Butte’s history as a mining town has left it with a unique landscape, covered with funky old buildings and rickety-looking mining headframes. But you don’t have to look far to discover that the mining industry has also taken its toll on the land, and left the city with a tremendous environmental disaster, known as the Berkeley Pit.
The Berkeley Pit viewing stand is located on Continental Drive. Continental Drive is (more or less) the outer boundary of development on the east side of town. From Uptown Butte, take Park Street east–it will turn into Continental Drive–then watch for the viewing stand’s parking area as you drive around the outside of the pit.
As far as I know, the Berkeley Pit is the only place in the country where you can pay good money to see toxic waste. Visitors gladly fork over $2 because, after all, this is not your average environmental disaster. No sirree, this is the mother of them all, the country’s largest superfund site. There’s 37 billion gallons of of highly acidic, toxic water, laden with heavy metals and chemicals like arsenic and sulfuric acid. And you wanted to see it for free? C’mon!
So, plunk down your $2 and walk through the long tunnel, which takes you through the outer wall of the pit.
Once you’re in the pit, you can’t go very far. There’s a viewing stand that allows you to see the whole thing, but you aren’t allowed to go any closer (nor would you want to).
The pit fills your field of view, stretching from one corner of your eye to the other. It’s remarkably large, and amazingly deadly-looking. The water has many different colors, depending on the light. Most of the time, it’s somewhere between red and brown, although I have seen some pictures where it appears blue (not a natural blue, but a disturbing shade that occurs no where in nature).
Decades ago, the mining industry in Butte was entirely underground. As companies hauled out ore from one tunnel after another, the entire hill above Butte became so hollow, that someone figured out it would make more sense to just remove all the rock, forming an enormous pit. Everything was great from the 1950’s until around 1982, when the mine closed, and the pumps that had previously removed all the seeping groundwater from the hole were turned off. The groundwater began filling the pit, and even today, the water level is still rising.
As of 2006, the water level in the pit is 5,259 feet above sea level. The government has set a critical level–5,410 feet. The water must not go above that level, and if the current flow continues, it shouldn’t reach the critical level until around 2020.
So what happens in 2020? A treatment center is now operating at the edge of the pit. For now, it treats water from other mining operations that would have otherwise drained into the pit. Around 2018, if all goes well, it should be able to begin pulling water from the pit, treating it, then discharging it elsewhere.
Our Lady of the Rockies Statue
Overlooking all of Butte is Our Lady of the Rockies, a 90-foot statue atop the Continental Divide, on the east side of town (almost directly above the I-90/I-15 interchange). The statue was placed there in 1985, and was lifted up the mountain in four sections by a Sikorsky Sky Crane helicopter. A tremendous volunteer effort made it all happen–a true testament to the people of Butte.
Note: This trip was first published in 2006. Much of the same area was covered in the Big Sky trip in 2014.