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Thread: The Pit of Life and Death

  1. #1

    The Pit of Life and Death

    http://www.damninteresting.com/?p=961

    The Pit of Life and Death
    Written by Richard Solensky on July 1st, 2008 at 3:09 pm
    From DamnInteresting.com

    Berkeley Pit and ButteJust outside Butte, Montana lies a pit of greenish poison a mile and a half wide and over a third of a mile deep. It hasn't always been so - it was once a thriving copper mine appropriately dubbed “The Richest Hill in the World.” Over a billion tons of copper ore, silver, gold, and other metals were extracted from the rock of southwestern Montana, making the mining town of Butte one of the richest communities in the country, as well as feeding America’s industrial might for nearly a hundred years. By the middle of the twentieth century, the Anaconda Mining Company was in charge of virtually all the mining operations. When running underground mines became too costly in the 1950’s, Anaconda switched to the drastic but effective methods of “mountaintop removal” and open pit mining. Huge amounts of copper were needed to satisfy the growing demand for radios, televisions, telephones, automobiles, computers, and all the other equipment of America’s post-war boom. As more and more rock was excavated, groundwater began to seep into the pit, and pumps had to be installed to keep it from slowly flooding.

    By 1983, the hill was so exhausted that the Anaconda Mining Company was no longer able to extract minerals in profitable amounts. They packed up all the equipment that they could move, shut down the water pumps, and moved on to more lucrative scraps of Earth. Without the pumps, rain and groundwater gradually began to collect in the pit, leaching out the metals and minerals in the surrounding rock. The water became as acidic as lemon juice, creating a toxic brew of heavy metal poisons including arsenic, lead, and zinc. No fish live there, and no plants line the shores. There aren’t even any insects buzzing about. The Berkeley Pit had become one of the deadliest places on earth, too toxic even for microorganisms. Or so it was thought.

    In 1995, an analytic chemist named William Chatham saw something unusual in the allegedly lifeless lake: a small clump of green slime floating on the water's surface. He snagged a sample and brought it to biologist Grant Mitman at the nearby Montana Tech campus of the University of Montana, where Mitman found to his amazement that the goop was a mass of single-celled algae. He called in fellow Tech faculty Andrea and Don Stierle, experts in the biochemistry of microorganisms. The Stierles had recently been trekking about the northwest, looking for cancer-fighting compounds in local fungi with great success. Coincidentally, the Stierles’ funding had just run out, and they needed a new project. They leapt at the opportunity to study these bizarre organisms.

    After examining the slime under a microscope, the researchers identified it as Euglena mutabilis, a protozoan which has the remarkable ability of being able to survive in the toxic waters of the Berkeley Pit by altering its local environment to something more hospitable. Through photosynthesis, it increases the oxygen level in the water, which causes dissolved metals to oxidize and precipitate out. In addition, it pulls iron out of the water and sequesters it inside of itself. This makes it a classic example of an extremophile. Euglena mutabilisEuglena mutabilisExtremophiles are organisms that can tolerate and even thrive in environments that will destroy most other living things. Some can even repair their own damaged DNA, a trait which makes them extremely interesting to cancer researchers. The Stierles reasoned that where there’s one extremophile, there may be others – most likely blown in by the wind. Given their previous successes with strange microorganisms, the researchers believed that the Berkeley Pit and its fledgling extremophile population could produce some medically useful chemicals.

    The Stierles were so intrigued by the possibilities that they started work even before securing funding. A squadron of expert researchers was recruited from the undergrads at Montana Tech, and even from a local high school. They collected water samples, isolated microorganisms, and cultured them. The team eventually identified over 160 different species, but they lacked the equipment needed to isolate the interesting chemicals from the microorganisms. Shlepping around western Montana, the Stierles begged and borrowed time at other facilities while they doggedly processed the cultured organisms. Their tenacity led to the discovery of a number of promising chemicals. Three of these, berkeleydione, berkeleytrione, and Berkeley acid, came from species of the fungus Penicillium that had never been seen before, and were therefore named after the Berkeley Pit.

    The next step was to see what effect these chemicals had, if any, on other living cells. Thanks to modern biochemical assay techniques, dozens of chemicals can be tested against one organism– or one chemical against dozens of organisms– in a single pass. For reasons that are not entirely clear, many compounds which attack cancer cells are also harmful to brine shrimp, therefore most modern assay tests include the brine shrimp lethality test as a standard procedure. The Stierles exposed swarms of tiny crustacean volunteers to the Berkeley Pit chemicals, and to their delight, five of the chemicals showed anti-cancer properties. Further tests revealed that berkeleydione helped slow the growth of a type of lung cancer cell, and Berkeley acid went after ovarian cancer cells. All five were passed along to the National Cancer Institute for further study.

