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Death and Life in Berkeley Pit
December 6, 2011 11:05 AM   Subscribe

The Berkeley Pit in Butte, Montana started as an open pit copper mine in 1955, and was closed in 1982. At that time, groundwater pumping ceased and the pit started to flood, leading to what is now one of the largest Superfund sites. The water body was considered uninhabitable, with high concentrations of copper, cadmium, arsenic, aluminum, manganese and zinc and of pH of 2.5 (as acidic as a lemon), but in 1995, a small clump of green slime was noticed floating on the water's surface. Since then, the algae blooms have been studied as a possible method of remediation for the toxic waters. That same year, a migratory flock of snow geese landed in the pit lake. Stormy weather kept the flock on the lake, and when the weather cleared, 342 birds were dead. A Migratory Bird Protection Plan was then put in place, to prevent such occurrences from happening again. In the spring of 1996, a surprising discovery was made: yeast, which shouldn't grown in those pH levels, was surviving, and absorbing eighty-seven percent of the metals in the water. Furthermore, Andrea and Donald Stierle, professors who have been studying the pit lake since 1995, have found 70 compounds that might be medically useful.

For a couple dollars, you can visit Berkeley Pit and view it from afar. (via Slashdot)

See also:
* Even the Worst Laid Plans? - a Radiolab podcast
* Pit Watch, Comprehensive Info on the Berkeley Pit Superfund Site in Butte, Montana
* Previously: The Berkeley Pit Mascot
posted by filthy light thief (36 comments total) 55 users marked this as a favorite

 
This is absolutely fascinating. I was aware of the bad stuff; that good things could emerge from the mess is (a) astonishing, and (b) further evidence that fact can often be far more bizarre than fiction. Cool post.
posted by kinnakeet at 11:13 AM on December 6, 2011 [2 favorites]


On Earth Day 1982 Arco announced it was suspending operations in Butte and shutting down the pumps in the [Kelley] mine, which had been preventing the vertical shafts, horizontal work ways, and the Pit itself from filling with acidic water.

Earth Day: you're doing it wrong.
posted by Kadin2048 at 11:14 AM on December 6, 2011 [4 favorites]


It's like the bizarre life that exists deep underwater at the hydrothermal vents. Only this is man-made. How long before the swamp thing crawls out of there ? (I think Douglas Adams had a riff like that too..)
posted by k5.user at 11:15 AM on December 6, 2011


After all, it’s an abandoned open pit copper mine filled with an estimated forty billion gallons of acidic, metal-contaminated water—part of the largest Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Superfund site in the United States, and an ongoing liability for its “responsible parties,” the Atlantic Richfield Company (which merged into British Petroleum) and Montana Resources.

Of course.
posted by T.D. Strange at 11:15 AM on December 6, 2011 [4 favorites]


There's also a radiolab on the mine and the geese
posted by exois at 11:17 AM on December 6, 2011 [1 favorite]


or I could read the whole post
posted by exois at 11:17 AM on December 6, 2011 [2 favorites]


I haven't been able to confirm this, but I live nearish to the Berkeley Pit and someone once told me that it took the mining trucks eleven hours to spiral their way out of the pit. That is one big hole.
posted by Polyhymnia at 11:23 AM on December 6, 2011


Life is robust and determined on this planet. Sometimes when I am sure we're going to snuff ourselves out and take a lot of flora and fauna with us, it comforts me a little to know that the bacteria, slime, and probably the goddamn kudzu will keep right on growing.
posted by emjaybee at 11:24 AM on December 6, 2011


Nice deflection of possible Radiolab hate there, exois. I for one would rather drink some of the water in that mine than listen to a Radiolab show about it ;)
posted by ReeMonster at 11:30 AM on December 6, 2011 [2 favorites]


please please please do not show this to conservative talk radio
posted by stupidsexyFlanders at 11:31 AM on December 6, 2011 [7 favorites]


Its always nice to see that, as biological history would predict, there exists a good selection of prokaryotes and specialized eukaryotes that will survive the horrendous wasteland we leave behind on this planet.

Diversity through adversity!
posted by Slackermagee at 11:38 AM on December 6, 2011 [1 favorite]


Life is robust and determined on this planet.

I find it interesting that people seem to assume it's only here that life finds a way in places we assume it can't. Heck, even if we nuked the whole planet, there would be life somewhere that would survive and adapt.

please please please do not show this to conservative talk radio

No kidding, i can see them saying "See!! We don't need regulations and can pollute all we want!". :P
posted by usagizero at 11:46 AM on December 6, 2011


No kidding, i can see them saying "See!! We don't need regulations and can pollute all we want

"Because all kinds of interesting and novel lifeforms will evolve to adapt to the altered environment...ooooops."
posted by yoink at 11:54 AM on December 6, 2011 [12 favorites]


Interesting. I bet a lot of this stuff could be replicated in the lab as well. Start with some bacteria, yeast, whatever and slowly slowly start adding toxins. If you give the stuff slowly, it will cause the stuff to evolve to handle the chemicals.

