Time to Put the toxins back into Berkeley Pit
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?
A 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.
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.
George Ochenski is a longtime Helena resident, an environmental activist and Montana’s longest-running columnist.
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