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Town sees treasure in toxic pit

The Chamber of Commerce in Butte, Mont., is charging admission to see one of America’s largest bodies of toxic water.
To match feature Environment-Montana
Berkeley Pit, the site of a former copper mine in Butte, Mont., has become a profitable tourist attraction. Adam Tanner / Reuters file
/ Source: The Associated Press

Turning lemons into tourist lemonade, the Chamber of Commerce in this mining city is charging admission to see one of America’s largest bodies of toxic water. And people are paying.

“Some people see contaminated water,” said chamber executive Marko Lucich. “I see wealth.”

The chamber launched a trial run last summer, charging visitors $1 to gaze at the Berkeley Pit and its placid, gray water. There were enough people willing to pay that officials decided to charge again this year — doubling the price to $2.

Gwenda Buckmaster of Rapid City, S.D., viewed the pit last summer, the $1 admission folded into the price of a guided bus tour.

“The first time I drove through Butte I thought, “This is a terrible place,”’ she said. “But once you start to understand it, it’s fascinating. All that mining history.”

Admission fees brought in about $18,600 between June 15 and Sept. 30 last year. Some of the proceeds will go toward improvements intended to make the site even more attractive to tourists.

Arsenic, cadmium in the mix
The Berkeley Pit is a former copper mine that began filling in 1982 with drainage from closed mines. It now holds about 36 billion gallons of water laden with arsenic, copper, cadmium, cobalt, iron and zinc.

Tainted water covers about 500 acres, goes to a depth of some 900 feet and is toxic enough that it was blamed for the deaths of 342 migratory snow geese that landed on the water in 1995. Now visitors sometimes hear noisemakers intended to scare birds away.

The pit is on the federal Superfund cleanup list. It is also on the Web site of Travel Montana, the state tourism office.

“Our major attractions in the state continue to be our national parks, our outdoor recreation,” administrator Betsy Baumgart said. “But once people are here, they are interested in understanding the culture ... and mining is very much a part of the history and current culture.”

Butte’s mining industry created a few barons and supported legions of laborers. The city supplied copper for wire as cities were being electrified in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. By 1920 Butte bustled with 100,000 residents, and brimmed with labor activism, violence and vice.

The city of 34,000 already has a National Historic Landmark District, which includes a restored brothel, the World Museum of Mining and Evel Knievel Days, held in honor of the motorcycle daredevil and Butte native.

Souvenir shop
The pit has an observation deck, built years ago. There is also a souvenir shop filled with copper goods, such as candlesticks and keychains. The newsletter PITWATCH is available free.

Pit owner Montana Resources, which operates Butte’s only active mine, has deeded the Chamber of Commerce the observation deck and 2½ nearby acres. The chamber plans $275,000 in improvements, including a pavilion, a playground, food service and flush toilets in place of outhouses.

Montana Resources’ parent, Washington Corps., has pledged $100,000 and, if the chamber provides matching funds, an additional $75,000.