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Butte, Montana isn’t a mining town. It’s a mined town.
The core of the city is hollow, tunneled out. Beneath the shattered surface of the Hill, there are more than 10,000 miles of underground passages and thousands of shafts, glory holes descending deep feet into the bedrock. Every now and then, holes will open in the crust of the earth, swallowing sidewalks, garages and dogs.
Houses, black as ravens, are sunk into mine waste heaps and slag piles, the exhumed geological guts of the billion dollar hill, once coveted and swiped by America’s dark lord, John D. Rockefeller, during the end game in the War of the Copper Kings. People still live in the hovels.
Gallows frames prick up through the town like quills on a porcupine. Once, these steel derricks cranked the miners down into the depths in hoist cages, now they resemble the frightful gibbets that haunt the backgrounds of Bruegel’s paintings from the years of the Black Death. Indeed, many that went down never came up. The tunnels of Butte are also a catacomb, holding the bones of more than 2,500 miners.
In the 1880s, Butte was the biggest and wildest town between Denver and San Francisco. It boasted 75,000 people and the most opulent opera house west of Manhattan. There where whorehouses and banks, theaters and bars, French restaurants and the Columbia Gardens, one of the world’s fanciest amusement parks.
It’s the place where Cary Nation’s sobriety campaign came to a crushing end, when the madame of Butte’s leading brothel pummeled the puritanical crusader to the floor of the bar, as hundreds cheered, beer steins raised high.
The mine barons didn’t live in Butte, where the day mansions were stained black by the smoke of the smelters, but up in Helena, which harbored more millionaires per capita than any other city in the nation.
Those days are gone.
Today, Montana has a crop of millionaires, but they’ve made their money in Hollywood, Atlanta, or New York City and now hide out, like the James Gang, in large compound-like ranches, sprawling over mountains and trout streams. Otherwise, Montana’s economy is on the rocks, beleaguered by chronic high unemployment and wages as depressed as you’d find in rural Mississippi.
And Butte leads the way. Fewer than 30,000 people live here now and the number erodes every year. There’s only intermittent mining being done now and few miners remain, except some old-timers, many of whom wear oxygen masks along with their cowboy hats.
Butte has gone from being the richest hill on earth to the world’s most expensive reclamation project and the nation’s biggest Superfund site. The only good paying jobs in town these days go to the supervisors of those charged with cleaning up the mess and to the medical technicians who routinely test the blood of Butte’s children for arsenic and lead.
The Superfund designation doesn’t end it Butte. It follows the entire 130 mile long course of Silver Bow Creek to Milltown Dam at the confluence with the Clark Fork River outside Missoula. Silver Bow Creek: that’s what the Butte Chamber of Commerce handouts call it. But that’s not how it’s known to the locals. They call it Shit Creek, for its sulphurous stench and sluggish orangish-brown water. For decades, this stream served as little more than an industrial colon for the fetid effluent of Butte’s mines. It is a dead river and a deadly one, too.
The Milltown Dam holds back six million cubic tons of toxic sludge: cadmium, arsenic, copper, lead, manganese, zinc. It continues to pile up year after year. No one knows what to do with it, though some have suggested trucking it to ARCO’s headquarters in downtown Los Angeles.
On the east side, the town of Butte comes to an abrupt end. The Berkeley Pit yawns across nearly a square mile of terrain. The gaping pit is filling inexorably with waters so acidic that they can’t sustain life of any kind.
Over it all presides the Madonna of Rockies, a 100-foot tall statute perched on Continental Divide that glows at night like a slab of radium. Her arms are outstretched in piteous benediction of the hellish wasteland below. The locals call her Our Lady of the Tailings. She was erected in 1985 by a group of miners in hopes that the boom time would return.
Not to fear. The town fathers have a plan to recharge Butte’s flatlined fortunes. They want to turn Butte into a tourist haven, a kind of toxic wonderland. After all, they figure, people can’t help looking at traffic crack-ups, the bloodier the better. Why wouldn’t they throng to the nation’s most poisoned city?