    Other researchers are looking into the Pit as well - not for cancer-fighters or other drugs, but simply for ways to help clean the place up. In 1995, a flock of migrating snow geese stopped at the massive pond for a rest, and at least 342 of them died there. Authorities now use firecrackers and loudspeakers to scare away migrating waterfowl, but there have been a few smaller die-offs nonetheless. Also, on certain mornings, a sinister mist creeps out of the Pit and wraps its tentacles around the streets of Butte. Citizens are understandably anxious about this potentially poisonous fog of doom. The water level is rising at a rate of several inches a month, and if unchecked it will spill over into the area’s groundwater in twenty years. Biochemical assayThat danger has earned the area the dubious distinction of being one of the EPA’s largest Superfund sites. Normally such water is treated by adding lime to the water to reduce the acidity and remove much of the metal, however the Berkeley Pit is so saturated with undesirables that this process would produce tons of toxic sludge every day. Other methods are safer, but are prohibitively expensive. Currently, the EPA's plan is to focus on containment.

    <much more>

  2. #2
    Senior Member Wesley's Avatar
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    I wonder if modern environmental standards for mining are sufficient to prevent the creation of these kinds of disasters. I guess Anaconda is off the hook for the costs of dealing with this mess? I don't understand why adding lime and precipitating a heavy metals isn't better than having them enter the groundwater.

  3. #3
    Senior Member Mona~on~wheels's Avatar
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    Cool real neat how something good comes out of something so bad.

  4. #4
    Senior Member rdf's Avatar
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    My dad was born in Butte, my grandad worked the Pit. I went to high school in Anaconda, 25 miles away, where they shipped the mined ore to be smeltered. There's a huge smokestack in Anaconda, the town claimed it was the biggest in the world, don't know if that's true or not. There are no trees on the mountains around Anaconda, and that's not because of logging. In Opportunity, a town a few miles from Anaconda, kids I knew in high school had swum in the ponds there...some have died or have cancer, leukemia, etc.

    I'm glad I got out as soon as I graduated, and glad that I only lived there from middle of 10th grade to graduation.

    My dad and grandpa both died from lung cancer.
    --------------------------------------

    The Anaconda Smelter Stack is a radial brick smoke stack, once part of the Anaconda Smelter at Anaconda, Montana in the United States. The stack rests on a concrete foundation and measures 585 feet (178 m) high. The inside diameter of the stack is 75 feet (23 m) at the bottom and 60 feet (18 m) at the top. The wall thickness ranges from six feet at the bottom to two feet at the top.[1]

    Construction of the stack was completed on May 5, 1919. The Stack was built by the Alphons Custodis Chimney Construction Company of New York.[2] At the time it was built, it was the tallest masonry structure of any kind in the world. The Stack remains the tallest and possibly largest free standing masonry structure in the world. An interesting note is that the Washington Monument would easily fit inside. It is commonly referred to as 'The Stack' and is a well known landmark in western Montana.

    The stack was designed to discharge exhaust gases from the various roasting and smelting furnaces at the smelter. The stack is situated on the top of a hill. The smelter had a large network of exhaust flues from the furnaces that all fed a main flue. The main flue carried the combined smelter exhaust gases a half-mile up the hill to the stack. The flue system and stack combined to provide a natural draft to carry the smelter exhaust gases, and it was claimed to be capable of handling three to four million cubic feet per minute of gas.[3]

    The Anaconda Smelter was demolished after its closure in 1981, and the site underwent environmental remediation. The stack alone, however, remains standing. The site is now a Montana State Park.
    Last edited by rdf; 07-13-2008 at 03:31 PM.
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    Senior Member rdf's Avatar
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    The Stack.
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  6. #6
    Senior Member Wesley's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by rdf
    The Stack.
    children, can you say "base jump"? Sure you can!

    My family had a similar survival experience in Port Arthur Texas, with both my father and his brother dying from lung cancer in their 50s (both non-smokers) after years of working in the refinery.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Wesley
    children, can you say "base jump"? Sure you can!

    My family had a similar survival experience in Port Arthur Texas, with both my father and his brother dying from lung cancer in their 50s (both non-smokers) after years of working in the refinery.
    Just business as usual in the good old U.S. of A.
    "The world will not perish for want of wonders but for want of wonder."
    J.B.S.Haldane

  8. #8
    Quote Originally Posted by rdf
    My dad was born in Butte, my grandad worked the Pit. I went to high school in Anaconda, 25 miles away, where they shipped the mined ore to be smeltered. There's a huge smokestack in Anaconda, the town claimed it was the biggest in the world, don't know if that's true or not. There are no trees on the mountains around Anaconda, and that's not because of logging. In Opportunity, a town a few miles from Anaconda, kids I knew in high school had swum in the ponds there...some have died or have cancer, leukemia, etc.

