The first email came from a friend in Vancouver. Had I heard that a huge flock of snow geese had once again landed in Butte’s Berkeley Pit? A few minutes later, a colleague in Maine sent a link: A London newspaper had just reported that at least a thousand geese, maybe many more, were already dead.
I knew then that history was repeating itself — first as tragedy, this time as disaster.
In mid-November 1995, a flock of snow geese landed on the Berkeley Pit “lake,” the flooded remnants of an immense open-pit copper mine in the southwestern Montana town of Butte. Trapped by a winter storm, the birds drank deadly amounts of acidic pit water, laden with arsenic, cadmium, copper and other heavy metals. Workers eventually pulled 342 bodies from the pit, the birds’ white feathers stained orange.
The people of Butte have never forgotten. Last year was the 20th anniversary of the tragedy, and I joined an effort to create a memorial for the geese. Students in a colleague’s public-art class here at Montana State University in Bozeman, about 90 miles from Butte, tried to imagine what the memorial should look like, and the most promising designs were displayed at the Imagine Butte Resource Center. The center even came up with a catchy slogan: “May the flock be with you.” But it was difficult to envision a memorial that would do justice to the 1995 tragedy without also reinforcing the world’s mistaken impression of Butte as nothing but a toxic wasteland.
Now those concerns seem naive. Early this December, an immense flock of snow geese — perhaps as many as 25,000 birds — assembled on the pit lake. The valiant efforts of workers scared off the majority. But many others stayed and drank the lethal pit water, and their doom was sealed.
Today, the pit walls are unstable, making it too dangerous to send out boats to collect the dead geese, the way workers did in 1995. But visual body counts indicate that more than a thousand birds are dead.
In the early 1980s, Butte and the Berkeley Pit became part of the nation’s largest Superfund site. Despite many delays, the federal cleanup has been a tremendous success, and today, Butte is safer and cleaner than ever. However, the Environmental Protection Agency concluded that there was no economically feasible way to permanently clean up the Berkeley Pit. Instead, the toxic water will need to be continuously pumped and cleaned for thousands of years.
The pit only operated from 1955 to 1982. Yet barring some future technological breakthrough, it will remain a hazard to snow geese and most other forms of life for a length of time we can hardly imagine, a timespan almost geological in nature. Think of it: It took a mere quarter of a century to create an environmental disaster whose effects will endure for millennia.
We might take some comfort today in knowing that the Berkeley Pit was the product of a bygone age of human hubris and reckless natural exploitation, a time before there was a Clean Water Act or an EPA. Yet the news about the latest deaths was only a few hours old when I heard that President-elect Donald Trump had tapped a longtime foe of environmental regulation to head the EPA.
Hubris and recklessness, it seems, are back in style.
Ornithologists once called the snow geese Hyperborea — Latin for “Beyond the realm of the North Wind,” an enchanting name for an elegant bird. Now, even as you read these words, the corpses of thousands of snow-white geese are slowly sinking into the dark watery depths of the pit. Acidic water will dissolve their bodies, and soon, nothing will remain to testify to their passing.
Some will be glad when the geese disappear. Photos of piles of rust-stained bodies could challenge the notion that unregulated industries will painlessly make America great again.
But for those with grander visions of our future, this latest tragedy might yet be an opportunity. Imagine a Berkeley Pit transformed by art and engineering into a starkly beautiful monument, one that draws people from around the world. The pit might become a sort of high-tech lighthouse, sending out a warning for thousands of years to come, something that both snow geese and humans can comprehend.
To the snow geese: Fly by. Death awaits you here.
To the humans: Act cautiously. A few years of foolishness can poison your future for millennia.
May the flock always be with us.
Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at firstname.lastname@example.org.