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
  • WATERSHED RESTORATION DIRECTOR
    $58k-$70k + benefits to oversee watershed restoration projects that fulfill our strategic goals across urban and rural areas within the bi-national Santa Cruz and San...
  • CUSTOMER SERVICE ASSISTANT - (PART-TIME)
    High Country News, an award-winning media organization covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks a part-time Customer Service Assistant, based at...
  • OPERATIONS DIRECTOR
    We are a Santa Fe-based nonprofit that builds resilience on arid working lands. We foster ecological, economic, and social health through education, innovation, and collaboration....
  • COMMUNITY ORGANIZER
    Come work alongside everyday Montanans to project our clean air, water, and build thriving communities! Competitive salary, health insurance, pension, generous vacation time and sabbatical....
  • CAMPAIGN MANAGER
    Oregon Natural Desert Association (ONDA), a nonprofit conservation organization dedicated to protecting, defending and restoring Oregon's high desert, seeks a Campaign Manager to works as...
  • HECHO DEPUTY DIRECTOR
    Hispanics Enjoying Camping, Hunting, and the Outdoors (HECHO) was created in 2013 to help fulfill our duty to conserve and protect our public lands for...
  • REGIONAL REPRESENTATIVE, COLUMBIA CASCADES
    The Regional Representative serves as PCTA's primary staff on the ground along the trail working closely with staff, volunteers, and nonprofit and agency partners. This...
  • FINANCE AND OPERATIONS DIRECTOR
    The Montana Land Reliance (MLR) seeks a full-time Finance and Operations Director to manage the internal functions of MLR and its nonprofit affiliates. Key areas...
  • DIRECTOR OF CONSERVATION
    The Nature Conservancy is recruiting for a Director of Conservation. Provides strategic leadership and support for all of the Conservancy's conservation work in Arizona. The...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Amargosa Conservancy (AC), a conservation nonprofit dedicated to standing up for water and biodiversity in the Death Valley region, seeks an executive director to...
  • BIG BASIN SENIOR PROJECT PLANNER - CLIMATE ADAPTATION & RESILIENCE
    Parks California Big Basin Senior Project Planner - Climate Adaptation & Resilience ORGANIZATION BACKGROUND Parks California is a new organization working to ensure that our...
  • SCIENCE PROJECT MANAGER
    About Long Live the Kings (LLTK) Our mission is to restore wild salmon and steelhead and support sustainable fishing in the Pacific Northwest. Since 1986,...
  • HUMAN RESOURCES GENERALIST
    Honor the Earth is an affirmative action/equal opportunity employer and does not discriminate based on identity. Indigenous people, people of color, Two-Spirit or LGBTQA+ people,...
  • DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    Colorado Trout Unlimited seeks an individual with successful development experience, strong interpersonal skills, and a deep commitment to coldwater conservation to serve as the organization's...
  • NEW BOOK BY AWARD-WINNING WILDLIFE BIOLOGIST, BRUCE SMITH
    In a perilous place at the roof of the world, an orphaned mountain goat is rescued from certain death by a mysterious raven.This middle-grade novel,...
  • DESCHUTES LAND TRUST VOLUNTEER PROGRAM MANAGER
    The Deschutes Land Trust is seeking an experienced Volunteer Program Manager to join its dedicated team! Deschutes Land Trust conserves and cares for the lands...
  • PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    Now hiring a full-time, remote Program Director for the Society for Wilderness Stewardship! Come help us promote excellence in the professional practice of wilderness stewardship,...
  • MOUNTAIN LOTS FOR SALE
    Multiple lots in gated community only 5 miles from Great Sand Dunes National Park. Seasonal flowing streams. Year round road maintenance.
  • RURAL ACREAGE OUTSIDE SILVER CITY, NM
    Country living just minutes from town! 20 acres with great views makes a perfect spot for your custom home. Nice oaks and juniper. Cassie Carver,...
  • A FIVE STAR FOREST SETTING WITH SECLUSION AND SEPARATENESS
    This home is for a discerning buyer in search of a forest setting of premier seclusion & separateness. Surrounded on all sides by USFS land...