Perhaps they could call it Poisonville National Park. Poisonville. That’s the name Dashiell Hammett, America’s hardboiled Dante, gave to Butte in Red Harvest, his strange nocturnal novel of corruption and corporate filth. “The city wasn’t pretty,” writes Hammett on the opening page of Red Harvest. “Most of its builders had gone in for gaudiness. Maybe they had been successful at first. Since then the smelters whose brick stacks struck up tall against a gloomy mountain to the south had yellow-smudge everything into uniform dinginess. The result was an ugly city of forty thousand people, set in an ugly notch between two ugly mountains that had been all dirtied up by mining. Spread over this was grimy sky that looked as if it had come out of the smelters’ stacks.”
That was written in 1929. The skies are clearer now that the smelters are shut down. But the town looks much the same. Only there’s less of it.
There’s a precedent, of sorts, and it’s close at hand. Down the road 23 miles to the west is the town of Anaconda, once the biggest and foulest smelter complex in the world. The ore from the Anaconda mines was taken by the Company’s railroad to Anaconda where it was chunked into the giant blast furnaces and melted down to commercial copper. The waste rock was piled in mammoth dumps. The smelters belched out their lethal smoke 24 hours a day, seven days a week, for decades. The smelter fallout turned the daytime sky dark and coated the land with poison in a radius of fifty miles or more.
Now, all that’s left is a single dark smelter stack 534-feet tall and the sinister heaps of poison rubble, Montana’s version of the tower of Isengard in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. Today the stack and the hill it sits on are within a state park. But the ground is so polluted the public isn’t permitted entry. It’s a roadside photo-op, like the cooling towers of Three Mile Island.
But the big draw in Anaconda these days is the world class $8 million golf course, designed for ARCO by Jack Nicklaus and built on toxic mine wastes. The sand traps are black ash, culled from the burnt slag swept out of the smelters’ ovens. It gives a whole new meaning to sand hazard.
“Odd as it sounds, those dumps are historic resources,” says Mark Reavis, a Montana architect who is pushing the scheme to make Butte a national park. “The preservation community here is worried we’re going to lose, bury and cover-up all signs of mining. Butte should be a monument to a societal decision: the quest for minerals. I’m trying to preserve. They’re trying to clean up.”
This mad scheme appeals to Bush’s haughty Interior Secretary Gale Norton, for whom slag heaps seem to exude an almost aphrodisiacal allure. The Bushites are desperate to jettison the troublesome notion of corporate liability for Superfund cleanups entirely. If they can do it in Butte under the banner of historic preservation so much the better.
On this fall day, fierce winds blow down off the spine of the Rockies, whipping the tailings into metallic dust devils that swirl down the streets, blowing by the great, decaying mansions of the mine bosses, the banks and the bordello museum, the courthouse and zinc bars, coating cars and people in a powder the texture of crushed bone.
My friend Larry Tuttle and I walk into a bar to get out of the toxic wind. Tuttle runs a green group called Citizens for Environmental Equity. It’s a small outfit, but they carry a big stick and they like to whack big companies. Indeed, Tuttle may be the mining industry’s biggest pain in the ass. He’s seen it all, from the poison ruins of Summitville to the huge gash in the Little Rockies made by the Zortmann-Landusky mine. But even Tuttle seems awed by the Butte’s 150 years of self-abuse. And he’s been here before.
“You can’t believe it until you see it,” he says. “Then when you do, you feel as if you can’t trust your eyes. It’s the smell that makes it real.”
On the wall of the bar is a ratty poster from last August promoting Evel Week, a festival celebrating the exploits of Butte’s most famous native son, the daredevil Evel Knievel. I’m sorry I missed it. Out waitress tells us that Joan Jett and the Blackhawks kicked ass on the final night, “as fireworks lit up the sky like bombs over Baghdad.” Jett’s brand of leather-metal seems perfectly geared to the sensibilities of Butte. This isn’t a town for rodeos, but machines. Heavy ones.
“Evel cares about this place,” the waitress tells us. “That’s a lot more than you can say about the bosses at ARCO or those people at EPA. They don’t give a damn.”
It strikes me that Evel Knievel is the perfect hero for the post-industrial West. His body is as broken as his hometown. Knievel’s doomed aspiration led to him attempt to jump his jet-cycle across the maw of the Snake River Canyon. It was the perverse denouement of a bizarre career. Each Knievel event was an audacious flirtation with suicide, each one grander than the next. Meaning the odds of death were greater. In Knievel’s world, the motorcycle jump replaced the public hanging as a spectacle.
