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The Pit

ISSUE:  Fall 2010

For nearly thirty years Butte, Montana, has been living with a poisoned lake in its backyard. Can they turn it into a tourist attraction?

Opener photo
Lisa Kunkel

In Montana, you need not go far in search of wounds. The place is rife with them. All you have to do is look between the familiar postcards of The Last Best Place and you’ll see them: slick, deforested hillsides connecting at sharp angles in a quilt-pattern over every national forest; dams holding back decades of poisonous sludge, buried deep in some of the biggest waterways; trees cracking and listing in burns that are bigger than certain East Coast states; vast pits of toxic mineral water sidling right up to the highway. There is something satisfying about all of this. It’s a hard, unhidden truth, and the landscape runs wild with it.

The first time I saw the Berkeley Pit was about two years ago during the National Folk Festival in Butte, Montana. I’d been itching to go. I get the same thrill looking at the wounds and scars left by extractive industry that other people get from looking at a mountain or the Grand Canyon, and I’d heard that the Pit really took the cake. It wasn’t a hard sell. After paying my two dollars, though, and stepping out onto the platform of the public viewing stand, I wasn’t sure what to make of it. Frankly, the Pit didn’t look like much: a big, brownish-red lake, inside a crater. But on the way out I picked up a copy of Pitwatch and read the whole thing twice on the ride home. I was smitten.

In 1955, after about seventy-five years of productive copper shaft-mining in the “richest hill on earth,” and long past Butte’s heyday as the biggest town between Chicago and San Francisco, digging began on the Berkeley Pit. Open-pit mines were a known entity, but at the time no North American miner had ever circled a hole like this. Built to allow for the cheaper extraction of low-grade ore—and safer, at only six total fatalities, as opposed to twenty-five, the annual death rate in the underground days—the Pit eventually burrowed to a depth of 1,780 feet.

The dimensions at its lip are one mile by one-and-a-quarter mile; its circumference is four miles. To dig a hole this large, the miners needed to displace a good deal of other material, namely 316 million tonnes of ore, 700 million tonnes of waste rock, and a few Butte neighborhoods: Eastside, Meaderville, and McQueen.

The mine operated for twenty-seven years, until 1982, at which point the owner, the Atlantic Richfield Company (ARCO), with copper prices tanking, shut off the pumps. Twenty-eight years later, the water is now over a thousand feet deep—an acid broth thick with calcium, magnesium, potassium, sodium, iron, manganese, aluminum, cadmium, zinc, sulfate, fluoride, chloride, arsenic, and (of course) copper—and grows by 2.6 million gallons a day.

The Pit has filled because it is what geologists refer to as a terminal sink. All moving water flows into it and stays there. That includes not only run-off and assorted, tailing-befouled local drainages, but groundwater that has passed through Butte’s old mine-shafts and all surrounding bedrock. During the last years of ARCO’s tenure, until Montana Resources (MR) bought them out and took over in 1986, they also diverted water from their other operations into the Pit. The lake got deeper. Maybe the lake wouldn’t be so toxic if it consisted of just groundwater, and the nasty stuff from the old mine shafts was diluted. But the local bedrock is rife with sulfur, and when buried sulfide minerals meet air and water—when, for instance, they are disturbed by large shovels, or submerged—they make sulfuric acid. Copper and iron-loving bacteria help the acid along, and together they burn the other (previously enumerated litany of) minerals straight out of the rock, and you’re left with a stiff metal highball.

For instance, above the chemocline—the ominously-named mystery barrier that splits the Pit’s water into two discrete entities, like oil and water—the water is reddish-brown, with iron at 507 parts per million (ppm) and copper at 73 ppm. Below the chemocline, iron is 883 ppm, copper is 137 ppm, and the water is a vibrant blue-green. You want to drink neither.

But other problems loom. Currently, the water still sits below Butte’s groundwater, surrounded by bedrock. When the water rises above “critical level”—a mark of 5,410 feet above sea level—the lake will have swollen enough that it will commence flowing out. Into the loose, alluvial soil on top of the bedrock. Into the groundwater. Into the nearby Silver Bow Creek—supporting trout for the first time in over a hundred years—which flows into the Clark Fork, which flows into the Columbia. This, according to various scientists’ estimates, will happen in 2023.

Pitwatch is a free newspaper (currently annual) published by the Berkeley Pit Public Education Committee, composed of local officials, scientists, reclamations specialists, lay citizens, EPA staffers, and ARCO employees. It is funded by ARCO and Montana Resources, compelled to do so by the United States Superfund program, which sics the variable power of the Environmental Protection Agency on the worst corporate polluters.

