The people who manage the Berkeley Pit want to use lasers and cannons to try to save lives of migratory birds. Thousands of geese were killed last fall in the poisonous water of Butte’s Berkeley Pit. It was an environmental catastrophe that Mark Thompson hopes is never repeated.
"I absolutely am committed to never having to put Montana Resources employees through that again, or this community through that," says Thompson.
Thompson is the environmental affairs manager for Montana Resources, which jointly manages the former open-pit mine along with the BP-owned Atlantic Richfield Company.
In 1995, 342 snow geese died in the pit – a 900-foot deep Superfund site filled with concentrated, acidic mining waste – under circumstances similar to November’s incident. Since then the companies developed a plan to prevent any more unnecessary bird fatalities.
And Mark Thompson says it’s generally worked well over the past two decades.
"And over that same period of time there have only been 200 mortalities," Thompson says. "That means that 99.8 percent of the time that a bird enters the Berkeley Pit, or in the area of the Berkeley Pit, they left the Berkeley Pit alive."
But last November was a game changer for ARCO and Montana Resources. The two companies have since submitted a plan to the Environmental Protection Agency, Montana’s Department of Environmental Quality and the U.S Fish and Wildlife Service. It’s basically a three stage plan to double-down on keeping birds out of the Berkeley Pit.
"One is to increase our ability to know when there’s a higher potential for very large groups of birds to come through this area," says Thompson.
Meaning even more contact with people on the ground at known migratory stops south and north of Butte. Unusually warm fall weather can also be a clue that more geese may move into the area.
"We’re looking at a red, yellow, green scenario with green being few migratory birds to a red condition being something like the conditions we saw in November of 2016. That way, we can inform our staff that, ‘Ok, make sure we’re doing everything we can to keep these birds away from the Berkeley Pit,’ ” Thompson says.
Which brings us to the plan’s second stage.
"Do everything we can to keep them away from the pit," says Thompson. "Don’t let them land."
The pit’s managers currently use what are called ‘static noise generators’ to keep birds away from the toxic stew. They now want to add propane cannons set to randomly discharge. Those cannons don’t actually shoot anything. They’re just rigged to fire a loud propane charge.
Motion detectors may one day be used to detonate the cannons when birds get too close. Either way, if approved, they’re bound to create a heck a racket.
"We’re going to test placement – where can we put them where we’re not going to affect some of our neighbors," says Thompson. "We don’t want to keep people up at night. We’ll listen to feedback from the community on placement of those."
High powered, green-colored lasers are also part of the strategy to keep birds out of the Berkeley Pit. Thompson says those laser lights are supposed to resemble the eyes of predators.
"So when they see a green dot, it’s like, 'Oh goodness there’s a coyote coming up behind me,' " says Thompson. "I’ve literally watched hundreds of videos of green laser deterrents, and it is remarkable how – particularly the geese species – respond to green lasers."
The proposed plan’s third stage would kick in if the birds break through all those defenses and land in the Berkeley Pit again.
"And for that we have our traditional hazing methods with firearms and warning shots," Thompson says. "We’ll also have the ability to deploy aerial and on-the-water drones to harass and haze the birds up out of the pit."
This tech the pit managers want to use doesn’t come cheap. Thompson estimates it could cost hundreds of thousands, if not close to one million dollars.
At this point, he says the price tag doesn’t really matter.
"We’re looking at everything, and we’re going to find a program that works. And that’s just how it’s going to be," says Thompson.
Thompson says all of the deterrents under consideration have effective track records at other facilities including airports and golf courses. Montana Resources and ARCO are still awaiting permission to implement their proposed plan.