BUTTE, Mont. - For 342 migrating snow geese, the infamous Berkeley Pit became their final stop. The birds were first discovered Nov. 14, their carcasses floating in the toxic waters of the shut down, open-pit copper mine. The initial body count at this federal Superfund site was 149; the total rose when officials realized the pit's contaminated water hindered the count by turning the snow-white geese brownish-orange.
As of this
writing, the cause of the birds' death is disputed. The Atlantic
Richfield Company (ARCO), a former owner of the Berkeley Pit and
currently jointly liable for its remediation, contends the
artificial lake did not kill the geese. ARCO cites necropsy
findings from a lab at Colorado State University. The CSU lab
determined that the two geese it tested died from an acute
aspergillosis infection, caused by a fungus often found on
The state of Montana reports that its labs
ruled out aspergillosis as a cause of death. Only one of five birds
tested revealed signs of aspergillosis, according to Candace West,
an attorney with Montana's Natural Resource Litigation
"We don't know yet what caused their
deaths," said West. "We just know that for the birds we tested,
aspergillosis fungus was not the cause of death."
New results from toxicity testing of tissue are
expected from ARCO's lab, from the state's labs, and from the U.S.
Fish and Wildlife Service. Although West would not speculate about
what those tests might reveal, she acknowledged a suspicion that
the pit was in some way culpable.
to think about 340 dead birds in the Berkeley Pit and not suspect
the pit's toxicity as a cause," she said. "Any reasonable person
would suspect it."
The pit, which is
approximately a mile wide, a mile-and-a-half long, and 1,200 feet
deep, contains roughly 25 billion gallons of contaminated water.
Every day an additional 5 million gallons flow into the pit. EPA
project manager Russ Forba said he believes elevated copper levels
in pit water could have affected the
"We've seen in the literature where Canada
geese were killed by high copper concentrations," he
Bill Olsen, an environmental contaminant
specialist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, noted that the
Berkeley Pit contains a cocktail of heavy metals. "You could almost
take your pick. The concentrations of copper, cadmium, lead, zinc
and arsenic are all elevated," Olsen
Meanwhile, ARCO spokeswoman Sandy Stash
said her company "stands firm on the analyses we've done at CSU."
The EPA issued a clean-up plan for the Berkeley
Pit in 1994, but the agency remains in negotiation with ARCO and
another "potentially responsible party," Montana Resources, to
forge a "consent decree" that will allow work to begin in 1996.
Forba said he expects that decree will provide for interventions
such as propane cannons to scare waterfowl away from the
If federal officials ultimately attribute
the birds' death to pit contamination, fines may be levied for the
illegal "taking" of a migratory bird.
The writer works in