I love reading Pitwatch. If I could subscribe, I would. The material doesn’t change much from year to year, beyond a general updating of water-depth and rate-of-fill, but I read the articles over and over. Elsewhere it would be hard to find such a subtle co-mingling of dark history and silver lining (“the great advantage of the Berkeley Pit is that it acts as a terminal sink”).

The stories of uplift are numerous. Take the snow geese, for example. Most locals remember the 1995 incident when 342 birds descended on the Pit for several days and eroded their organs. Those days are long past. Now, workers are tasked with scaring birds off in a host of ways. They monitor the area several times a day from an overlooking hut: according to the 2002 Consent Decree between the EPA, ARCO, MR, and the Department of Environmental Quality, “birds exposed to Berkeley Pit water for less than 4–6 hours should not be at substantial risk.” Company employees fire rifles and shotguns; they play recordings of high-pitched predator noises; they motor around the lake in a small boat. And if worse comes to worst, and a bird appears to be floundering, a special countdown is initiated: The bird is quickly netted, “placed in a five-gallon bucket of fresh water,” and then either sent to the veterinarian or “released into fresh water at the north end of the Yankee Doodle Tailings Pond,” which has a “very low concentration of dissolved metals.” There, presumably, it will recover before returning to its brethren.

Yes, there are some setbacks. Some birds, such as grebes and loons, dive when alarmed. Diving into Pit water is ill-advised. And then there was that thing in 2007, when thirty-seven birds (ducks, geese, and one swan) died after lingering too long. And there are reports of countless birds that have, allegedly, sunk to the bottom, down into darkness, heavy with metal. But Pitwatch reassures us that it’s improving. Between 1995 and 2004, only seventy-five bird-deaths were reported, and “all involved continue to work to keep such incidents to a minimum.”

Or one can look to the Horseshoe Bend Water Treatment Plant, built and switched on by MR in 2003 (under the gaze of the EPA). In the old days of the Pit, toxic drainage from Horseshoe Bend, just north of the crater, would flow right in. It added considerably to the overall rate of fill, which averaged 5.2 million gallons per day from 1982 to 1996. In 1996, MR diverted the Horseshoe Bend water and pumped it uphill to the Yankee Doodle Tailings Pond. This was not deemed a satisfactory fix.

Now, the treatment plant does a variety of positive things. For one, it deals with the Horseshoe Bend drainage water: collecting it before it can spill into the Pit, treating it with a lime (calcium hydroxide) precipitation process to reduce acid, and then using it in the Continental Pit mining operations. The resultant highly acidic sludge, minimal at forty thousand gallons a day, is then dumped in the Pit. A closed circle, mostly.

But the treatment plant also allows MR to make more money from Berkeley copper. The plant employs a time-honored method of throwing scrap iron in with the Pit water, at which point a miracle happens. Copper in the water trades places with the iron, the relatively tame iron-water is dumped back in the Pit, and then the copper is collected for profit. Four hundred thousand pounds of copper per month are “recovered” this way.

Overhead photo of the Berkeley Pit. Butte is immediately to the south and west; north of the Pit is Yankee Doodle Tailings Pond.
Courtesy of the Image Science and Analysis Laboratory, NASA-Johnson Space Center
Overhead photo of the Berkeley Pit. Butte is immediately to the south and west; north of the Pit is Yankee Doodle Tailings Pond.

Most importantly, though, the treatment plant is standing sentry for when the Pit water nears its critical level. Then it will spring into action, pumping and treating enough water (and back-dumping only minimal sludge) to keep the Pit’s shoreline reasonable. The plant was designed to treat up to seven million gallons a day, or five thousand gallons a minute. And what will happen if Montana Resources no longer has use for the treated water in their other mining operations? They will pump it into Silver Bow Creek.

It’s true that the resultant pH of the treated water still requires some adjustments, as Pitwatch reminds us. The “optimization of the plant in the future may result in a lower pH,” it says, likely referring to the vast increase in input and output when it starts pumping Pit water and pumping it fast. And “methods of adjusting the pH prior to discharge in Silver Bow Creek have been evaluated conceptually,” reminding one of the gap between laboratory models and real-world scenarios. But not to worry: The plant is scheduled for an upgrade design in 2019 and an actual upgrade in 2021. So assuming the critical level isn’t breeched before 2023, all is well.

And what will happen if Montana Resources no longer mines in Butte? Then MR and ARCO will, according to their agreement with the EPA, continue pumping both pits “in perpetuity.” One may wonder what will compel ARCO (now owned by British Petroleum) and MR (a privately-owned corporation) to keep paying for remediation decades from now. The answer is simple: federal orders and potential fines.

Matt Vincent does not want to talk about the Berkeley Pit. But Vincent—a former journalist and reclamation specialist, now head of the Clark Fork Watershed Education Program (CFWEP)—knows that I am here to talk about the Pit. So he humors me.