We drain our beers and head west down Park Street, past the shuttered storefronts and EPA projects to decontaminate the front lawns of row after row of houses, many of them empty. The road takes us to Montana Tech, once the great mining school of this company town. The school gets a cut from the proceeds of almost every mining and logging operation in the state of Montana, a financial incentive to keep churning out students to work as unquestioning zombies for the very industries that are laying waste to the state.
Our destination wasn’t the college, but the sedulously advertised World Mining Museum located on a backlot of the campus. The museum turned out to be little more than an enclosure of mining detritus-a gallows frame, hoist cage, rail cars, sheave wheels, dick shovels-with a few utterly unapologetic interpretive displays.
At the entrance to the Montana Tech campus is a bronze statue of Marcus Daly, the financial trickster who transformed Butte from a roughneck mining camp into the biggest boom town in the Rockies. The bronze is by America’s most gifted sculptor, Augustus Saint-Gaudens. You get the idea Daly wouldn’t have had it any other way. He saw himself as the Cosimo de Medici of Butte and Saint-Gaudens as his Cellini. Saint-Gaudens, it seems, had other ideas. His Daly is hardly a triumphal figure. The statue, erected two years after the robberbaron’s death, depict a porcine and blustery man. It reminds me of Melville’s Confidence Man, a smirking demon cackling up at the Madonna of the Rockies.
Butte got its start in 1864 when gold was discovered along Silver Bow Creek. But Butte wasn’t destined to be a gold rush town. The real money was in a cheaper mineral that ranked second only to iron as the most important metal of the industrial revolution: copper. And in 1876 Daly laid his hands on one of the purest veins of copper in the world, the Alice claim on Butte’s hill. “The world doesn’t know it yet,” the squat Irishman boasted. “But I have its richest mine.”
Daly headed back to San Francisco where he rustled up an impressive retinue of California gold rush millionaires as financial backers for his scheme to develop the Butte copper mines, including George Hearst, Lloyd Tevis and James Haggin. Haggin was dark-skinned and reportedly of Turkish descent. When Daly’s arch-rival, William Clark, publicly smeared Haggin as “a nigger”, it launched a decade-long feud that became the first shot in the famous War of the Copper Kings.
Of course, time and circumstances heal all wounds among industrial magnates and eventually Daly and Clark patched things up in the name politics and profit. Clark went on to become a US senator from Montana, where he shepherded the interests of the mining conglomerates and became a favorite target of ridicule for Mark Twain. “He is said to have bought legislatures and judges as other men buy food and raiment,” Twain wrote of Clark. “By his example he has so excused and so sweetened corruption that in Montana it no longer has an offensive smell. His history is known to everybody; he is as rotten a human being as can be found anywhere under the flag; he is a shame to the American nation, and no one has helped to send him to the Senate who did not know that his proper place was the penitentiary, with a ball and chain on his legs. To my mind he is the most disgusting creature that the republic has produced since Tweed’s time.”
Daly’s company took it’s name from one of the nearby mines, which supposedly derived from Horace Greeley’s ridiculously optimistic assessment in the early days of the Civil War that Gen. McClellan’s troops would encircle and squeeze the life out of Robert E. Lee’s forces “like a giant Anaconda.” It may not have been an apt description of McClellan’s rather timid performance, but it did come to serve as the perfect totem for the nature of Daly’s company.
Daly bought up or squeezed out nearly every other claim in town. Eventually, Anaconda’s mines would yield up 20 billion tons of copper, fully a third of all the copper used by the US from the 1870s through the 1950s. Before the final frenzy, Anaconda’s mines would generate more than $20 billion worth of copper.
Daly pumped the profits back into his operations. He built the town of Anaconda to smelter the Butte ore and it became an industrial complex to rival the steel mills of Gary. It wasn’t just mineral claims Anaconda acquired. It owned more than a million acres of timber land, hundreds of sawmills, railroads, banks, and the rights to most of the water in western Montana. During its heyday, Anaconda would employ two-thirds of the workers in the entire state. And, naturally, it owned politicians, judges and every newspaper in Montana except one, the Great Falls Tribune.
