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Butte Holds 'Wake' For Birds Killed In Berkeley Pit

Olga Kreimer
Children were a big part of the Hope For Snow Geese event in Butte Saturday

On a sunny Saturday, while thousands were marching for science around the world, about 50 people gathered inside the Knights of Columbus Hall in Butte for a different kind of Earth Day celebration.

It was what 74-year-old Mary Kay Craig was calling a Butte-style wake.

“Well I’m Irish, so what am I supposed to say?” she asked.

Craig is with the Citizens for Labor and Environmental Justice and she organized the event, called Hope for Snow Geese.

“In Butte, you’d go to a wake and people would be maybe crying, but there was more jokes being told and more fun being had," she said, "and the deceased always enjoyed it, I think.”

In this case, the deceased is not a friend or relative, it’s the more than three thousand snow geese that died in the Berkeley Pit’s vast pool of toxic mine waste last November, an incident that horrified and angered many residents.

In response, Craig wanted to hold a tribute that would bring people together to mourn, heal, and honor the geese with live music, art, poetry, speeches, and calls to action.

Fifth grader Samantha Landfair took the stage first to show off her award-winning science project about how to keep waterfowl from landing on the Pit using LED lights.

“Birds are a big part of our lives - so they should not be dying from toxic pit water!” Landfair told the crowd.

Butte fifth-grader Samantha Landfair
Credit Olga Kreimer
Butte fifth-grader Samantha Landfair

She tested the lights on chickens, her dog, and wild birds.

“It scared all the birds away and I believe that my experiment will work to save the snow geese on their next migration through Butte, Montana," she said. 

Stella Capoccia, a biology professor at Montana Tech, is the chair of the new bird advisory committee for the Berkeley Pit. She said Landfair could be on to something, and invited community members to keep sharing creative solutions.

She outlined some new technologies they’re considering, like lasers, remote control boats and big nets, but explained the logistical and political challenges with each one. So while there are a lot of great ideas being floated -

“We don’t know how to do it yet,” Capoccia said. 

Local artists also gave their take on the snow geese tragedy. Kristi Hager, who calls the Berkeley Pit her muse - read her poem called “Not Water.”

“When we call it what it is, we are all called to name our poison and change it back into water," Hager said.

Hager was one of a number of people there who were in the same pink and white ballroom, 21 years ago, for an almost identical event.

She told me she was inspired to write that poem after the first snow geese die off, in 1995, when 342 birds perished under similar circumstances.

"I remember them, meaning ARCO, kind of blaming the victims. Like it was their fault for landing on the pit. And then they drank the water. And it just occurred to me: it’s not water. And until we stop calling it water, we’re not gonna fix it," Hager said.

Missoula artist Kristi Hager
Credit Olga Kreimer
Missoula artist Kristi Hager

This time around, at the second snow geese memorial, there were no pointing fingers.

Mark Thompson is the environmental affairs manager at Montana Resources, the company that now owns the Pit. He told the crowd about the conditions that created the “perfect storm” last fall and overwhelmed their waterfowl mitigation program.

For over 20 years, their program, which uses tools like spotlights, rifles noises and firecrackers, had been 99 percent effective.

“When you have a successful program, sometimes you get a little complacent. Instead of developing that program with new and innovative technologies like we’ve seen, we stuck with what was working," Thompson said. 

Still, on November 28th, 2016, he said, “it probably wouldn’t be exaggerating to say in that one night, there were more birds in Butte than we had seen in 21 years.”

Despite the efforts of his crew, they just couldn’t haze off all the birds in time.

So now, they’re working with a council of experts to explore and test new strategies like radars, canons, and aerial and on-the-water drones that can either push birds away from the Pit or pull them to a different location.

To residents and activists in Butte, Thompson’s openness and presence at an event hosted by environmental organizations was a big deal, and a sign of progress.

But they also say that the bird deaths are symbolic of a much bigger problem, the fact that Butte has been waiting on the government for decades for a thorough cleanup of multiple toxic sites that are the legacy of a century of copper mining.

David McCumber, the editor of the Montana Standard newspaper, made a statement that got a sea of head nods around the room.

“Butte has been neglected and traded off and dismissed and lied to and shafted too many times," McCumber said. 

He said that Butte deserves the best clean up that science and technology can buy.

“We need to keep fighting to make sure our politicians know we will settle for no less," he said. "And that a status quo where thousands of birds come here to die every few years is not good enough.”

Butte resident Terri Ruggles agrees. She was trying to give away some of the five hundred cookies she baked, disappointed at what she considered to be a low turnout and an endless clean-up.

“It’s unconscionable that ARCO has let us sit in this pit of toxicity for all of these years and they are never going to remediate it unless we get vocal," Ruggles said, "and I hope that this gathering is just the beginning.”

But for others, there, the energy at the multi-generational event and the flurry of community-led restoration activities are a sign that Butte residents are waking up.

Rayelynn Connole, who runs the Clark Fork Watershed Education Program, wants Butte to set an example for other cities around the world who face similar complex issues.

“That’s the kind of legacy we need to start living is that, yes Butte has an environmental disaster, but we know how to clean it up," Connole said. "We know how to do this work.”

She called on the next generation to get involved early and often, and not wait for the government to fix things.

Ten-year-old Collette Vines is one kid who seems eager to meet that challenge.

All afternoon she was perfecting her self-taught balloon animal technique. Now, she counts snow geese as part of her repertoire.

“My hope for snow geese is that they won’t die out and the Berkeley Pit will be solved by then. And there will all be peace," Vines said. 

Collette Vines-Conlan
Credit Olga Kreimer
Collette Vines-Conlan

A necropsy report released by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service last week confirmed that exposure to heavy metals and sulfuric acid did in fact kill the approximately 3,000 - 4,000 snow geese that ingested liquid from the Berkeley Pit.

Montana Resources and ARCO, who are responsible for the site, could be fined up to $5,000 per bird.

Nora Saks is a reporter and producer based in Butte, MT.
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