We’re sitting in Vincent’s Montana Tech office, which he shares with the rest of his organization. He’s a gruff, younger man, with a rumbling voice and the bearing of a rugby player, not a scientist, but he’s accommodating. I’ve been warned not to bullshit him. So I tell him more than I’ve been telling other interview subjects. I tell him I’m interested in what draws people to the Pit—whether it’s some kind of grand-scale rubbernecking, or something else.

About half of his organization’s funding comes out of the 2008 State of Montana v. ARCO settlement. But the settlement is not limited to just the Pit. The program’s purview stretches from Silver Bow Creek to the (now-removed) Milltown Dam, just east of Missoula. That’s the corridor of misfortune, and the boundaries of the Superfund complex. Vincent and his staff prepare curricula for middle and high school students so they will learn a little about “what happened here” and why someone is paying $1 billion to deal with it.

And Vincent hates the Pit. I mean, he really hates it. But he’ll grant me that people want to talk about it.

“It’s the most known quantity about Butte,” he says, while emphasizing that only 10 percent of his program’s work is Pit-related, and since most of the teaching they do is about restoration, there’s little to teach about the Pit: the Superfund process gave it a technical impracticability waiver, meaning the Pit cannot and will not ever be restored, in the traditional sense of the word. Still, Vincent adds, “You can’t get away from talking about the Pit. It’s the first thing most kids outside of Butte know about Butte.”

But he’s from Butte. And he cannot understand why anyone would want to pull off the highway and stare into the abyss. Not only is it unfathomable in terms of attraction; it’s a deep blow to Butte’s pride if people associate the town with its festering wound.

“I guess if people are willing to pay to come look at the largest toxic pit lake in North America, charge ’em,” he says. “It just seems a little insulting. Particularly from a Butte person’s perspective. We have to live with this thing everyday and I’ve gotta pay two dollars to look at it? Give me a break.”

He’s right, of course. He does have to look at it every day. There are few places in Butte, situated uniquely on a hillside, from which you cannot see the Pit or at least its surrounding waste. So how can you get away from it? How can you deny its presence? Easy. Don’t look.

“It’s outta sight, outta mind,” Vincent says. “It’s a big hole with water in it. As far as I’m concerned, they’ve got it well under control.”

Vincent is warming up. He gets interested in this question of whether anyone could possibly be drawn to it. He thinks the media is to blame for some of this. They hype it up. And people enjoy getting themselves all riled about an overflow, even though that would not happen—scientifically could not, since the water would just flow back into the alluvial soil and never reach the lip. Vincent thinks that stuff is for a sci-fi novel.

He asks his co-workers (only two are in the office at the time) whether they ever think about the Pit in their day-to-day lives.

One says she doesn’t. “It’s just there,” she says.

The other says, “I think it’s butt-ugly,” and then waxes poetic about what Summit Valley might have looked like before it got dug up and turned over.

Vincent gets conciliatory: “I don’t think it’s ugly. I’m not going to pretend that it isn’t. I think it’s so ugly it’s pretty.” He pauses and re-approaches the matter, this time from a scientific standpoint. “Where else can you see what a cross-section of the earth looks like to that depth? Granted it’s a heavily mineralized section, but it’s kinda cool to look at.”

We talk about Auditor, the enormous dog that ranged the wastes around the Pit and died in 2003. Vincent wrote a couple of pieces (High Country News, as well as Butte’s daily, the Montana Standard) about Auditor that gained some international recognition. His pieces celebrated the life of a weird loner—hideously ugly, according to many who saw him, including Vincent—who lived to the ripe age of seventeen and, in his later days, permitted miners to feed and care for him. The stories’ big sell was to equate Auditor and Butte—both survivors in the face of adversity. Some of Auditor’s fur was once pulled and tested, surreptitiously: It contained 128 times more arsenic than that of a typical dog.

He tells me about the first time he caught a glimpse of Auditor: “I look out the window [of my truck] and just see this dreadlocked monster, like something that wandered out of a sci-fi flick.”

But enough about the dog. I ask about Pitwatch. To my delight, Vincent reveals the true author of the Pit’s official organ, contracted to do the job by the Berkeley Pit Education Committee: himself and his staff.

I ask how objective Pitwatch purports to be; how much weight is carried by the committee representatives from ARCO and MR. Vincent gets diplomatic. He tells me there are a number of “interests” behind Pitwatch, and they all make sure their voices are heard. But as far as the collective voice of the newspaper: “It’s science-based, totally unbiased.”

I keep pressing. I want to know about the silver lining that seems to be woven into every story.

“I like to look at the silver lining from an education perspective,” Vincent explains. “And just as an opportunity. Somebody said if you see a big problem, it’s a big opportunity. And as far as environmental problems are concerned, the Berkeley Pit doesn’t get any bigger.”