By the 1890s, Anaconda was a true behemoth, a regional monopoly that few dared to tangle with. Its soaring profits soon captured the attention of the big daddy of trusts, Standard Oil, which made haste to acquire Anaconda in 1899. The people of Butte were warned that the travesties of Daly’s reign would seem benign compared to what awaited them under the iron fist of Henry Rogers and Standard Oil. In a prophetic speech on the steps of the Butte courthouse, Augustus Heinz, the last independent operator in town, told 10,000 angry mine workers: “These people are my enemies: fierce, bitter, implacable. But they are your enemies, too. If they crush me today, they will crush you tomorrow. They will cut your wages and raise the tariff in the company store on every bite you eat and every rag you wear. They will force you to live in Standard Oil houses while you live, and they will bury you in Standard Oil coffins when you die.”
Heinz was in the midst of a fraught battle with Anaconda over ownership a particularly rich vein of copper that zigzagged through the Hill in a maze-like pattern. Anaconda took Heinz to court to seek sole possession of the vein. When the Company’s handpicked judge refused to resolve the dispute in favor of the company, Anaconda shut down its operations, threw 6,500 miners out on the streets, and held the town hostage until got its way. Heinz was defeated and Anaconda seized complete control of Butte. Then it turned its sights on destroying the only force that stood in its way: Butte’s labor unions.
The extractive industries of the West-the logging camps and mines-were as brutal on workers as they were on the land. In Butte alone, more than 2,500 miners lost their lives in the tunnels and glory holes. Perhaps, 250,000 were injured, many seriously. Others got sick from foul water and cancerous air. A health survey of 1,000 miners in 1914 found that at least 400 of them suffered from chronic respiratory diseases. The maimed and ill were forced to work until they dropped, then they were discarded like human mine tailings.
Thus it’s not surprising that Butte, the nation’s biggest mining colony with some of the most wretched working conditions imaginable, became one of the birthing places of the American labor movement. In 1878, Marcus Daly tried to cut wages at his mines from a miserly $3.50 a day to $3. More than 400 miners walked off their jobs and paraded through town behind a brass band in protest. Then they formed the first union in town, the Butte Workingmen’s Union. Daly got the point.
Soon there was only one mine that operated as a non-union shop, the Bluebird Claim. On June 13, 1887, union members marched to the mine and took the Bluebird miners to the Orphean Hall to induct them into the union. They told the befuddled mine boss they were there to: “gently intimate to the men that the shutting down of the mine would be in accordance with the eternal fitness of things.”
A few years later, Butte’s workers played the key role in forming the Western Mining Union. The Butte Miner’s Union became Local Number One. By 1900, more than 18,000 laborers in Butte belonged to various trade unions: waitresses and bartenders, typesetters and sawmill workers, blacksmiths and brewers, teamsters and theatrical employees, hackmen and newsboys.
By and large, Daly got along with the workers and their unions. He’d worked as a laborer in the gold and silver mines in California and, to some degree, sympathized with the plight of the miners. He was also practical. Daly wanted to increase productivity as fast as possible and would do almost anything to avert a strike or a slow down.
This state of affairs changed immediately after Standard Oil absorbed Anaconda. Standard Oil had no tolerance for labor unions and set out to destroy the miners’ unions of Butte. They hired Pinkerton agents to infiltrate the unions, finger the lead organizers, and sabotage the unions from the inside. The Pinkerton men developed a blacklist of union leaders that Anaconda used to summarily 500 workers, saying they were Socialists. Workers were required to sign the equivalent of loyalty oaths, identifying their political and union affiliations. Workers deemed radicals and agitators weren’t called to work.
In the meantime, although the price of copper had soared from 8 cents a pound in 1878 to 20 cents a pound in 1914, Anaconda’s wage-scale had remained the same: a flat $3.50 a day. This prompted a strike and violent counter-attack in 1914 that culminated in the dynamiting of the Miner’s Union Hall. A few weeks later, Anaconda refused to recognize the legitimacy of the Western Federation of Miners.
But the union organizers kept at it, largely in the person of the IWW’s Frank Little, a mesmerizing speaker who was running the IWW’s Free-Speech campaign in Butte-the model for the Free Speech Movement in Berkeley. He spoke out against the wretched working conditions that lead to the Granite Mountain catastrophe, where 168 miners died agonizing deaths in the Speculator Mine. He also urged miners to reject the draft and refuse the call to fight in World War I, a message that appealed strongly to the Irish, Germans and Serbs who made up the bulk of Butte’s mine workers.
