The bright side of the Berkeley Pit


Updated Jan. 5, 2012

It is a dead place. Stitched with skeletal plants and sentinel tree trunks, riven by rills of cloudy, unspeakably polluted water, laid bare against a paste sky. There is no sense of space or time here; only pure, absolute quiet.

It is one of my favorite images -- "Uranium Tailings No. 12," taken at Ontario's Elliot Lake in 1995, part of photographer Edward Burtynsky's troubling series documenting the ravages of mining. The work is most disturbing for the beauty so apparent in all that ugliness. The molten orange of water tainted by nickel tailings, the taupe and gray shades of soil -- smooth and gentle as skin -- swept clean of living mess.

It's an aesthetic paradox evoked by nearly every track and cast-off of human industry left in wide-open land. The kelly green pool lingering at the bottom of the Santa Rita Pit near Silver City, N.M. The startling variety of color in salt ponds on the edge of the Great Salt Lake. The elaborate loops and whorls of the roads that lace Wyoming's gas patches. I thought of it, too, as I passed through the long dark tunnel to the viewing deck overlooking Montana's notorious Berkeley Pit when I last visited back in 2002.

There is something more to these places, though, than an interesting and uncomfortable sense of contradiction, fertile only for nerdy cocktail party conversation. And the Berkeley Pit -- a massive defunct old copper mine on the lip of the town of Butte -- offers a window into the heart of it.

The mine cradles billions of gallons of water which, thanks to its fantastic solvent powers working on all the soil and rock exposed by mining, is highly acidic and thick with heavy metal pollution. In 1995, this toxic soup killed 342 migrating snow geese that took shelter upon it in a storm, painting their beacon-white bodies a rusty orange. Should the water top a certain level (it is reportedly still a ways off), it could begin sending poison into local groundwater and ultimately the Clark Fork River, causing enough alarm that the  mining companies responsible have installed a treatment plant  to try to make sure that doesn't happen. And yet, the Berkeley Pit has managed to nourish a weird ecosystem all its own.

As Jason Zasky reports this month for the intriguingly-titled Failure Magazine,

Though it might seem an irredeemable place, it turns out that the Pit ... is a rich source of unusual extremophilic microorganisms, which have produced novel and compelling bioactive metabolites. In other words, the water is filled with a hardy assortment of fungi, algae, protozoans, and bacteria, many of which have shown great promise as producers of potential anti-cancer agents and anti-inflammatories.

The geese themselves even introduced their own germ to the mix: a yeast that apparently is otherwise only found in goose rectums, and, fortuitously enough, is able to sorb a lot of the heavy metals right out of the water, meaning it could eventually be used to aid in toxic waste cleanup or secondary ore recovery (essentially, re-mining).  The yeast shouldn't have survived the pit's toxic water. And yet miraculously, it did. "We are," bioprospector and researcher Andrea Stierles told Zasky, "very grateful to the snow geese."

Such resilience is not limited to the microbial world, though. One of the most popular High Country News stories I know  of chronicled the misadventures of "The Auditor," a mysterious dreadlocked dog that managed to eke out a relatively solitary living on the Berkeley Pit Superfund Site, occasionally begging handouts from miners. Even the community itself has managed to build the dreadful situation that exists here into something positive and lively -- from creating art projects based upon it to constructing a new economy around the money coming in to heal this blasted land.

Therein, perhaps, lies the true reason places like Berkeley Pit are magnetic. Because below that first sense of contradiction is a realization that perhaps there is no contradiction at all. These landscapes aren't dead; they are in dramatic, breathtaking flux -- the kind that not only destroys life, but shapes it and creates it anew.

The Santa Rita pit near Silver City, New Mexico. Courtesy Flickr user Lynne Whitehorn.

On Earth, at least, no death is absolute, not yet. No place can be wiped clean of all life, or of hope. Continents rearrange. Oceans become deserts. Species come and go through the broad sweep of geologic time. But matter is conserved -- some atoms that once formed the living scaffold of one thing go into building another in the weird, biological alchemy that has brought us, ultimately, from single-celled organisms to complex beings with elaborate behavioral patterns. With societies. With art.

I do not offer this argument to justify the human destruction of our natural environment. I offer it to seed the hope that, despite our greatest excesses, we will never be powerful enough to break the world. It is, and always will be, however, powerful enough to break us.

Sarah Gilman is High Country News associate editor

Top photo of Berkeley Pit, courtesy of Flickr user Tanya Dawn.

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