Time to Put the toxins back into Berkeley Pit

November 10, 2023 4:39 am

The toxic Berkeley Pit is seen from the Visitor Information and Viewing Stand on July 6, 2017 in Butte, Montana. Formerly an open pit copper mine, today the Berkeley Pit is part of the largest Superfund site in the United States. In its heyday, in the 1880s, the Butte area was known as the “Richest Hill on Earth” due to the bonanza in copper and other metals. (Photo by Janie Osborne/Getty Images)

As Butte faces yet more trauma from its 40-plus year Superfund struggle to remediate the environmental damages from historic mining and smelting, an old idea has resurfaced.

Namely, instead of digging up more of the area to build yet another “catbox cleanup” repository and bury toxic tailings and soils, why not put the wastes back in the pit from whence they came so many years ago?

recent column by Don Petritz did a great job of describing the Environmental Protection Agency’s failed attempt to stick a waste repository in Timber Butte three years ago. As Petritz put it, when residents saw engineers putting up flagging and were told about the plans for the repository: “Timber Butte neighbors rose up, gathered their pitchforks and lit their torches and quickly let all the Superfund powers-that-be know that they were not going to accept the repository in their neighborhood.”

Facing the “pitchforks and torches,” the EPA dropped the site. But after two generations of EPA personnel have come and gone, Butte continues to struggle with the enormous environmental damage done by a century of unregulated mining, open-air smelting and little attention to where the toxic by-products wound up.

The latest “catbox” attempt by the EPA is to stick a new repository in the Centerville/Dublin Gulch area to hold a million cubic yards of toxic wastes. ARCO-BP, the responsible party for the remediation, is all in on the “bury it and walk away” plan. Then again, that’s nothing new.
Way back in 1991 the Legislature’s Environmental Quality Council held a hearing on what to do with the vast amounts of waste in and surrounding Butte, Anaconda and the highly toxic sludge from behind the failing Milltown Dam.
Having been involved with the Anaconda-Butte Superfund issues for a decade by then, when it came my turn to make a suggestion, it was to “put it all back in the pit, cover it, put a cap on it, and turn it back into something resembling a Montana landscape — not a moonscape.” A Republican senator and broadcaster from Billings, Dave Rye, said “that’s the best idea we’ve heard all day.”
And indeed, it made sense since the pit had not yet become the largest body of highly toxic water on the planet. It was beginning to fill from the atmospheric precipitation and groundwater influx, but being funnel-shaped, there was plenty of volume to take Butte’s toxic wastes, Anaconda’s slag mountain, and the massive Yankee Doodle Tailings, which sit out of sight behind an earthen dam above the pit.
Moreover, the toxics from Milltown or Anaconda could be economically and environmentally transported to the pit in covered boxcars on existing rail lines, thus avoiding the many dangers of moving thousands of open trucks on the highways and streets.

When Sen. Rye asked ARCO’s lobbyist, Sandy Stash, for her opinion, she blurted out: “There’s not enough money in the world to do that.” Mind you, there was “enough money in the world” to mine the copper ore, haul it to the surface, transport it to Anaconda for smelting, and ship it all over the planet — but not enough money to push the toxic remnants back in the pit and treat the effluent, which they have to do anyway.

Montanans have heard the phony excuses and lies from ARCO-BP, one of wealthiest corporations in the world, for decades now. It’s time to knock off their “catbox cleanups” and give serious consideration to putting the enormous volume of toxic wastes from Butte and the Upper Clark Fork right back where it came from — in the Berkeley Pit.

George Ochenski is a longtime Helena resident, an environmental activist and Montana’s longest-running columnist.

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.