But the Company had had enough. In the early morning hours on August 1, 1917, Little was rousted from his bed in a boarding house by Anaconda goons. They tied him to a rope behind their truck and dragged him down the main road in Butte. Then they lynched him from a railroad trestle. More than 7,000 people came to his memorial service.
But the Company had won the day. The state of Montana bowed to their murderous masters at Anaconda HQ and officially banned the IWW and then enacted the Sedition Act that outlawed “disloyal, profane and scurrilous” writings and speeches of any kind-made by working people naturally.
Future labor uprisings would be crushed for Anaconda with the help of the National Guard and the US Army. From 1917 through 1921, Butte was on occupied town. The US Army captain sent to police Butte was none other than Omar Bradley, later a five-star general and commander of US Forces in Europe during World War 2, who arrived in Butte with the Army’s Company F in January of 1918. During his time in Butte, Bradley’s troops crushed two strikes, occupied two union halls, and arrested more than 100 striking workers, charging them with sedition– Posse Comitatus Act be damned.
“When my men are ordered to do a thing, I believe they will do it,” Bradley said after the raids. “We got orders to quell a riot and had no alternative but to quell it. I am glad nobody got seriously hurt, but I would rather have seen a lot of people hurt than to feel that my boys had let me down.”
Thus Anaconda now gave orders to the US Army operating on domestic soil. Sixty years later, the Company, now a global giant, would call on Henry Kissinger and the CIA to protect its interests in Chile, where the government of Salvador Allende had nationalized Anaconda’s copper mines. Allende fell and Pinochet’s dictatorship, loyal to big copper, took its place, installing a 25-year long reign of terror. This time around thousands of people got maimed, tortured and killed.
To get the best view the Berkeley Pit, you must enter a tunnel that could double as a runway for one of Evel Knievel’s mad jumps. You emerge into a void: before you is a hole in the earth a mile and a half wide and more than 2,000 feet deep. The flesh-toned terraced slopes look like a ziggurat in the making. It is the Mammoth Cave of quarries.
A man next to us is leading a tour. He tells a group of retirees that as big as it is the Berkeley Pit isn’t the largest open pit mine on earth. That honor belongs to the Kennecott mine south of Salt Lake City.
“Yes,” Tuttle interjects. “But the Kennecott mine wasn’t allowed to fill with water. Not yet, anyway.”
The Berkeley Pit is filled with 17 billion gallons of acidic water and it’s growing every day. From the viewing platform, it looks like Montana’s evil version of Crater Lake.
By 1955, Butte had become the most relentlessly mined patch of land on the planet. But the richest veins of copper were beginning to run out. Anaconda, driven by the remorseless logic of efficiency, made a crucial decision to switch from mining the underground tunnels to excavating a giant open pit. It was a move that slashed jobs and trashed an already mangled landscape.
There was a minor obstacle. Half of Uptown Butte stood on the site Anaconda wanted to dig up. These blocks included old mansions, the Columbia Gardens amusement park, the opera house where Twain spoke and Caruso sang, and the Irish community of Dublin Gulch, where miners once pelted J.P. Morgan himself with rotten tomatoes. It was yet another of Anaconda’s hostage-taking schemes: allow us to gobble up your town or we’ll shut down and move our operations to Arizona or Chile. The town fathers relented, of course, as they had always done. So did labor, even though it meant fewer jobs and lower pay.
So a new age was inaugurated in Butte: the era of open pit mining and chemical processing. New technologies and bigger machines allowed Anaconda to simply gnaw up the bedrock, pulverize it and strip out the metals in a chemical wash, leaving behind toxic waste heaps taller than any hill in Indiana. This noxious method would soon spread across the West. As so often before, Butte served as a working laboratory for some of the mining industry’s worst ideas.
How long does it take to excavate a hole this big? About 20 years of 24 hour a day blasting. By the 1970s, the giant pit was pretty much played out. The price of copper had plunged. Recently, enacted environmental laws began to nag at the company. Anaconda tried one last blackmail scheme in 1974, saying that to continue operations it would have to consume the rest of downtown Butte. The town’s politicians got behind Anaconda’s scheme to blow up the old core of the city, in a kind of civic suicide pact. But wiser heads urged caution and Anaconda lost interest. They shut down operations at the pit later that year.
