Skipper of pit sees beauty in Berkeley

2002-11-25T23:00:00Z Skipper of pit sees beauty in BerkeleyROBERTA FORSELL STAUFFER The Montana Standard The Billings Gazette

BUTTE - There we were, circling the vast Berkeley Pit lake in a fiberglass pontoon houseboat, sipping soft drinks from folding chairs, checking out the "garden wall."

Like its namesake in Glacier National Park, water seeps from cracks and crevices along the rock wall like steady tears. A waterfall flows through the scene, filling the air with a soothing sound. Only this cascade is a surreal turquoise blue, the product of copper mixed with sulfur-bearing rock and air.

"It's beautiful, isn't it?" says Ron Benton.

Benton is the so-called skipper of "Lake Berkeley." Most days, he's just the purchasing agent for Montana Resources, but twice monthly during the bird migration season, he fires up the pontoon boat and heads out across the contaminated water.

The mission: to look for dead birds, birds that unwittingly drank too much of the contaminated water.

On a recent crisp morning, no carcasses were found. One lone duck bobbed along. Montana Resources President Steve Walsh said nothing scares some of the birds away. To prove the point, Benton steered the boat toward the duck. Instead of flying off, the bird dove under the murky water, popping up again behind the boat a few seconds later.

Ted Duaime, a hydrogeologist for the Montana Bureau of Mines and Geology, has gone out for three or four hours at a stretch to take water samples and watched as a half dozen ducks would hang around, popping in and out of the water.

"They're not shriveling up and dying instantly," Duaime said. "The water's not the toxic, nasty witch's brew that people make it out to be."

But make no mistake, the water is far from clean. Berkeley Pit is a massive Superfund site slowly filling with contaminated water.

It is acidic. It contains high concentrations of iron, manganese, copper, cadmium, zinc and arsenic.

And because it is such a big body of water, it attracts migrating waterfowl every year.

Rick Douglass, who heads Montana Tech's biological sciences department, said most waterfowl that land there escape harm because they don't drink much of the water and don't stay around long once they discover there are no fish to catch.

"If they take a big drink they're probably done," Douglass said.

In 1995, thirst and fatigue spelled doom for nearly 350 snow geese that landed on the pit water. Tests revealed the birds died after the acid water had eaten away at tissue lining the esophagus and damaged their internal organs.

One massive bird kill was too many for the government agencies that oversee the Superfund site. In response to the snow geese incident, they asked the Atlantic Richfield Co. and Montana Resources to design a waterfowl mitigation plan.

The bird plan is three-pronged:

Twice a month from March through December or until ice forms over the pit, the companies send out the boat to scour the shoreline for dead birds and to try to haze away any live ones they see.

Hourly during the day and every four hours at night during the peak migration season of March through May and mid-August through mid-December, a staff member goes to the bird observation station on the pit's south rim and scans the water for birds. If any are spotted on the water, they usually are scared away by a few blasts from a loud rifle fired in the air. Walsh said they tried using fireworks to scare the birds, but they didn't work as well.

Finally, noisemakers designed specifically to frighten birds are positioned around the pit. They emit recorded sounds such as bird distress calls, helicopters, motor boats and gunfire.

Each bird sighting and fatality is noted and compiled into monthly reports sent to the Environmental Protection Agency and the state Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks.

From March 1996 through 2001, more than 22,500 birds were spotted. Crews reported 75 deaths.

"It's something we take seriously," Walsh said. "Nobody was happy to see the geese kill in '95."

But Douglass, head of the Montana Tech biological sciences department, called the bird mitigation program silly.

"It doesn't make sense and it should be stopped," he said. "I seriously object to them wasting their money out there counting ducks."

Instead, he believes the government should require the companies to create a marsh on private property that would provide habitat for roughly the number of birds killed at the pit each year.

EPA's Russ Forba said the agency had considered that, but ultimately decided against it since the main goal of the program is to prevent major kills.

"We decided it was imperative to mitigate what we could on the pit itself, " Forba said, "And the only way you can do that is by pretty constant surveillance. We can't allow what happened to happen again."

Benton inherited the job of skipper because a favorite off-duty pastime is pleasure boating. He has spent time on Utah's Lake Powell and on Lake Mead at the Nevada-Arizona border. Some canyon scenery down there "looks very similar" to views from the pit, Benton said.

"I see the beauty in this rather than the ugliness," he added.

The water is a dark coffee color, except around the edges, which are marked by gradations of rust, starting at golden amber and deepening on through to the browns.

The water is so opaque that it's tough to spot the thin, fluid line separating the rock walls themselves from their reflections in the water.

Each time the boat goes out, the landscape looks a little different because the water level is rising roughly a foot per month. Benton must steer clear of shallow spots where water has just climbed onto new benches.

The funnel-shaped pit lake is now about 760 feet deep at the center, with another 200 feet of sediment below that. The water has reached an elevation of 5,226 feet above sea level.

It will only be allowed to rise another 184 feet before perpetual pumping and treating will begin, probably around 2018.

When he ventures out on this water, Walsh's thoughts turn to the past, to all the families the mines have supported, all the valuable metals taken out.

"How can you not appreciate this?" Walsh said, as he took in the sight.

"This just isn't that bad," Benton added of the scars left behind.

"It's something that's there, something we've got to deal with," Walsh said. "It's nothing to be afraid of. We're doing the right thing."

Copyright 2014 The Billings Gazette. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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