1995: Did toxic stew cook the goose?

  • Bird's-eye view of the Berkeley Pit

    Environmental Protection Agency
  • Snow goose

    Neal and Mary Jane Mishler
 

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 grain.

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 Program.

"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.

"It's difficult 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 geese.

"We've seen in the literature where Canada geese were killed by high copper concentrations," he said.

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 said.

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 pit.

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 Anaconda, Montana.

High Country News Classifieds
  • CANYONLANDS FIELD INSTITUTE
    Colorado Plateau Natural & Human History Field Seminars. Lodge, river, hiking options. Small groups, guest experts.
  • NATURE EDUCATION DIRECTOR
    Our mission is to inspire a life-long connection to nature and community through creative exploration of the outdoors. We are seeking an educational leader who...
  • DEVELOPMENT AND MARKETING DIRECTOR
    The Development and Marketing Director is a senior position responsible for the execution of all development and marketing strategies to raise funds and increase public...
  • DEVELOPMENT COORDINATOR
    Coordinates all Wyoming Wildlife Federation philanthropic activities. Tasks include identification, recruitment, and retention of donors, organizing fundraising events, and assisting with grant writing.
  • REALTOR NEEDS A REMOTE ASSISTANT
    This is a business assistant position, The working hours are flexible and you can chose to work from anywhere of your choice, the pay is...
  • CORPORATE & GRANTS PARTNER MANAGER
    Forever Our Rivers Foundation Corporate Partnerships Manager February 2020 www.ForeverOurRivers.org Forever Our Rivers Foundation, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, was formed in late 2016 with the mission...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Central Oregon LandWatch is seeking an Executive Director to advance our mission and oversee the development of the organization. Job Description: The Executive Director oversees...
  • WESTERN NATIVE SEED
    Specializing in native seeds and seed mixes for western states.
  • MEDIA DIRECTOR
    Love working with the media? Shine a spotlight on passionate, bold activists fighting for wild lands, endangered species, wild rivers and protecting the climate.
  • STAFF ATTORNEY - NEVADA
    The Center for Biological Diversity is seeking an attorney to expand our litigation portfolio in Nevada. Come join our hard-hitting team as we fight for...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Montana Wildlife Federation seeks an energetic leader to advance our mission, sustain our operations, and grow our grassroots power. For a full position description,...
  • HISTORIC COMMERCIAL OPPORTUNITY IN DOWNTOWN NOGALES
    Nogales. 3 active lower spaces and upper floor with lots of potential. 520-245-9000 [email protected]
  • CHUCK BURR'S CULTUREQUAKE.COM BLOG
    Change will happen when we see a new way of living. Thinking to save the world.
  • COMING TO TUCSON?
    Popular vacation house, furnished, 2 bed/1 bath, yard, dog-friendly. Lee at [email protected] or 520-791-9246.
  • DIRECTOR, TEXAS WATER PROGRAMS
    The National Wildlife Federation seeks a Director to lead our water-related policy and program work in Texas, with a primary focus on NWF's signature Texas...
  • SPLIT CREEK RANCH
    Spectacular country home on 48 acres with Wallowa River running through it! 541-398-1148 www.RubyPeakRealty.com
  • OJO CALIENTE COMMERCIAL VENTURE
    Outstanding location near the world famous Ojo Caliente Mineral Spring Resort. Classic adobe Mercantile complete w/living quarters, separate 6 unit B&B, metal building and spacious...
  • NEW MEXICO GILA NATIONAL FOREST HORSE RANCH
    43 acres in the Gila National Forest. Horse facility, custom home. Year-round outdoor living. REDUCED to $999,000, 575-536-3109.
  • EVERLAND MOUNTAIN RETREAT
    Everland Mountain Retreat includes 318 mountaintop acres with a 3,200 square foot lodge and two smaller homes. Endless vistas of the Appalachian mountains, open skies,...
  • COPPER CANYON MEXICO CAMPING & BACKPACKING
    Camping, hiking, backpacking, R2R2R, Tarahumara Easter, Mushroom Festival, www.coppercanyontrails.org.