There’s something deeply-rooted and nagging about Vincent’s feelings for the Pit. It’s the pride thing: pride in Butte, pride in mining. This was/is a mining town. Home of the Copper Kings and the Anaconda Copper Mining Company. Supplied most of the copper for bullets and bombs in WWI. Unheard-of ethnic diversity. “The Gibraltar of Unionism,” in good ways (trail-blazing unionism) and bad (e.g. the lynching of famous Wobblies’ martyr Frank Little, various massacres, etc.). The 1917 Granite Mountain/Speculator fire, the worst disaster in US hard-rock mining history, where 168 miners choked to death. It goes on.

We talk some about the history of Butte—all that pride and death—and I sense that Vincent is more than a little conflicted when it comes to mining versus his role as a former reclamation specialist and current reclamation educator. He likes mining. Mining, in Butte, means prosperity. He’d already told me earlier, with more than a hint of pleasure in his voice, about the copper that’s currently being pulled out of Pit water.

“There certainly is a lot of untapped opportunity,” he said. “I mean, just the amount of metals that are dissolved in that thing. . . . If someone finally does figure out a way to get the metals out of that water economically they’re going to be a multi-multi-millionaire and . . . we’re going to rid this town and this watershed of its greatest threat.”

He starts on the Continental Pit—how it’s not just the 300 miners employed there, but a whole support network that goes into a 12 hours-a-day, 365 days-a-year, copper-silver-molybdenum mining operation. He sounds a little wistful when he explains that the Pit’s easterly neighbor produces only enough silver to pay for the cost of mining it; that the real profit is in the copper and the “moly.”

Employment is a good thing, of course. What troubles him is not the continued presence of mining but the fact that there’s no more smelting near here; nor is there much of a national market for these metals. All ore goes to China. But at this moment Vincent isn’t worried about unfettered extractive industry in Asian countries, or global warming. He’s worried about Butte: “It was a noble cause when we were furthering America, but at this point what’s really in it for us?”

What really irritates him is when people associate Butte with only the Pit: “For Butte to be tagged with the Berkeley Pit is just an insult,” he says. “It really . . . signified an end to what this town stands for. We are the mining city because of our underground mining history and the Berkeley Pit erased that, to a large degree. Replaced it.”

To illustrate, he digs up a special map of Butte, created by the Montana Bureau of Mines and Geology. The map delineates all mine shafts as of 2004 with existing headframes (the tall gallows-like structures used to haul men and ore out of mine shafts), all mines 1,000 feet or more in depth, and—all around them in a crazed, color-coded jumble—the depths of the various mines. Yellow is 0 to 900 feet; blue is 4,000 to 5,100; other colors in between. It’s striking, but confusing to a lay person. A smaller diagram off to the side shows a cross-section, with shafts plummeting down and down, often reaching a depth of two and almost three times the mountains’ height above them. In this side view, there’s a little dip in the ground. It makes very little impression compared to the shafts, the merest illustration of which inspires vertigo and visceral unease. The diminutive dip is the Berkeley Pit.

“That’s really a good way to show how little the Berkeley Pit means to Butte’s history,” Vincent says. “[It’s] this little depression.”

But on the main map, with its aboveground, aerial view, color is the only thing that indicates depth. It’s all very abstract. Butte’s underground mining history is easily eclipsed, perhaps, because it is underground. What’s very clear, on the other hand, is the giant black circle painted in what looks like a child’s shaky hand. The circle envelops at least twenty-two underground mines, and almost half the town of Butte. Inside, in large undeniable block letters: berkeley pit.

Vincent looks at it and says, “The Pit’s nothing.”

If you saw the billboard a little ways out-side of Butte with a photo of the Berkeley Pit—1700 feet deep!—and an invitation to come visit, you can thank Marko Lucich. He is the director of the Butte Chamber of Commerce, and I’ve been trying to get him on the phone for about two weeks. Every time I call, he’s just stepped out.

It’s Matt Vincent who suggests I go to the Chamber building and surprise Lucich. I head down and Lucich is there when I arrive, the picture of geniality, and apologizing for his delays. He invites me into the conference room.

I tell him I’m doing a project on the Berkeley Pit and am particularly curious about how it might bring tourist revenue into the town. Hearing this, Lucich’s wariness evaporates, and he runs into his office to retrieve some information that he’s sure will interest me.

Lucich is a blocky man with a penchant for saying things are “unbelievable” when really he is mired in belief. He cocks his head while delivering what I’m sure is his standard Chamber of Commerce recitation, and his eyes drift. He became Chamber director in 2003; the same year, MR gifted the Pit’s viewing stand to the Chamber: two-and-a-half acres on the Pit’s south side, a tunnel through a rock-hill, some chain-link fencing and barbed wire.

