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Restoring Butte: Environmental Education at the Berkeley Pit

By: Matt Vincent

The Berkeley Pit viewing stand ordinarily sees as many as 300 visitors each day when it’s open, making up for around 35,000 visits a year. A couple of weeks ago, there was one “out of the ordinary” new development at the viewing stand.

Members from the local citizens education group, PitWatch, and the Butte Chamber of Commerce decided to try something different for the festival season this year.

The tourists start coming into Butte in high gear in July. The busiest weekend of the summer is the Montana Folk Festival when tens of thousands of people flock to The Mining City to enjoy worldly arts, music and culture beneath our tall, iron headframes and historic buildings.

Mining and environmental cleanup are also vital and well-known parts of Butte’s present culture. Both are on full display at the Berkeley Pit viewing stand. Therefore, it shouldn’t come as a big surprise that many of these visitors end up going there to see the eye-catching blue-green, yet infamously contaminated waters of the Berkeley Pit.

There are plenty of hair-raising facts that people have heard about the Pit, leading to its ominous reputation – it’s nearly a thousand feet deep, holding close to 50 billion gallons of water contaminated from acid mine drainage. Birds have died from landing on and drinking the water, which will have to be treated “in perpetuity.”

But what about some of the newer facts? Much is going on recently at the Pit, so much so that it’s hard to keep up. For instance, did you know that since the last tragic bird die-off in 2016, scientists and managers at the Pit have successfully scared off and saved 99.8% of all birds that have landed?

Or how about this past spring? For the first time since the Pit began filling in 1982, water was pumped and treated out of the Pit at the same rate it’s coming into it, thanks to a new water management system constructed on site at the mine. Plus, later this year, once up and running properly, there is a newly constructed water polishing treatment plant that will be able to discharge clean water to Silver Bow Creek for the first time ever. These actions put the cleanup at the Pit four years ahead of schedule.

These are just some of the major changes being brought to bear on Butte’s Berkeley. And the people working on it and those charged with informing the public feel that more folks “out there” need to know.

In an effort to bring visitors up to speed, members from PitWatch and other subject matter “experts” working on the Superfund cleanup at the Pit were at the viewing stand on the Thursday, Friday and Saturday of this year’s folk festival to “show and tell” precisely about the past, present and future of the Pit and to accurately answer people’s questions.

At one point on Friday, scientists working on the Pit even flew a water-sampling drone in front of the viewing stand for visitors to see in action. This aerial drone technology is capable of taking water samples 200 feet below the surface of the Pit, while another drone boat constructed by researchers at Montana Tech can draw samples from over 600 feet deep.

These are a few more of the exciting new developments ongoing at what is arguably one of the nation’s most iconic Superfund sites. The media does its best to report on these developments, but with so many other stories and important topics to cover, it’s impossible to cover it all in depth. Even if the media could, it’s just as impossible to expect readers of the general public to find the time to keep up. It seems we’re always getting busier and busier, with no time to spare.

In the case of the Pit, catching a captive audience became the best approach. Over the nine hours that the viewing stand was specially staffed during the festival, over 600 visitors, young and old, from near and far asked dozens of Pit-related questions.

Everyone who came eventually left knowing lots more about Butte and the Pit than they ever did before. And the folks helping PitWatch learned some new things too – hanging out at the Pit and talking with people is a great way to educate them!

Feedback from many of the visitors, not to mention the experiences of the folks who helped out was so positive, there’s no doubt we’ll be doing it again – and maybe even more often!

You can also view this post at: rampart-solutions.com


Pitwatch.org Reimagined

I remember opening my first edition of PitWatch at my grandpa and grandma Lester’s dining room table as an 11-year old in 2002. The publication in those days was as fresh as it could be; it contained the latest water levels and flow updates, even breaking news about the then-upcoming Consent Decree. However, like many in our community, the edition left me with many questions. 11-year old Kayla’s mind raced. When did the pit begin filling? Who monitors this thing on a regular basis? Is someone watching this? Is it gonna flood? Why is it red? Are there fish in that thing?

My grandfather, Tom Lester, was a retiree from Montana Tech, surely he had answers for me. I looked at the edition number at the top of the PitWatch publication, and I remember asking “Grandpa, do you have all the old editions of PitWatch?” I was hungry for more information. Come to find out well, no, he didn’t have old editions. In fact, we were privileged to be getting the latest copy of PitWatch because it happened to be inserted into my grandparent’s subscription to The Montana Standard; and not everyone in Butte can afford a subscription to the newspaper my grandpa was happy to remind me.

Those editions of PitWatch left me feeling a little scared because I wanted to know as much as possible and I didn’t know where to go as a kid. Sure, I could have reached out to a committee member, but it was 2002, and I was 11. I didn’t have an email address or a cell-phone. The internet was “new” and little info about the Berkeley Pit existed online. I didn’t understand the updates found in a single edition of PitWatch. I wanted to see the background, the science, and the management of the Berkeley Pit as a full picture.  As little as 17-years ago, the average Butte community member did not have immediate access to the whole wealth of knowledge about the Berkeley Pit.

Flash forward to 2019, and we can now bring you the entire collection of knowledge, research, updates, history, and science behind the Berkeley Pit in one place. You can send us an email and get a reply in as little as a day! PitWatch.org is the only resource you will find that has been vetted by both scientists, industry professionals, AND most importantly, our own Butte community members.

As the communications coordinator for this website, I took it on as a personal challenge to help out those 11-year olds looking for all of the answers. I am blessed to work with a committee who has been in this business since before I was in Kindergarten. This committee is dedicated and committed to helping our community better understand the complexities of the Berkeley Pit. I welcome feedback on the website and want the information on found here to be as easily understood as possible. Please send a note to info@pitwatch.org if you have any questions or comments.

On a personal note – I’m not scared of this “thing” anymore. I feel empowered. I know this community can make a difference and I believe in our persistence, adaptability, and strength. If there is a city on earth who could be handed this type of card; it’s Butte. I believe in Butte and her people. And in case you are wondering; it’s not going to flood and spill into the city (scientifically impossible!) and, no, there aren’t fish in it!


Kayla Lappin (Lester)
Clark Fork Watershed Education Program (CFWEP) Communications and Events Coordinator
PitWatch Committee