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
  • RARE CHIRICAHUA RIPARIAN LAND FOR SALE: NEAR CHRICAHUA NATIONAL PARK
    2 (20 acre sites): 110 miles from Tucson:AZ Native trees: Birder's heaven: dark skies: Creek: borders State lease & National forest: /13-16 inches of rain...
  • DIRECTOR - SONORAN DESERT INN & CONFERENCE CENTER
    The Sonoran Desert Inn & Conference Center is a non-profit lodging and event venue in Ajo, Arizona, located on the historic Curley School Campus. We...
  • CANYONLANDS FIELD INSTITUTE
    Field Seminars for adults: cultural and natural history of the Colorado Plateau. With guest experts, local insights, small groups, and lodge or base camp formats....
  • PLANNED GIVING OFFICER
    National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA), the nation's oldest and largest national parks nonprofit advocacy organization seeks a Planned Giving Officer. Do you find energy in...
  • DEPUTY DIRECTOR
    The Methow Valley Citizens Council has a distinguished history of advocating for progressive land use and environmental values in the Methow Valley and Okanogan County...
  • ACTING INDIGENOUS AFFAIRS DESK EDITOR
    High Country News is seeking an Acting Indigenous Affairs Editor to oversee the work of our award-winning Indigenous Affairs Desk while our editor is on...
  • GRANTS PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    The Cinnabar Foundation seeks an enthusiastic, team-oriented and knowledgeable Grants Program Director to work from their home in Montana. Established in 1983, the Cinnabar Foundation...
  • ARTEMIS PROGRAM MANAGER
    The Artemis Program Manager will work with National Wildlife Federation sporting and public lands staff to change this dynamic, continue to build upon our successful...
  • ALASKA SEA KAYAK BUSINESS FOR SALE
    Well-known and successful sea kayak, raft, hike, camp guiding & water taxi service. Sale includes everything needed to run the business, including office & gear...
  • MEMBERSHIP AND EVENTS PROGRAM COORDINATOR
    Great Old Broads for Wilderness seeks a detail-oriented and enthusiastic Membership and Events Coordinator to join our small, but mighty-fun team to oversee our membership...
  • PROGRAM DEVELOPMENT FACILITATOR
    ABOUT THE HIGH DESERT MUSEUM Since opening in 1982, HIGH DESERT MUSEUM has brought together wildlife, culture, art and natural resources to promote an understanding...
  • LAND STEWARD, ARAVAIPA
    Steward will live on-site in housing provided by TNC and maintains preserve areas frequented by the visiting public and performs land management activities. The Land...
  • DEVELOPMENT WRITER
    Who We Are: The Nature Conservancy's mission is to protect the lands and waters upon which all life depends. As a science-based organization, we create...
  • DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    Driggs, ID based non-profit. Full time. Full job description available at tvtap.org. Submit cover letter and resume to [email protected]
  • ENVIRONMENTAL AND CONSTRUCTION GEOPHYSICS
    - We find groundwater, buried debris and assist with new construction projects for a fraction of drilling costs.
  • SPRING MOUNTAINS SOLAR OFF GRID MOUNTAIN HOME
    Located 50 miles northwest of Las Vegas, Nevada in the pine forest of Lee Canyon at 8000 feet elevation. One of a kind property surrounded...
  • MAJOR GIFTS MANAGER - MOUNTAIN WEST, THE CONSERVATION FUND
    Cultivate, solicit and steward a portfolio of 75-125 donors.
  • NATURE'S BEST IN ARAVAIPA CANYON
    10 acre private oasis in one of Arizona's beautiful canyons. Fully furnished, 2123 sq ft architectural custom-built contemporary home with spectacular views and many extras....
  • HEALTH FOOD STORE IN NW MONTANA
    Turn-key business includes 2500 sq ft commercial building in main business district of Libby, Montana. 406.293.6771 /or [email protected]
  • LUNATEC ODOR-FREE DISHCLOTHS
    are a must try. They stay odor-free, dry fast, are durable and don't require machine washing. Try today.