In 1977, Anaconda sold off its operation to ARCO. The deal must surely go down as one of the most lame-brained acquisitions in American history. ARCO claimed that it felt too tied down to oil and gas operations and wanted to diversify into minerals. That might sound compelling in a prospectus, but investors must have shook their heads at the decision to acquire an ailing mine that hadn’t turned a profit in years. Perhaps they were looking for tax write offs.
What they got was something quite different. In 1982, Butte was declared the nation’s biggest Superfund site and ARCO was named the responsible party, culpable for financing the clean-up of Anaconda’s toxic playpen. Of course, the mess could never be cleaned-up, but the bill for what locals call the “suck, muck and truck” operation could tally in the hundreds of millions of dollars.
Then ARCO committed one of the great environmental crimes of our time. The company turned off the pumps that kept the tunnels of Butte from flooding with water. The internal plumbing of Butte had been permanently wrecked by the thousands of miles of underground tunnels that had pierced through the water table. When the pumps were shut off, the water poured through the tunnels, leaching a periodic chart of poisons out of the earth, and found their way into the Berkeley pit. The waters flow there at the rate of more than five million gallons a day. Every day. Forever.
The waters of the Berkley pit permit no life to exist within them. It is a lake of sulfuric acid, powerful enough to dissolve metal. The cobalt-colored waters lure migratory birds in from the flyway to and from Canada. It’s a lethal pitstop, since only a sip of these metallic waters is enough to kill. Over the years, thousands of geese, ducks and swans have perished here. In 1996 there was a mass poisoning, when nearly 400 snow geese died in the pit’s foul waters. Autopsies showed that the birds burned to death from the inside out-for the snow geese one taste of that water was like downing a pint of Drano.
In fifteen years or so, the poisonous waters of the pit will have risen to a level that will permit it to spill into the local aquifer, wiping out springs, wells and creeks. ARCO has belatedly begun construction of a pumping station near the pit at Horseshoe Bend, but there’s no guarantee that it will work. Or that if it works, it will work in time to save the aquifer.
Meanwhile, ARCO continues to play political games with the clean up. The governor of Montana is Judy Martz, a slaphappy Republican who used to run the Butte garbage company. ARCO has financed her political career, but not without the stench of scandal. In 1999, when Martz was lieutenant governor, she and her husband bought 80 acres of land from ARCO along Silver Bow Creek. They paid only $300 an acre for the property, less than half the going rate for similar parcels in Butte. Martz chose not to publicly disclose the transaction, even though at the time the state was involved in litigation against ARCO over the cleanup of the very same Silver Bow Creek.
Martz is a kook, but she’s ARCO’s kind of nutcasse. In her campaign for governor Martz proudly vowed to be “a lapdog of industry.” And she’s tried to keep her word, going so far as to call the wildfires that scorched the West in 2002 “acts of environmental terrorism.” Where is Mark Twain when you really need him?
* * *
Yes, history does continue to repeat itself in Butte. But not for much longer. The town has nearly reached its geographical limit.
In 1984, soon after ARCO pulled the plug on operations at the Berkeley Pit, financier Dennis Washington opened a new deep pit mine a few hundred yards away. He paid ARCO $18 million for the land. Then he engineered tax breaks from the nearly bankrupt city and the state, won waivers of environmental liability, got subsidized power and other inducements. And in a final blow to Butte’s historical identity, Washington’s East Continental Pit mine operated as a non-union shop. The mighty Gibraltar of Labor had finally been mined to dust.
Naturally, Washington made a killing. Perhaps as much as a billion dollars on that $18 million investment. Then in 2000 his mine too suspended operations. Of course, there’s no requirement to restore the land. So now an extra 2.5 million gallons of acidic water streams into the toxic pit. It’s the oldest story in the West: privatize the profits, socialize the costs, the risks and the fallout.
Perhaps the idea of a park here isn’t such a bad idea after all. But it should be a national battleground, like the bloody fields of Antietam or Little Big Horn-hallowed ground where both labor and the environment were laid low.
The headstone on the grave of the Wobblies’ great martyr Frank Little reads: “Slain by capitalist interests.” It’s a fitting epitaph for Butte as well.
JEFFREY ST. CLAIR can be reached at: email@example.com