The unseasonably warm weather that came to Montana in mid-April was the only break this former mining camp was enjoying.
Already hurt by layoffs and recession, Butte will suffer the severest blow of all on June 30, when the Anaconda Minerals Co. shuts down its last copper operation, the mine on the hillside overlooking the town.
Once the world's largest copper company, Anaconda employed approximately 1,800 workers in 1980. By the time the company announced the shutdown of the Butte mine early this year, the work force had been reduced to 700. For Butte, losing Anaconda is like losing a limb: The company accounts for 25 percent of the tax base and in good years, pumped a $35 million payroll and $12 million in purchases of goods and services into the local economy.
"It's really going to be tough," said Don Peoples, chief executive of both the county and town. "I can't imagine what's going to happen."
The shutdown, which Anaconda officials say is supposed to be temporary, is the inevitable conjunction of high operating costs and low copper prices. When the shutdown was announced, Anaconda was losing $1 million a week on the Butte operation.
"We're one of the highest cost-producing operations in the world," said John Calcaterra, a spokesman for the company. Despite economies that brought the cost of production down from $1.35 a pound to $1 a pound, the company's costs continue to float considerably above the price of copper. As low as 65 cents a pound at one point, the price had recovered to approximately 82 cents by the end of last week.
Peoples has already been to Washington seeking economic development and job-training money and is also looking to the state government for aid. "We located some money for retraining, but what do you retrain people for? In this area, you retrain them to leave," he said.
In addition to the Anaconda shutdown, the town was also shaken by Safeway's shutdown of its distribution center for Montana and Wyoming. The Safeway center had employed 135 workers.
"How you piece together a couple of things to keep the community going, I don't know," said Peoples.
Butte is an old line mining town. For more than a century, miners have plowed through "the richest hill on earth" extracting metals. An informal census in 1917 found more than 100,000 residents in Butte where the population is now only about 37,000.
Surrounded by conifer-covered mountains and attractive scenery, Butte is surrounded by little else. There are few job opportunities for laid-off workers from the mine, whose average age is 47. Unemployment in February was about 12 percent, a figure that Peoples said he believes is understated.
Robert Driscoll, who worked 17 years for Anaconda, was laid off in April 1982, six months short of the age at which he could have retired and drawn a cash payment from the company's old-age plan, he said. Driscoll worked in materials control at the garage near the Berkely pit, the largest of two Anaconda open mines.
He was notified on the same day he was to lose his job that he was being laid off and spent months looking in vain for work. "There just is no work for a 54-year-old. You can wrestle all you want, and I did, but who wants to hire a guy when the first thing they're going to be thinking of is retirement?" he said.
Driscoll works three days a week now as a janitor. "I think it's done more for my ego than it has for my wallet," he said. "There was a time when I might have been insulted at the idea of becoming a latrine jockey, but I was out of work long enough to be grateful for any work."
Driscoll considers himself lucky--he owned his own home and his children were grown.
Others were not so lucky. He also said he believes that Anaconda has changed since it became a part of Atlantic Richfield. "The people who count are no longer here in Butte. They're down in Denver or back in Los Angeles," he said. Driscoll is troubled by the company's decision to turn off expensive pumps that kept underground pits dry and to let water fill the pits and cover equipment that was left in them. "When equipment is treated like that, you don't expect the human element to be treated with much more care," he said.
The shutdown will coincide with the expiration of union contracts with the company, a quirk of timing that company officials call a coincidence. Negotiations on a new contract have begun, they said.
Not everyone is discouraged. "I don't think it's going to be as bad as a lot of people had thought," said Brooks Coombe of High Country Toyota. "It's like losing a good friend or relative who has a terminal disease and finally dies. It hurts, and it's upsetting, but it hasn't been that bad," he said.
Peoples hopes the mine will reopen eventually. The company is considering whether to invest approximately $250 million in new equipment and facilities. That, some improvements in productivity in the contract and better tax treatment by the state of Montana might make it possible to reopen, according to company officials.
"I'm just hoping against hope that this whole thing is a mistake," said Driscoll, getting ready to leave for his janitor's job; "that I'll wake up and discover the whole thing is an April Fool's joke."