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
  • OWN YOUR OWN CANYON - 1400 SF STRAW-BALE ECO-HOME ON 80 ACRES - 3 HOURS FROM L.A.
    1400 sf of habitable space in a custom-designed eco-home created and completed by a published L.A. architect in 1997-99. Nestled within its own 80-acre mountain...
  • WYOMING CONSERVATION ASSOCIATE
    We are hiring a Wyoming Conservation Associate Full time, competitive pay and benefits. Location: Cody, WY (preferred), Jackson, WY, or Lander, WY Visit www.greateryellowstone.org/careers for...
  • SOUTHWEST REGIONAL DIRECTOR
    The National Parks Conservation Association, the nations leading national park advocacy organization, seeks a Regional Director to lead and manage staff for the Southwest Regional...
  • DIRECTOR OF EXTERNAL AFFAIRS
    This newly created position with The Nature Conservancy's Colorado River Program will play a key role in the development and implementation of strategies to achieve...
  • PROGRAM OFFICER, INDIGENOUS COMMUNITIES, NOVO FOUNDATION
    The Foundation NoVo Foundation acts from the original meaning of philanthropy: the love of humanity. The Foundation is dedicated to catalyzing a global social transformation...
  • ARMY OF THE DOG
    A new generation of monkey wrenchers hits the Front Range?
  • ANNIE CLARK TANNER FELLOWSHIP IN ENVIRONMENTAL HUMANITIES
    The Tanner Humanities Center and the Environmental Humanities Program of the University of Utah seek an environmental writer to offer classes in Utahs Environmental Humanities...
  • ALASKA STATE DIRECTOR
    The Wilderness Society works to protect Wildlands and inspire Americans to care for our public lands. We seek to hire a strategic, experienced leader who...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Idaho Conservation League (ICL) seeks an individual to lead this 45-year-old organization as executive director, to carry on ICLs work as Idahos leading voice...
  • IDAHO RIVERFRONT:
    2+ acres, 400+ feet on Snake River, 2800 sf residence, NWF-certified wildlife habitat, excellent hunting, fishing, birdwatching, stargazing, sunsets & panoramic views. In the heart...
  • WILDEARTH GUARDIANS IS EXPANDING - THREE JOB OPENINGS
    Guardians is expanding and looking for a few great people to join us in protecting and restoring the wildlife, wild places, wild rivers, and health...
  • SUNNYSIDE MARKET SEEKS NEW PROPRIETOR
    Organic grocery/cafe at Glacier Bay needs a vibrant leader. Love good food, community, and Alaska? Join us!
  • NO INDIVIDUAL HEROES: OURAY MOUNTAIN RESCUE TEAM
    Ouray County, Colorado, a popular tourist destination, has dramatic mountains and amazing winter ice climbing. Challenging terrain and high altitude can push visitors to their...
  • CALIFORNIA PROGRAM ASSOCIATE - TAHOE AREA
    National conservation organization seeks a regular, full-time California Program Associate-Tahoe Area. Position works closely with California-based program staff and National Forest Foundation staff to provide...
  • CALIFORNIA PROGRAM COORDINATOR - TAHOE AREA
    National conservation organization seeks a regular, full-time California Program Coordinator-Tahoe Area. Position works closely with California-based program staff and National Forest Foundation staff to provide...
  • CALIFORNIA PROGRAM MANAGER - TAHOE AREA
    National conservation organization seeks a regular, full-time California Program Manager-Tahoe Area. Position works closely with California-based program staff and National Forest Foundation staff to provide...
  • CALIFORNIA PROGRAM ASSOCIATE, SOUTHERN CA
    National conservation organization seeks a regular, full-time California Program Associate-Southern CA. Position works closely with California-based program staff and National Forest Foundation staff to provide...
  • THE BOOK OF BARLEY -
    Collector's Item! The story of barley, the field crop. 50 years of non-fiction research. www.barleybook.com
  • TEMPORARY ASSISTANT EDITOR
    Are you a climber and a writer who is passionate about mountain literature? Do you love searching through old alpine journals for stories of esoteric...
  • RIVER TRIP LEADER & EDUCATOR
    Colorado Canyons Association (CCA) is a growing nonprofit organization fostering community stewardship of our National Conservation Lands with a focus on Dominguez-Escalante, Gunnison Gorge and...