The Berkeley Pit: a Perpetual Toxic Problem

Rest assured that the drafters of Montana’s 1972 Constitution were fully aware of the environmental disaster created by the Anaconda Copper Company in Butte, Anaconda and the Clark Fork River. That’s why they put two critical provisions in Article IX, Environment and Natural Resources:

“Section 1. Protection and Improvement. (1) The state and each person shall maintain and improve a clean and healthy environment for present and future generations.” And Section 2, that clearly states: “(1) All lands disturbed by the taking of natural resources shall be reclaimed.”

Unfortunately, both the state of Montana and federal regulatory agencies have ignored those mandates, resulting in the perpetual problem of the Berkeley Pit, now filled with 50 billion gallons of highly toxic water, which has been responsible for the deaths of untold numbers of waterfowl and is likely to continue to be a lethal “last stop” forever.

When Montana’s new Constitution was drafted, the Berkeley Pit was not filled with water. It was an operating mine, complete with massive pumps to raise water from the miles of underground tunnels to the surface. But in 1977 ARCO merged with the Anaconda Company, then turned off the pumps in 1981, allowing the pit to begin filling with toxic stew as Butte, Anaconda, and 120 miles of the Clark Fork River became America’s largest Superfund site.

Jump forward to 1995, when 342 unfortunate snow geese mistook the Berkeley Pit for a lake, and died en masse. The incident shocked Montanans, who put a high value on our wildlife, and prompted measures to ensure another such incident didn’t occur. But just last year in December, 21 years after the first snow goose tragedy, it did in fact occur again. Only this time it was much worse, and estimates are that several thousand snow geese perished in the pit – although due to the inability to operate watercraft in the pit’s acidic waters, that is merely an estimate, not a hard count of dead geese.

Once again, ARCO’s officials – a new generation now – have put forth an untried plan to keep waterfowl off the deadly water using a combination of propane cannons, lasers and drones on the mile-wide pit.

But the bottom line is that attempts to keep waterfowl from perishing in the toxic pit water, however well-meaning, do nothing to address the root cause, which is the pit itself and the utter failure of state and federal regulators, as well as the corporations responsible for the environmental nightmare, to reclaim the pit as required by Montana’s Constitution.

Montana’s legislature held post-goose death hearings on the pit’s problems and some suggested hauling the Milltown Dam and Anaconda area tailings to the pit on existing rail lines and dumping them into the hole with the massive Yankee Doodle Tailings, capping it and installing a facility sufficient to treat contaminated groundwater.

As Sandy Stash, ARCO’s lobbyist, told committee members: “There’s not enough money in the world to do that.” But there was enough money to tunnel a mile underground, bring the ore to the surface, smelt it in Anaconda, and make Butte’s infamous Copper Kings fabulously wealthy.

The sad reality is that waterfowl will continue dying in the pit as long as it remains filled with deadly water. It’s long past time that realistic measures were implemented to eventually drain Butte’s Berkeley Pit. And yes, there is enough money in this richest nation in the world to do just that if we ever expect a final solution to the Pit’s perpetual problem. What’s lacking is the political will to do so.

George Ochenski is a columnist for the Daily Montanan, where this essay originally appeared.