The next year, Lucich started campaigning. He went to the Chamber board and made his case for the Pit’s exploitation as a revenue source. The board was sold. Three and a half years ago, a group called Envision Butte got together, pooling money from a few different sources, and renovated the viewing stand: restrooms, a shop, water (presumably from a different source), signage, a telescope, an automated recording with a brief history of the Pit, period lighting, sidewalks, an original trolley car manufactured in Butte, a gazebo (for picnics), and a Celtic knot that Butte’s “master gardener” fashioned on the hillside.

The Chamber started charging a buck for entrance (only during the summer months—in the winter the stand is open, depending on weather, and free). In the first year, they made $18,606. Soon they raised it to two bucks ($1 for ages four to seventeen, under four is free). They made $34,760 in the summer of 2008. In 2009, they made $39,040. Between 40,000 and 50,000 people walk through the tunnel every year, and stare down in that hole.

“It is the number one tourist attraction in Butte and probably in southwest Montana,” Lucich says. “You can see that it’s a definite attraction. And it was very interesting because we’ve had publicity from people all over the world regarding us charging to go see the toxic waste dump. I take that with a grain of salt because here’s the way that I look at anything in life: You have lemons . . .”

I wonder if he’s thinking of the Daily Show segment in 2006 that spoofed Butte’s attempts to capitalize on the Pit. Everyone in town seems to have an opinion on this. Most seem a little stung by the way the interviews were manipulated for comic effect, though all claim to have moved past it for the sake of good humor.

Lucich, like Vincent, is a true believer when it comes to Butte’s rich history. He’s also competitive when it comes to Butte’s place alongside other cities in Montana. I have trouble reconciling his conflicting descriptions of Butte natives as both tough guys and victims. At one point he tells me, “Butte’s not a community of whiners; it’s a community that gets the job done” and later he pinpoints Butte’s weakness as “entitlement”: “They became victimized [by the Company]. You know, get over it. Let’s leave that behind us. We’re in control. It’s not the company’s fault if we fail.”

“I believe you have to take control of yourself,” he says, meaning Butte, I think. “You are in control of your destination. And your destiny.”

The first step is getting people into the city. If that means they visit the Pit first, so be it. They will read the signage at the viewing stand, listen to the historical recording, and if Lucich has anything do with it, they’ll be hooked. They’ll have an appreciation for the importance of copper. They’ll move on uptown, and see some of Butte’s old architecture. They’ll take a trolley ride, visit the Copper King mansion, the Granite Mountain Memorial, the Arts Chateau, the mineral museum, the mining museum. At this point Lucich’s speech gets a jolt of energy as he starts lavishing praise on the Serbian church and its fabulous “icon screen”: 7,800 pounds of oak and walnut, carved in Serbia over a six month period. The Pit is the door to all of this.

“They go there and they see a big hole filled with water,” he says. “They have no idea about its history. Our whole goal is to educate people.”

He goes on: “It’s easy to laugh and say, ‘gee, look at this hole in the ground in Butte, Montana.’ But what that hole in the ground did for all of us is unbelievable. When they leave Butte, they become the ambassadors for our community.”

When I ask him if he’s concerned about Butte becoming associated with the Berkeley Pit, his tone gets almost aggressive, and he taps his fingernails on the table, though his smile doesn’t fade.

Lucich starts to wax about what he considers Butte’s real heyday, the 1960s, when the town started to diversify instead of languishing as a wronged, single-industry kind of place. He ticks off the things that were located here (“what was in Butte was unbelievable”): FBI headquarters for a five-state region; headquarters for the US Marshals; headquarters for the US Probation Office; US Attorney’s office; Clerk of the Court office.

And then they all left, which in Lucich’s mind was a blow far worse than the creation of the Berkeley Pit, a few little displaced neighborhoods, or the demolition of the beloved Columbia Gardens park (its carousel incinerated in what many locals assume was corporate-sponsored arson) to make room for the East Pit in 1973: “I think that was a much bigger loss than the hillside we see that’s, you know, been dug up.”

And the town recovered anyway, after the 1960s. It’s a town of survivors. They’re accustomed to being used up and left for dead by big companies.

When I ask whether he’s invested more in promotion of the Pit lately, he tells me that he gets complaints from both sides. This summer, the Montana Standard wrote an editorial criticizing the money the Chamber spent on the billboard. Others want to know why he’s not doing more to hawk the Pit. “We [the Chamber] know where our Berkeley Pit is,” he says, ready with an answer to their question. “Everyone has a Berkeley Pit; they just don’t know where it is.”

He tells me about all the good things that are happening at the Pit. There’s vegetation on the hillside. The area is frequented by fox and deer.

