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Information on current water treatment at the Berkeley Pit, and future treatment plans.

In addition to the regular staff of scientists and undergraduate assistants at Montana Tech, the Stierles, at center, have also worked with local high school and middle school students over the years on science fair projects focused on Berkeley Pit microbes. The realization that a compound that could help cure cancer could be lurking in the Berkeley Pit is thrilling. They like to think that their microbes could be some of the richest "ore" ever mined from the Richest hill on Earth. Photo courtesy of Lisa Kunkel, The Montana Standard.

Bioprospecting in the Berkeley Pit


The search for valuable natural products from a most unnatural world

by Andrea and Don Stierle

In addition to the regular staff of scientists and undergraduate assistants at Montana Tech, the Stierles, at center, have also worked with local high school and middle school students over the years on science fair projects focused on Berkeley Pit microbes. The realization that a compound that could help cure cancer could be lurking in the Berkeley Pit is thrilling. They like to think that their microbes could be some of the richest "ore" ever mined from the Richest hill on Earth. Photo courtesy of Lisa Kunkel, The Montana Standard.
In addition to the regular staff of scientists and undergraduate assistants at Montana Tech, the Stierles, at center, have also worked with local high school and middle school students over the years on science fair projects focused on Berkeley Pit microbes. The realization that a compound that could help cure cancer could be lurking in the Berkeley Pit is thrilling. They like to think that their microbes could be some of the richest “ore” ever mined from the Richest hill on Earth. Photo courtesy of Lisa Kunkel, The Montana Standard.

Most people think of the Berkeley Pit as a large toxic waste lake, an unfortunate relic of Butte’s proud mining heritage. Don and Andrea Stierle, however, see the Pit as something more. Like most of their Natural Products Chemistry colleagues, the Stierles could be searching the rainforests of Brazil or combing Caribbean reefs for plants and microorganisms that could yield promising new drug leads. Instead they are exploring the uncharted expanses of the Berkeley Pit, which they see as a unique ecosystem with treasures beyond the vast amounts of copper dredged from this site for over 25 years.

Anyone living in Butte is probably familiar with the history of the Pit and its current status as a mine waste lake. The Superfund strategy will keep the 36 billion gallons of acidic, metal-rich water from ever escaping the Pit. Until 1995, however, little attention was paid to the biological aspects of this bleak ecosystem because it was considered too toxic to support life.

Andrea and Don Stierle set out to change that belief as they launched a new type of exploration in Berkeley Pit Lake – mining for microbes. And not just any microbes – they were looking for microbes that could produce new compounds with real drug potential.
The Stierles are not new to drug discovery. For the past twenty years they have looked for anti-AIDS compounds in Bermudian sponge bacteria, anticancer agents in the bark of redwood trees, and in 1993 found a fungal source for taxol, an important anticancer compound previously isolated exclusively from the bark of the elusive yew tree. Andrea even had the fungus named after her. But they had never before explored acid mine waste as a source of the next anticancer agent.

Since 1996 the Stierles, and their team of undergraduate researchers, have isolated and studied a collection of over fifty culturable bacteria and fungi from one of the more extreme environments in the lower 48 states.

The Stierles believed that this unusual environment would harbor unusual microbes, which could in turn produce novel chemistry that can be exploited in many ways. The organisms themselves may also be effective bioremediators of the wastewater in which they grow. Their metabolic by-products could have a tremendous impact on the overall ecology of the Pit Lake system by raising the pH of the Pit water, by providing nutrients for other heterotrophs, and by adsorbing metal contaminants. Thus, the research potential of this site is tremendous, and may represent a real renaissance for a geographic area characterized by years of mining, milling, and smelting waste.

The Stierle lab uses a unique tool chest for their “mining venture”. Armed with chromatography columns, signal transduction enzyme inhibition assays, a series of antimicrobial testing schemes, and a nuclear magnetic resonance spectrometer assay, they are literally mining this unnatural system for microbes that produce bioactive natural products.

Microorganisms have been an important source of anticancer agents and antibiotics agents of all types since the discovery of penicillin in the 1930’s and 40’s. Over the years pathogenic microbes develop resistance to widely used drugs and newer more effective antibiotics must be found.

The challenge of Natural Products Chemists like the Stierles is to find new populations of microbes and to effectively isolate compounds with desired biological activity from these organisms. The Stierles have already isolated several exciting new secondary metabolites from the microbial inhabitants of this unusual ecological niche. These compounds include a migraine preventative and several compounds with promising anticancer potential. They have also found an intriguing fungus that appears to pull metals from the Pit water itself.

