When 10,000 snow geese stopped to rest in Butte, in late November, the birds didn’t know they were landing in a toxic pit filled with acidic wastewater.
Hawk calls, intended to to scare away other birds, blare from speakers surrounding the pit.
Mark Thompson is standing on a ledge overlooking the former open-pit copper mine. He’s the environmental affairs manager for Montana Resources.
There are other noises too; sounds of helicopters and sirens.
When the noises don’t work at keeping birds off the water, miners taking a shift at the overlook use rifles to shoot close enough to birds to scare them away. Rifle shells are scattered all over the ground here.
This strategy to keep birds out of the Berkeley pit has been in place for more than two decades, ever since more than 300 birds died there in an incident in the mid-1990s.
"So it was a very effective plan, until two weeks ago," says Mark Thompson.
Montana Resources, along with the former Berkeley pit mining company Atlantic Richfield, is responsible for keeping birds out of the toxic water.
But, their plan wasn’t adequate for what happened on November 28:
"When we say tens of thousands of birds in one night. Something we have never seen and that plan has never had to deal with or manage. Our observations and hazing that first morning, the account that was given to me was that the entire pit, which is 700 acres of water, was covered in white birds," Thompson says.
The news of the bird deaths in Butte went international. Thompson and his colleagues say they’ve gotten emails from as far away as Norway, outraged about what happened. He says there were a few people who suggested he and his family go take a swim in the toxic lake.
Butte claimed the name "The Richest Hill on Earth," back when miners dug millions of tons of copper ore out of the ground.
But, when the Berkley pit closed in the 1980s, it became a source of uneasy nostalgia, a manufactured tourist attraction with a $2 admission fee. It became a token of Butte’s past.
"Mining is really what made our community. Mining, in a sense, is really what made the state of Montana. But in a sense, now, it has the potential to destroy our town," says Fritz Daily.
Daily has lived in Butte his whole life and served seven terms in the Montana Legislature.
He wants you to know that he’s not anti-mining. He says mining is what Butte is all about. He’s proud to call it home:
"Anyone who doesn't realize the seriousness of this, and the potential negative ramifications from this is a fool," Daily says. "When you Google Butte, Montana today, what you get is 3,000 geese died in the Berkeley Pit. And what is played out by the media is that that's Butte, Montana, and they’re responsible. Well, that is not fair, 'cause we're not responsible for it. Atlantic Richfield, British Petroleum company and the Environmental Protection Agency are totally, 100 percent responsible."
Daily says the EPA needs a faster plan to clean up the Berkeley Pit. And he blames the Atlantic Richfield Company for flooding the mine to begin with, creating all that water for the geese to land on.
Nikia Green, a project manager in Butte for the Environmental Protection Agency, says the agency is following the timeline for their remedy plan for the pit:
"And if we have to treat in perpetuity to protect human health and the environment, that is what we need to do."
Green says the pit is like a sink that is constantly being filled with ground water. And in the next few years a treatment plant will being to clean and pump out the wastewater, but no one anticipates it will ever be dry.
"It’s a mineralized area," Green says, "so there will always be that source of those minerals. And so we are going to be treating for a very long time"
Green says he can’t say yet if Montana Resources and ARCO are responsible for the geese deaths.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is currently testing more than a dozen of the geese at a lab in Madison, Wisconsin to learn more about their deaths. Those lab results are expected to be released to the public sometime in January.
The service’s initial estimate is that between 3,000 and 4,000 geese died.
A spokesperson for service says the agency does have regulatory authority to hand out a penalty of $5,000 each for harming or killing a migratory bird, but he said, at the moment, the service is just determining what caused the birds to die.
Mark Thompson with Montana Resources says they’re going to have to find new ways to keep birds out. On the night the birds landed, Thompson says he and his crews realized the plan they had in place wasn’t enough:
"We tried all kinds of things we’d never used before. Drones and stuff like that. On the water drones, aerial drones, any idea anybody could come up with, we gave it a try. And it's disheartening, the situation, having been with those guys who were out there, working so hard, fighting so hard. It’s a tough situation for them. It's a tough situation for us, and it’s certainly nothing we've ever, ever wanted to see happen here."
Thompson says there is going to be a big review of what’s called the Berkeley Pit Waterfowl Mitigation Plan, to see what technology is out there to prevent something like this happening again:
"I think with the right resources, the right understanding of how to effectively haze that many birds, I think it could have been, to a very large extent, prevented," Thompson says.
The EPA is currently investigating whether the miners of the pit followed that mitigation plan. If the EPA’s research finds that the mitigation plan needs to change, those changes would be at the expense of Montana Resources and ARCO.
Thompson says when mining in the Berkeley pit began; he was an eighth grader living in another state. He says he’s not the guy who made all this happen; he’s just the guy trying to keep it from happening in the future:
"I’m not trying to make excuses for the situation. I’m not trying to make excuses for the Berkeley pit. But there is a cause and effect for the Berkeley pit. And the cause was the demand for copper. That demand for copper still exists just like it did in 1955 when the Berkeley Pit was started. Let’s not get on our high horses too fast before we realize the benefits we reaped from the Berkeley pit, and mines just like it," Thompson says.
Montana Resources mines right next to the Berkeley Pit, in a newer pit. But, Thompson says mining is a lot more environmentally aware now. Things that were socially and legally allowed back in the '50s, he says, aren't allowed anymore.
But, 71-year-old Butte lifer Fritz Daily is still worried about what happens if the past keeps on knocking. He says he’s seen Butte’s population drop from 65,000 in the 1980s down to around 34,000 today. He says the geese deaths are one more story that does not help Butte’s reputation. He says the town is growing old and it needs those in power to take better care of it:
"I’m close to going out and watching the airplanes come in every day. That’s where I am in my life. I’m not a kid any more, I wish I was, but I'm not" Daily says. "The future is at stake. And I don’t know how to say it better than that."
When the toxic waste pit in Butte turned white with the wings of dying snow geese, it reminded the old mining town of its identity — something in the past, not completely gone, and it's dirty. But, there’s a pride there and it’s buried deep too.