Overhead photo of the Berkeley Pit. Butte is immediately to the south and west; north of the Pit is Yankee Doodle Tailings Pond.
Courtesy of the Image Science and Analysis Laboratory, NASA-Johnson Space Center
Overhead photo of the Berkeley Pit. Butte is immediately to the south and west; north of the Pit is Yankee Doodle Tailings Pond.

We talk about Auditor, the amazing Pit dog, who Lucich is convinced was a Komondor. Komondors, Lucich informs me, live to an average age of twelve. Auditor lived to seventeen. “For him to be in that area that could be a little bit toxic, and to survive that long, is unbelievable. So I don’t know what that means except sometimes we think things are real bad, which they probably are . . . but if that dog lived five years beyond the average age of what those dogs usually survived to . . .” (he trails off, pointedly).

Other things are good too. There’s Montana Tech, doing well. A hospital (100 rooms, 6 floors), the National Folk Festival, rocket-engine testing, a wind tunnel. And of course, there’s still mining. Lucich is pleased about this. “It might not be forever but for right now it’s here and it’s great.”

But when he wants the bright side, he need look no further than the very thing in question: the Pit itself. He is not immune to its charms, or its pull. “If you go up there in the morning on a still day, it’s like a painted picture,” he says. “That’s what’s unbelievable.”

He finishes by relating the story of how the children’s hospital was recruiting a new CEO, and Lucich was given one-and-a-half hours to show her around and sell her on Butte. And he wanted to be honest with her; provide the whole picture. So he showed her all the sights, all the architecture and churches and museums, and then he showed her the Pit.

“She’s wearing high heels and she had a dress on,” he tells me. “We go down the tunnel . . . she said, ‘This is the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen.’”

She was sold.

We wrap up and walk out together into the lobby, where there is a bronze statue of Auditor, squat and humped, his coat like a ridged tortoise-shell. We joke about the town being swallowed by the Pit, and about plugging your nose near the Pit “so you don’t catch something.”

I’ve already bought several postcards that show different stages of the Pit. One postcard has two images representing Butte: Uptown and the Berkeley Pit. Another photo shows modern-day Butte in winter, with a headframe in the middle and steam rising from countless industrial and residential heating systems—meant to resemble the fume-choked smelting skyline of Butte in the 1880s. Lucich gives me a few extra identical postcards with a picture of the Serbian church. He tells me that now I’m an ambassador.

I’m back at the viewing stand now, mid-October. The plants on the hillside are dying. It’s hard to divine the shape of the Celtic knot on the hillside. No one’s charging admission and the gate’s swinging open so I walk down the tunnel. Halfway through it I’m hit with the sound of country music. I step out onto the stand.

From this angle, the Pit is impressive: the wideness of it, the sickly yellow walls, the single road winding down and cutting terraces in the side until it disappears into the lake, the sprawling red-brown adobe murk of the water. But there’s no depth of field. No sense of how far back it goes. The Pit may look wide, but the other side, directly across, doesn’t seem too far off. It’s more like a quarry lake than anything else. Behind it, there’s mine waste in sight, but it seems conveniently humped up against the far wall of the crater. It’s an image you might take home with you, but not one that would haunt you in your sleep.

I hit the button for the audio recording. The country music quits and jaunty bluegrass—fiddles, mandolins, banjos—starts up. And the voice that follows is young, female, cheery, and upbeat. The narration itself is informative and fairly brief, with some strange, telling moments. The speaker tells us in that in 1983, “the decision was made to turn off the pumps.” This is followed by a rationale I haven’t heard before: “That water would preserve the mine for future use, conserve costly electricity, and prevent the pit walls from caving in.” So we are to absorb several things from this, if we listen carefully. One, no one in particular is responsible. Two, whoever is responsible was a forward thinker. Three, a sea of arsenic is preferable to a caved-in pit mine.

Sometimes the speech pauses, and the music just plays. These poignant moments occur, perhaps, when there is nothing a person can say, “The most recent data confirms what is called the critical water level sometime near the year 2023.” Long pause. Cue the fiddle.

There’s a distinct eeriness to hearing the jovial tone when it’s illuminating some of the uglier parts of the Pit’s history. She tells us about the burying of Meaderville, almost singing, “They were all swallowed up by mining expansion.” She goes on to provide a grammatically-challenged justification, which you can almost feel coming straight down from the Company: “While painful, most folks realized that Butte’s economic stability relied on mining. It was a simple fact.”

I stay a little longer. Inspect the initials carved into the railing. Try to look through the telescope but I need money to turn it on. I’m not sure why people come here, but I don’t think it’s to brush up on their Butte history.

As I’m leaving, a group of four middle-aged women walks in. One says, “Oh my god, oh my god. How trippy is that?”

Another says, “I’ve seen it before; I don’t want to see it anymore,” and then looks.

