Butte, Montana: Berkeley Pit Toxic Waste Site


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.

My Visit

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.

If and when the water reaches 5,410′, the pit will contain 57 billion gallons of water.  About 5,000 gallons of water flow into the pit, every minute.  Fortunately the pit grows wider as the water climbs higher, so there’s more room to hold more water.

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.

No surprise, the water in the Berkeley Pit contains a lot of copper, and it’s still valuable.  The water itself is now being mined, through a simple process that pumps water out, then pours it over scrap iron.  The resulting chemical process causes copper to fall out of the water, before it’s returned to the pit.  Montana Resources hopes to retrieve 400,000 pounds of copper every month from the pit water.

In 1995, 342 migrating snow geese died, after landing on the pit water and spending a couple of days there.  PitWatch explains that these birds simply stayed too long–if they had flown away after just a few hours, they probably would have been OK.  Even so, the pit’s owners want to avoid another embarrassing situation like this.  Now, they actively look for birds that have landed on the water, and try to scare them away by shooting into the air.  There are noise-generating devices that should also discourage them.  And if all else fails, there’s a small houseboat ready to set sail in the pit, to allow the birds to be shoo’d away by a human.

Get this: there could be cancer-fighting organisms swimming around in all that toxic water.  They’re called “extremophiles” because of their ability to live in such an extreme environment.  Of course, the research could take decades.  Read about the discovery in this ABC News article.

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.

As of 2006, the only way to visit the statue up-close is to hop aboard a bus tour, which climbs up to the base of the statue.  The bus tour takes about 2 1/2 hours round-trip.  Tickets are sold, and the bus departs from, the Butte Plaza Mall.  You aren’t allowed to drive to the statue on your own, because the road that leads to it passes over private land.  Plans are in the works for a tram, which will carry people up to the base of the statue in a matter of minutes, but it hasn’t been built yet.  You can visit the Our Lady of the Rockies website here.  There’s also an interesting documentary which you can view online, here.

If you’re not willing to ride the bus, or wait for the tram to be built, you’ll have to enjoy the view from the valley floor.  While you can see the statue almost everywhere, there’s no great spot to photograph it.  I pulled into a parking lot off Continental Drive, south of the Berkeley Pit, to take the picture you see above.

Note: This trip was first published in 2006.  Much of the same area was covered in the Big Sky trip in 2014.

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