If you keep this up long enough you should end up with pretty stable bio-forms that can handle those chemicals. Stuff like that has been done for heat and pressure. It's a pretty time-consuming process, but I bet it would better then simply trying to modify genes and guess about what genes will allow them to survive by hand.
posted by delmoi at 12:00 PM on December 6, 2011 [1 favorite]


Or throw a bunch of weird stuff into some toxic soup and see what happens, as was the case with the poor snow geese, as the only place that yeast had ever been seen was in the rectal swabs of geese. By adding the yeast alone, it would not have been able to reproduce. But keep the host of dead geese around, and it had time to adapt.
posted by filthy light thief at 12:04 PM on December 6, 2011 [1 favorite]


Metafilter: rectal swabs of geese
posted by Hairy Lobster at 12:21 PM on December 6, 2011


I'd heard of Phytoremediation before, but I was looking for a cool project where they planted something that leached (I believe it was) copper out of the soil. They then harvested the plants and sold off the copper contained in their leaves. Seemed like the perfect solution.
posted by Phreesh at 12:33 PM on December 6, 2011 [1 favorite]


The major problems with phytoremediation are speed and removal of all contamination. Landfarming wastes can be part of a contaminant reduction scheme, but it's not a magic bullet. Things take many growing seasons---I've been to remediation sites decades after and still found contamination where the plants or micro-organisms haven't been able to grow. This is a problem because wastes tend to spread over time.

Microbe colonies as well tend to not reduce contamination to the levels required by law. Further treatment is often required.

Finally, unlike organic pollutants which can get broken down, the best that can happen with metals wastes is sequestration, usually by being buried in the bottom mud, and/or mineralization, conversion back to rocks. Again, both of these processes can take decades to work.
posted by bonehead at 12:43 PM on December 6, 2011 [2 favorites]


Nifty set of links. On a smaller scale.

Also, those things that will rise out of the pit at night, they're not like us!
posted by Lesser Shrew at 12:45 PM on December 6, 2011


I haven't been able to confirm this, but I live nearish to the Berkeley Pit and someone once told me that it took the mining trucks eleven hours to spiral their way out of the pit. That is one big hole.
posted by Polyhymnia at 3:23 PM on December 6 [+] [!]


Yeah, um no. The pit is one mile long by half a mile wide with an approximate depth of 1,780 feet (540 m) (wiki)
The world largest pit (Chuquicamata, by volume, a few years ago) is 4.3 km long, 3 km wide and over 900 m deep. Don't forget you don't spiral down every bench, the road cuts through the benches.
posted by defcom1 at 12:45 PM on December 6, 2011 [1 favorite]


please please please do not show this to conservative talk radio

Why do you hate making life stronger so much?
posted by Zed at 12:50 PM on December 6, 2011


If a goose dies in a lake, and there's nobody around to mourn it...?
posted by carsonb at 12:50 PM on December 6, 2011


If you keep this up long enough you should end up with pretty stable bio-forms that can handle those chemicals. Stuff like that has been done for heat and pressure.

and antibiotics!
posted by fritley at 1:08 PM on December 6, 2011 [3 favorites]


For a couple dollars, you can visit Berkeley Pit and view it from afar .

No, don't, because then you'll have to go to Butte. Really, just... don't.
posted by desjardins at 1:20 PM on December 6, 2011 [2 favorites]


Amazing (and amazingly haunting) story about the Pit by the award-winning Mark Levine: As the Snake Did Away with the Geese. Includes some handy links to Levine's other longform work.
posted by Scoop at 1:24 PM on December 6, 2011 [1 favorite]


For those who may have passed it over, I highly recommend the link on "The Berkeley Pit Mascot," pointing to a 2005 FPP. Some of the links are broken but this obit of the shaggy dog is still up. Here is an article about the dog (and Butte) from when the dog was still among the living. Yet another of the interesting life forms to flourish in this environment...
posted by dhens at 1:41 PM on December 6, 2011 [2 favorites]


Don't forget The Daily Show's visit to the Pit. I'd totally stop there if I ever find myself in Montana.
posted by asperity at 3:33 PM on December 6, 2011 [1 favorite]


Oh, and for more acid mine drainage fabulousness, see last year's post on the Iron Mountain Mine.
posted by asperity at 3:38 PM on December 6, 2011 [1 favorite]


It looks like there's residential suburbs less than a mile from the pit. That's gotta be just odd to have a giant toxic lake just out of view.
posted by sammyo at 4:34 PM on December 6, 2011


I went there last year. It's amazing.
posted by unknowncommand at 4:41 PM on December 6, 2011 [1 favorite]


I wonder what kind of beer geese bum toxic waste eating yeast makes.
posted by onya at 4:54 PM on December 6, 2011 [6 favorites]


Perhaps Blue Point Toxic Sludge, complete with a bird skull on the label, though it's a reference to a different sort of toxic sludge.
posted by filthy light thief at 7:30 PM on December 6, 2011




au contraire, Chekhovian
posted by unknowncommand at 7:21 AM on December 7, 2011


ahhh...Home Sweet Home
posted by The_Auditor at 7:50 AM on December 7, 2011 [1 favorite]


Thanks defcom1. The more I thought about that, the more it completely did not make sense to me!
posted by Polyhymnia at 11:43 AM on December 7, 2011


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