It’s snowing, still October, and the temperature is frigid. I’m standing around in full winter woolen-gear at the Granite Mountain memorial, which is roped off for renovation.

A Butte native-son told me that I might get a better look at the Pit from the other side. From the north, looking downhill. He gave me directions through historic downtown, way, way up the Hill, and onto a dirt road through Walkerville that leads to the Bell Diamond headframe. He didn’t tell me what to do when I got there. Maybe he said something about a fence, maybe not. And he warned me not to traffic in hyperbole once I got to where I was going. Too many people have stood where I am standing and done that. The Pit encourages that kind of thinking. But sometimes hyperbole, like cliché, exists for a reason. As Kerouac said, “Clichés are truisms and truisms are true.”

There’s a tall barbed-wire fence—hung with clearly expressed warnings that I should keep out—blocking off everything just below the memorial. The mountains to the east are obscured. The closer mountains look beaten and ravaged, like a giant has thrown something against them. I’ve got a decent view of the waste-expanse below me—where all the rock was dumped as the Pit got deeper—and now I see that it is vast. It stretches out and back toward the mountains for miles. But I cannot see the Pit itself. Only the vague hint of a chasm, far-off. To the east, where the mountain was cut in terraces to make way for the Continental Pit, is the view that you can get from anywhere in town: towering ruins, orange and yellow. Mayan, or maybe Zapotec. Only these are the ruins of deconstruction, not construction. It’s quiet, except for the distant sound of trucks moving ore in and out of the Continental Pit, and that is more like wind.

It’s an inhumanly cold Saturday morning and I wander along the road. I try to act like I’m just another pilgrim, here to take in the sights. A man with a yellow lab steps out of a car and promptly walks off toward the Bell Diamond headframe. He doesn’t seem to want to spend another minute with the two women that came with him. When they get out and start talking, it becomes clear that one has been here and one has not.

“It’s closed, huh?” She directs her question at me. She’s talking about the memorial, but I think she means the entire wasteland below us, and I say yes.

“That’s a drag,” she says.

After a few minutes, they leave, and I’m alone. I look around. I listen for the sound of approaching cars on the dirt road, and then I climb over the fence.

As I descend and clamber through boulders and brush, I find myself standing on exhumed rock. There is something unnatural about this ground—no sharp angles in the topography, many sharp angles in the material itself. What was once Summit Valley is flecked and lumped with snow—the earth a pocked brownish yellow against the stained-white bank of low-hanging cloud. I am now in the wastes north of the Berkeley Pit, hidden by hills from the memorial above me, and I find it impossible to think of this country as anything but post-apocalyptic.

The immense crater of the Berkeley Pit, as seen from the north.
The immense crater of the Berkeley Pit, as seen from the north.

Little grows. A few hardy weeds. But it’s not just a desert—it’s a battle plain. Railroad tracks crisscross the entire expanse, with ancient red metal flags and markers for the engineer, and they split and converge and then vanish into yellow-red hillsides, or are blocked by boulders or drifted over by dirt. Telephone poles lean perilously or are toppled like so many matches. Piles of transformers lie on the ground. Cables are strewn everywhere and disappear into the earth. One overlooked shack after another. Rusty, conjoined tanks with stairways and catwalks. Abandoned headframes, industrial lights, scrap wood, scrap metal. Deep ditches, bridged by old railroad ties. Pipes connected to the hillside, or to nothing. Asbestos-lined water channels, rubber hoses, broken concrete foundations, unidentifiable wood structures and broken machines. Cart tracks weaving their way into black tunnels.

It’s impossible to parse out a timeline, looking at all this. The destruction seems to have been wreaked piece-meal. Detritus from various mining eras. The area, miles-wide, is absolutely empty of people. It’s quiet except for the droning of trucks in the Continental Pit, and ravens croaking abrasively in the stillness.

I keep picking my way down, peering over my shoulder every now and then to make sure someone’s not up at the Bell Diamond, watching me. But no one’s up there, and what poor soul would actively choose to stumble through this wasteland anyway?

I still can’t see the Pit, so I’m just angling toward where I think it might be, trying not to fall in any holes or step on any wires, hoping to get a clear view of my quarry. And suddenly—having descended maybe a mile altogether from the memorial—I scale a small rise and there it is. Below me, before me, stretching out beyond me: the Berkeley Pit.

The crater is immense. Far wider and longer than it seemed from the viewing stand, the location of which (straight across the Pit from me and just a speck now) must have been chosen carefully. Yes, that vantage is closer to town, closer to the highway. But from over there, the Pit seems almost manageable. From here, it looks like an asteroid landed. A wide-angle camera would not capture its entirety in one shot. And rising high against all the surrounding tan-yellow dirt and waste-rock is the lake itself, the color of old rust. There’s something vibrant about its hue from this angle, on this grey morning—something lively and inviting.

