Montana Faces Eternal Clean-Up of Toxic Lake

Long before Hurricane Katrina inundated New Orleans with what officials describe as a dangerous toxic soup, Montana's mining capital struggled to deal with a massive watery hazard.

BUTTE, Montana — Long before Hurricane Katrina inundated New Orleans with what officials describe as a dangerous toxic soup, Montana's mining capital struggled to deal with a massive watery hazard.

Even as bad as the sewage and chemical infested water around New Orleans may be, the Berkeley Pit, a toxic lake filling a 1-1/2 by 1 mile open pit mine in Butte (pop. 34,000) may pose an even greater long-term ecological risk.

The site, which includes land near the lake, is the largest Superfund environmental clean-up project in the country in terms of area. The Superfund program, created in 1980 and run by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, seeks to clean up the worst U.S. hazardous waste sites.

Unlike the sudden devastation of the Gulf Coast floods, the Berkeley Pit mess was many decades in the making, a legacy of the demand for copper wire spurred by electrification that made Butte America's mother lode of copper, generating an estimated $48 billion in mineral wealth.

The "Copper Kings" of the Butte mines made vast riches starting in the 1870s. By 1955, Anaconda Mining Company decided it was most economical to engage in open-pit mining rather than to continue digging a maze of underground shafts.


The Atlantic Richfield Company, which is now owned by BP bought Anaconda in 1977, and ended active mining in the Berkeley Pit in 1982.

Since then, highly acidic underground water has continuously seeped into the pit from higher land, creating a rust-colored lake.

The Berkeley Pit, a remnant of what was once called "the richest hill on Earth", has also become Butte's top tourist attraction where visitors pay a small fee to enter a viewing platform and read about the lake's history. But if its lake rises above a certain level, it will ruin the town's ground water.

"The plan is to continue with pumps to keep the water below that level and then treat the water that they pump out and that's going to have to go on until the end of time," Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer said in an interview.

The water, with high concentrations of copper, arsenic and other metals, is dangerous enough that officials will warn off birds with gunfire, for a stay at the lake could prove fatal, as in 1995 when 342 snow geese died.

"If there is a lesson, it is that actions have consequences; know your consequences," Gavin Scally, Atlantic Richfield's deputy regional manager said about its history.


What to do about the consequences is set out in a 2002 court-approved deal in which Atlantic Richfield and Montana Resources, a separate company which still mines a nearby pit, assumed joint responsibility for future clean up.

Under that agreement, a $20 million plant and pumps are treating contaminated surface water that used to flow into the Berkeley Pit.

Atlantic Richfield will also start pumping from the Berkeley Pit itself as the water level -- fed by underground aquifers -- begins to approach the dangerous mark of 5,410 feet above sea level, something estimated to happen in 2020.

The effort is costing at least $1 million a year. "If we could have come up with a solution that would have been better for the environment and low cost, we would have done it," Scally said.

Some say the never-ending clean-up costs leave a bad financial deal for future generations.

"The end of time is a long time so I wonder if all of the value of the copper that we took out will match the expenditure that we will make trying to clean up the mess," Gov. Schweitzer told Reuters.

He also expressed concern that the public sector may one day wind up shouldering costs of the clean-up even though the profits flowed to private hands. "It was a few rascals that made all the money. But I guess that is in some ways the story of the West," he said

The Montana Bureau of Mines and Geology estimates the Butte hill produced more than $48 billion in mineral wealth. The costs included 2,300 deaths from mining accidents, not including chronic illness sparked by mine exposure.

Even though the Berkeley Pit is not being actively mined, privately owned Montana Resources says it still extracts about 400,000 pounds of copper a month by filtering the water there.

The company is also operating the nearby smaller Continental Pit that will also have to be treated into the future. The firm says it has extracted more than 1.2 billion pounds of copper since its operations began in 1986.

The environmental manager for Montana Resources, Tad Dale, gave an impassioned defense of society's need for mining, but declined to be quoted for this article.

Russ Forba, the Environmental Protection Agency project manager for Berkeley Pit, estimates the perpetual treatment costs at $100 million, which includes the cost of inflation and of interest earned on the clean-up funds.

"That mine makes a lot more than $100 million a year," Forba said. "It's expensive but there's been a lot earned from that pit and there will be a lot in the future."

He said future technologies could devise better and cheaper ways to treat the toxic water.

"I guess I would call it a success," he said of the clean-up. "No, it's not a natural lake sitting there, it's not filled in, but it's contained, it doesn't pose a significant risk to human health and the environment."

Source: Reuters