    I'm glad I got out as soon as I graduated, and glad that I only lived there from middle of 10th grade to graduation.

    My dad and grandpa both died from lung cancer.
    --------------------------------------
    rdf,

    Thank your for your post.

    The following passage from the article is haunting: "In 1995, a flock of migrating snow geese stopped at the massive pond for a rest, and at least 342 of them died there. Authorities now use firecrackers and loudspeakers to scare away migrating waterfowl, but there have been a few smaller die-offs nonetheless. Also, on certain mornings, a sinister mist creeps out of the Pit and wraps its tentacles around the streets of Butte."

    Wise.

  9. #9
    Senior Member rdf's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Wise Young
    rdf,

    Thank your for your post.

    The following passage from the article is haunting: "In 1995, a flock of migrating snow geese stopped at the massive pond for a rest, and at least 342 of them died there. Authorities now use firecrackers and loudspeakers to scare away migrating waterfowl, but there have been a few smaller die-offs nonetheless. Also, on certain mornings, a sinister mist creeps out of the Pit and wraps its tentacles around the streets of Butte."

    Wise.
    Thanks Wise. Yeah, I know what they're talking about. I did a search of my local paper and found this article about Opportunity and the largest Superfund site in this country.

    Toxic turmoil: Like it or not, people of Opportunity are on receiving end of about 50 railcars a day, each with 100 tons of contaminated sediment from the Milltown Superfund site
    OPPORTUNITY - Like lots of other kids raised on salaries from the Anaconda Copper Mining Co., George Niland used to swim in the ponds on the edge of Opportunity.

    “When we got out, we'd have little red bumps all over us,” Niland recalled.

    “We never thought much of it.” The ponds that border this idyllic little town have had a variety of names: the Slum Ponds, Opportunity Ponds and, most recently, the British Petroleum-Atlantic Richfield Waste Repository - the primary dump for what has been called the nation's largest Superfund site.

    Today, the ponds in which Niland and generations before and after him played have all but dried up, forming a cracked and pitted wasteland - a five-square-mile resting place for mine tailings and toxin-laced soil from Butte, Anaconda, Silver Bow Creek and, as of last fall, Missoula County.

    Starting on Sept. 30, roughly 2.2 million cubic yards of metals-contaminated sediment - mining waste that flushed downstream and was dredged from the Clark Fork River behind Milltown Dam - began making the trip back upriver.
    But the new shipments have triggered old emotions in Opportunity. Residents say they were given little say in the decision. Some are bothered that Opportunity seems to be bearing the burden for the more populous and affluent Missoula area, where, under the original plan, the sediment was to stay. Others are indignant about seeing the waste, even though it originated in the hills nearby, returned by train.

    The sediment dredged up from behind Milltown Dam has served to bring Opportunity's concerns - long smoldering, but seldom voiced in what was always a loyal company town - to the surface as well.

    Because it put food on their tables, the smelter and the toll it took on the local environment, was tolerated. That acceptance has eroded only slowly since the smelter closed in 1983. With the arrival of the Milltown Reservoir sediments, that tolerance has crumbled a little more.

    “Things don't look so grim when you're up there making good money,” said Serge Myers, 71, who worked at the smelter for 17 years. “The wages at the smelter probably topped any wages in the state. When I was working I was up to my knees in the stuff; it was just part of the way we lived.”

    Today, the company paychecks are gone, the company's waste remains, and many residents of Opportunity say the concerns they voice to government agencies and corporate offices are taken less than seriously.

    “You've got 250 homes down here in Opportunity,” Myers said. “We're not really too much to worry about. It's the same old story we've always been told: ‘OK, you've had your say. OK, Opportunity, this stuff's coming. Ten thousand people in Missoula said you need it up there. We've got to save the fish down in Missoula.' ”

    Beyond what many see as an insult, beyond the feelings of powerlessness, the overriding concern of many in Opportunity is whether living so close to so much waste is endangering their health.

    At Solan's Grocery Store, one of Opportunity's two businesses, employee Susan Sorum said she wonders if lung ailments she and her neighbors face are a result of arsenic piggy-backing on smoke particles from the smelter.

    “You'd wake up in the morning and just taste the arsenic on your tongue,” Sorum said.
    A general store opened, to be replaced mid-century by Solan's Grocery. An electric rail line connected the town to the valley's bustling economic center in Anaconda, and streetcars ferried workers to their jobs at the smelter. A country club was started in 1918, a community club house in 1924. And the town's first gas station opened in 1932.