I sit down on what will be my perch for the next hour or so. I’m on a high wall, overlooking the Pit from the northwest. And I’m at the top of a narrow run-off draw. Directly below me, down a couple of road-terraces and many hundreds of feet, is the tiny boat dock. Across the lake, to the northeast, sludge cascades from the Horseshoe Bend Treatment Plant in a red-edged froth, colliding with the Pit water and making a greenish-white scum.

The spot I’ve picked for myself is an old-fashioned, coarse concrete block, about three feet by three feet, holding an ancient, two-foot-tall iron pipe. The chain upon it is attached to nothing, and the lock on the chain is not locking anything.

Something is at work here. There are many places in this world where you can go and see the aftermath of man’s extractive desires, but rarely are you allowed to see the ruins coming back, asserting their presence.

The Pit is known to create its own weather. It has grown that large. Time-lapse photography will show how, in uncertain weather, a thick fog rises from the lake, slowly stretches toward the mountains, drifts down the Continental Divide and then, as the pressure changes, retreats back to its place of origin. You could not come here and deny it, or turn your back upon it. The moment your vigilance waned, it might reach for you with greasy, metal-reeking fingers.

The Pit is a nameless force, very present, nearly pulsing. It has potential. One day, I think, it will open its third eye and do great things. As a preliminary gesture, take the “sloughing event” that occurred some five years ago: a huge chunk of the crater wall, eroded by wind, etc., collapsed into the Pit, registering on the local seismograph. The resultant wave wiped much of the road off the opposite wall, and drowned the boat dock.

Or if you don’t believe the water will get high enough on its own, you can always comfort yourself with thoughts of the berm—one of the largest earthen dams in the United States—that holds back, to the north, the Yankee Doodle Tailings Pond. The berm is 650 feet tall, situated just to the west of the Continental Fault. If an earthquake should loosen or break the dam, the black refuse of the pond (a dry fine-grain silt, acting like a liquid once it begins to move) would come roaring through the wastes, over the lip and into the Berkeley Pit, instantly displacing an untold volume of poison water. Pitwatch assures us that there has been no significant seismic activity on the fault in twenty-eight years, but admits, somewhat reluctantly, that there have been “a few, non-mining related earthquakes in Butte-Silver Bow County,” twenty quakes within fifteen miles of Butte in the last year, and in 2005, a 5.6 magnitude quake near Dillon that was felt in Butte and a 2.5 magnitude quake only two miles southwest of the city.

There are some signs of life visible from where I sit. Deer tracks, a fox loping by the Bell Diamond headframe, a tiny chipmunk running across a railroad tie. And watching over everything, croaking at one another and at me, the ravens. They linger on top of telephone poles and make wide, sweeping arcs over the water.

This is where Auditor made a home for himself: the poisoned shores of a poison lake. Vincent told me the miners often made acquaintance with the foxes—petting them, feeding them by hand—but that Auditor wouldn’t suffer their touch. There is no way to know, or fathom, what he could have subsisted on until his elder days when he accepted food from the miners. No way to know how he lived so long despite the toxicity of the area.

An old abandoned shack overlooking the Berkeley Pit.
An old abandoned shack overlooking the Berkeley Pit.

I see now that the Pit is not just a terminal sink for water. It’s a singularity—the magnetic center of Montana’s ruin. Everything sloughs toward it. The power lines, the broken cables, the roads, the hillsides. I get a strong conviction while sitting on my perch (some of it vertigo, sure) that if I drop anything, particularly a metal object, it will go soaring out of my hands and leap many hundreds of feet, out toward the middle of the water. There it would join the cold birds, drifting soundlessly in the lower reaches.

Words fail me. They, too, are pulled away and down. It’s the sort of place you cannot put into language. You cannot articulate. You cannot do it justice. There are things you can say about mountains and streams and deforested mountains and polluted streams. Not the Pit. It’s a place where the mind empties. Maybe that’s the sell. Visiting the Pit is a kind of psychological vacation. The beauty and horror drag all questions and worry from your mind.

We may have entered a period when disaster becomes appeal, horror becomes pride, deficit becomes asset. People will come here—they cannot resist its terrible gravity. This is Butte’s main attraction, aside from the gibbet headframes and buried mine shafts. And the Pit dwarfs all the rest, casting its shadow over this place, drawing everything inside until all that’s left is the black circle.

With effort, I look away. And countless times, as I stumble back over the wastes—picking a circuitous route over the disinterred rock, the railroad ties and metal jetsam, the derelict machines—I turn around, feeling the Pit at my back.

It turns out there was never any need for pretense: I am just another pilgrim, drawn toward the hole. And now that I am in its field, all thought compressesed into nonexistence, the only thing I hear is the low hum of the void.


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