How would you actually find new bioactive compounds from a Berkeley Pit microbe? It is a complex process. First, the Stierles isolated microbes from water and sediment samples and established them in pure cultures. Each microbe was grown in a series of small liquid culture broths to provide adequate biological material for testing and analysis. This is not an ecological study so the Stierles are not limited to nutrient broths that mimic conditions in the Pit Lake. Instead they use a variety of carbon and nitrogen sources and determine which growth conditions yield the most active natural products. To determine the activity of the compounds produced by their microbes the Stierles must first thoroughly extract each microbial culture using different organic solvents. These extracts are then tested using a series of bioassays or biological tests that can determine if they have potential as antibacterial, antifungal, anticancer, or immune system modulating agents. These tests are used to guide the isolation of pure active compounds from the complex microbial extracts.

Each extract is first tested against a suite of human pathogenic microorganisms, including Staphylococcus aureus, and Streptococcus pneumoniae. In collaboration with Montana State University researcher Allen Harmsen the Stierles are also looking for compounds that show activity against Pneumocystis carinii, causative agent of Pneumocystis carinii Pneumonia, an indicator disease of AIDS patients, and Aspergillus, causative agent of aspergillosis, both of great concern in immunocompromised individuals.

To find compounds with anticancer activity the Stierles use a complex series of signal transduction enzyme assays that identify specific enzyme inhibitors. Inhibition of key enzymes can be an indication that a compound could block the initiation or spreading of cancer cells. In collaboration with University of Montana researcher Keith Parker the Stierles are also looking for compounds with antimigraine activity. The first compound they isolated from their Pit microbe collection showed promise as a migraine preventative.

Looking for active natural products in this unnatural world has been exciting and challenging for the Stierle Research Lab. Although their first four years of work were completely self-funded they have been able to attract support from the US Geological Survey and from the National Institutes of Health. Through their funding they have been able to create new jobs in Butte, hiring two research scientists and a host of talented undergraduates to help them with their work. They have also worked with very talented and hard-working Butte High School students Alexandra Antonioli and Kels Phelps, and East Middle School student Randi Phelps whose ongoing Science Fair projects focused on Berkeley Pit microbes. And Andrea has found that after 26 years at Montana Tech, it has been nice to actually earn a real salary for all of the work she does in the lab. But it isn’t the funding that keeps the Stierles looking for new compounds. It is the thrill of discovery, the realization that a compound that could help cure cancer could be lurking in the Berkeley Pit. They like to think that their microbes could be some of the richest “ore” ever mined from the Richest Hill on Earth.

The Berkeley Pit in 1972.

Berkeley Pit Myth Versus Fact

The Berkeley Pit in 1972.

The Berkeley Pit in 1972.

PitWatch Issue Volume 9, Number 1

The community has many common misconceptions about the Berkeley Pit. This section will address a few of those most often heard false statements and try to set the record straight.

Myth:

The Pit Will Overflow.Watch Full Movie Online Streaming Online and Download

Fact:

There are two reasons why the Pit will never overflow. First, the 1994 Record of Decision and 2002 Consent Decree established the maximum level that the water will be allowed to reach to make sure the Berkeley Pit is lowest point in the cone of depression (see center graphic). Wells to monitor water levels have been set up. Failure to keep the water below the 5410′ elevation would result in steep fines for BP/Atlantic Richfield and Montana Resources. Second, the Horseshoe Bend Water Treatment Plant is already in-place and operating. It has the capacity (7 Million Gallons per Day) to treat water from the Berkeley Pit, when it becomes necessary. This will ensure the water level remains below 5,410′.

Myth:

The Horseshoe Bend Water Treatment Plant will empty the Berkeley Pit.

Fact:

In the 1994 Record of Decision, the agencies decided that it would be unfeasible for the Potentially Responsible Parties (PRP’s) to ever completely empty the Berkeley Pit. The remedy selected for the Berkeley Pit is to treat all water inflows to maintain the level below 5,410′ above sea level.

Myth:

Congress is cutting the national Superfund program and the operation of the Horseshoe Bend Water treatment Plant will be discontinued.

Fact:

The ‘Butte Mine Flooding Superfund Site’ is the responsibility of BP/Atlantic Richfield and Montana Resources. Thus, the plant will not be affected by any changes to the EPA’s Superfund Program. The legally binding Consent Decree, which was signed by the responsible parties in 2002, established the financial commitment to operate and maintain the water treatment plant in perpetuity.

This image from the Montana Bureau of Mines & Geology illustrates the connections between historic underground mining tunnels and the Berkeley Pit. After groundwater pumping ceased in 1982, the tunnels, and eventually the Pit, began to fill with water.