    Otherwise, it was a quiet place, where kids rolled tires down streets or practiced pole-vaulting at the only school, Beaver Dam Elementary. Used wood chips from the smelter were piled to cushion the vaulter's landings, longtime resident John Meshnik remembers.

    The young people of Opportunity were drawn as well to the murky pools of water on the other side of the woods - fed in part by natural streams, in part by smelter waste.

    Watch avideo of Opportunity residents discussing concerns about the cleanup

    “That's just kind of where we hung out,” George Niland says, recalling playing in the ponds as a youngster.

    “We did a lot of duck hunting back there. We'd go back there and mess around on our bikes, swim in the ponds. We ate the ducks we shot there. There were a couple of ponds back there with fish in them. We'd always keep the fish and take them home and eat them.

    “We were never aware that we might be eating fish that were contaminated with heavy metals.”

    Niland now suspects that his spinal cord cancer, the ovarian cancer that killed his older sister and the brain cancer now afflicting his younger sister are the result of growing up and living on the edge of what, in 1983, became a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Superfund site.

    The ponds are part of the Anaconda Smelter site, which is one of three components of the Upper Clark Fork Superfund Site.

    Unlike some other parts of the overall site, the ponds, even when the cleanup is complete, will never be fit for humans to live on. The most EPA officials hope for is that grass will grow and wildlife will return.
    Niland suspects the arsenic contamination below the surface of Arco's waste site is slowly moving toward Opportunity, possibly contaminating wells and soil. And he worries about toxic particles in the air, especially when high winds whip through the waste repository and blow dust toward town.

    Arsenic is a known carcinogen, but there's no evidence to back up claims of an unusually high cancer rate in Opportunity, county officials say.

    The amount of arsenic in the Deer Lodge Valley is not enough to make residents sick, according to Carol Ballew from the Department of Public Health and Human Services.

    According to the National Cancer Institute, Anaconda-Deer Lodge County, which includes Opportunity, ranks 14th out of 56 counties in cancer rates across Montana.

    Not all residents in Opportunity subscribe to the belief that their town is - or could soon become - an unhealthy place to live. Some see it as getting better.

    “When I first came down to Opportunity, you couldn't keep a horse over two years. The arsenic would kill them,” said Don Wyant, 80, who worked for the Anaconda Co. for 32 years as a pipefitter. “It would eat through the top of their heads and they'd go wacky.”

    Wyant said neither he nor his children, who once swam and hunted ducks around the ponds, has health problems related to the mining waste. The dust situation, he adds, is improving.

    “The dust ain't even a tenth as bad as it used to be years ago.”

    Opportunity residents, nevertheless, have been told to take precautions.

    The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR), a division of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, told residents not to eat, smoke or chew gum outside, and not to eat homegrown rooted vegetables, said resident Maureen Robinson. It also recommended washing children and animals every time they come inside to keep dust outdoors.
    More

    I have many cousins in the area, and a surviving uncle and aunt or two who worked the smelter and/or the Pit for decades. I lived in Anaconda off and on much of my life since I was a toddler, but usually only for a few months at a stretch. I went to half of 4th grade there, and then didn't really come back except for seeing family at reunions until 10th grade. It's a nasty place to work and live, and Anaconda was a purebred company town. Opportunity is a few miles away towards Butte.

    During daily double football practices in the summer in high school, the taste of the smelter's smoke would make us gag during the second practice. But the coaches just pushed us harder, called us wussies, suck it up, be a man, heh. So we did.
    Last edited by rdf; 07-13-2008 at 08:31 PM.
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  10. #10
    I thank G-d that you are with us. It is so frightening that this happened and nobody knew what was going on, including your relatives and coaches.

    Wise.

    Quote Originally Posted by rdf
    Thanks Wise. Yeah, I know what they're talking about. I did a search of my local paper and found this article about Opportunity and the largest Superfund site in this country.

    Toxic turmoil: Like it or not, people of Opportunity are on receiving end of about 50 railcars a day, each with 100 tons of contaminated sediment from the Milltown Superfund site
    More

    I have many cousins in the area, and a surviving uncle and aunt or two who worked the smelter and/or the Pit for decades. I lived in Anaconda off and on much of my life since I was a toddler, but usually only for a few months at a stretch. I went to half of 4th grade there, and then didn't really come back except for seeing family at reunions until 10th grade. It's a nasty place to work and live, and Anaconda was a purebred company town. Opportunity is a few miles away towards Butte.

    During daily double football practices in the summer in high school, the taste of the smelter's smoke would make us gag during the second practice. But the coaches just pushed us harder, called us wussies, suck it up, be a man, heh. So we did.

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