of work.

Talks with all sides show it isn't that easy to find one lone villain to blame for the smelter closing. Indeed, there are serious questions about the behavior of virtually every party in the Anaconda Copper case:

Were the government's environmental restrictions realistic? Some engineers argue the standards were far more stringent than necessary, particularly at the state level. The smelter is the only major industrial plant for miles. There aren't the problems in Montana of, say, northern New Jersey.

Moreover, all sides agree the smelter has been "cleaned up" significantly in recent years. Near the end, only one of seven perimeter pollution monitors showed any violation, and that continued to register over the limit even when the plant was shut down during a 4 1/2-month-long strike.

Did the Anaconda Copper Co. -- and Atlantic Richfield Co. -- do enough to fight before they decided to close the smelter? Several knowledgeable observers locally contend the firm might well have won a suit but was too concerned about "its whitehat image" to contest the new regulations.

How much was the state to blame for the shutdown? State environmental regulations are far more stringent than the federal government's, and, many onlookers believe, unfairly harsh. Business leaders here complain the state government increasingly is becoming antibusiness.

How much did costly union work rules here contribute to the company's cost bind? Although Arco insists the shutdown "had nothing to do with" the recent strike here, all sides agree iron-tight union work rules here are especially restrictive, making operations even more expensive.

Can Anaconda survive?

Local observers point out that even though the smelter has been shut, the copper company already has announced plans for land reclamation operations and other medium-term projects that could employ some of the laid-off workers. And molybdenum mining in nearby Butte is expected to pick up sharply.

At the same time, the task force of local officials has begun the painstaking work of trying to attract new industry to this otherwise desolate area, and is considering possibly turning the city into a Wild West-style tourist attraction, perhaps, if the state legislature approves, with legalized gambling.

In the meantime, the big question in Anaconda is over the medium-term: Whether the community can attract enough new industry in time to prevent serious hardship when the jobless benefits and SUB payments run out in June. There already are some secondary layoffs. Thirty families have moved out.

Meanwhile, the debate here continues. Claims Anaconda Copper President Marvin, "If we can mature this environmental-control thing, and if we can establish orderly scientific procedures for determining what the requirements are, then business has a lot better chance of complying and still remaining viable."

Says Sandy Puccinelli: "Our grandfathers, for crying out loud, lived in here when the sulphur was so bad they couldn't even grow trees on the mountainside, and yet they lived to be 70 years old. I don't think it smelled that bad in the last 15 years. Which do you want, clear air or jobs?"