Mine Resumption Affects Treatment Plant Operations

This image from the Montana Bureau of Mines & Geology illustrates the connections between historic underground mining tunnels and the Berkeley Pit. After groundwater pumping ceased in 1982, the tunnels, and eventually the Pit, began to fill with water.
This image from the Montana Bureau of Mines & Geology illustrates the connections between historic underground mining tunnels and the Berkeley Pit. After groundwater pumping ceased in 1982, the tunnels, and eventually the Pit, began to fill with water. Click on the image to view a larger version.

Since the last issue of PITWATCH, Montana Resources has decided to resume operations. With the mine going again and with the water treatment plant coming on line, there have been many questions from the community. Here are some answers to reader questions.

Q: How much total water went into the Berkeley Pit since the suspension of mining at Montana Resources?
A: About 7.5 billion gallons of water or an average of 6 mgd has gone into the Pit since MR suspended operations. An average of 3.4 mgd of this total was from the underground workings and storm water flow. An average of 2.6 mgd of this total was from the Horseshoe Bend discharge.

Q: How much water will go into the Pit once mining operations resume completely and the water treatment facility is operating?
A: The Horseshoe Bend drainage flow will be treated in the new treatment plant, and presently, this water will be entirely consumed in the mining operations. The remaining 3.4 mgd of flow from the underground workings and storm water flow will still flow into the Pit contributing to the rising level there. Eventually, when the water level approaches 5,410′ above sea level (expected about 2018), water will have to be pumped from the Berkeley Pit and treated at the Horseshoe Bend facility. Having the plant in place provides assurance that the capability is there when it becomes necessary to treat Pit water.

Q: Where will the treated water go?
A: Current plans are to treat the entire Horseshoe Bend drainage flow at the treatment plant, and then route all of the treated water to the concentrator for use in mine operations. As a result, and for as long as the treated water is used in the mining circuit, there will be no discharge off-site. In the event the mine was to suspend operations again, Horseshoe Bend drainage water would be treated to discharge standards at the plant. Then it would be transported by a pipeline, being constructed along the historic Silver Bow Creek channel (Metro Storm Drain), to its confluence with Blacktail Creek, just west of the Visitor’s Center on George Street in Butte, Montana.

The Berkeley Pit in Butte, Montana, 1984. Photo from Fritz Daily.

Mining Suspension Changes Treatment Plans

The Berkeley Pit in Butte, Montana, 1984. Photo from Fritz Daily.
The Berkeley Pit in Butte, Montana, 1984.

PitWatch Volume 5, Number 2

In July 2000, Montana Resources suspended mining operations. The suspension has had a direct impact on the Berkeley Pit water levels and efforts are underway to deal with the problem.

The immediate concern is treating the Horseshoe Bend water, which had been diverted away from the Berkeley Pit since 1996. Based on data from July 1 to September 30, 2000, about four to five million gallons per day is entering the Pit from the Horseshoe Bend flow. Montana Resources had been treating this water as part of its mine operations.

Berkeley Pit water

Berkeley Pit is the “Olympics” of Testing Treatment Technology

Berkeley Pit waterPitWatch Volume 5, Number 2

In the last PITWATCH, we described Berkeley Pit-related research efforts that have been undertaken locally at Montana Tech, the Montana Bureau of Mines and Geology, and MSE. But Butte residents may not be aware that the Berkeley Pit is literally world-famous in the mine waste cleanup industry. Research groups around the world have used the water to perform tests and demonstrate the effectiveness of their technologies.

The Montana Bureau of Mines and Geology is in charge of handling requests for Berkeley Pit water, and in the past 10 years, the Bureau has shipped over 150 batches (about 5 gallons each) of Pit water to researchers around the globe. Just in the last year, the Bureau has shipped water to the following groups:
•    Virotec International (Australia, seawater-neutralized bauxite water treatment process)
•    Electrometals Technologies (Australia, electrowinning process for copper recovery)
•    Biomet Mining (Canada, biosulfide process for copper and zinc recovery)
•    University of Cincinnati (Cincinnati, Ohio, sulfate-reducing bacteria process for copper and zinc recovery)
•    Ion Separations (Virginia City, Montana, proprietary water treatment/metals recovery process)
•    MSE Technology Applications (Butte, Montana, evaluation of returning settled slurry from lime treatment to the Berkeley Pit)
•    U.S. Geological Survey (Kearneysville, West Virginia, water treatment process using limestone in carbon dioxide-pressurized reactor)
•    Notre Dame University (South Bend, Indiana, testing of biomass materials for absorption of metals)
•    Eltron Research (Boulder, Colorado, electrolytic metals removal process)
•    Seaspan International (Canada, proprietary process)
•    Montana Tech (Butte, Montana, various projects evaluating cleanup options)

Since the State of Montana considers Berkeley Pit water to be hazardous waste, shipments of the water must comply with EPA and Department of Transportation requirements.