The Berkley Pit in Butte, Montana, is a 1,780-foot-deep hole that’s about a mile long and half a mile wide and is half-full of rust-colored groundwater. Or, you know, half-empty depending on your perspective. The large pool is the toxic side-effect of an open-pit copper-mining operation that opened in 1955 and then closed in 1982. If the water from that pit ever slips into the surrounding water table, the people of Butte will have to eat soup through their veins for the rest of their lives. And it’s estimated to happen by 2020.
But it’s also a tourist attraction.
Superfund sites are hazardous waste areas that have been singled out by the federal government as dangerous enough for a massive long-term cleanup to avoid horrific damage to the populace, the environment, and our collective consciences. I’ve only visited one other in my life, Love Canal in Niagara, New York, and that smooth, verdant lawn of grass covering a hell of chemical soup gave me such a peaceful Eagles feeling that I couldn’t help but visit the next one that I came near.
We walked into a small, homey trailer-like building filled to bursting with shiny souvenirs probably manufactured in far-off places despite their very Montana-ness: bear claw magnets, polished stones, Native American bric-a-brac, books on giant white statues of Mary. But we weren’t there to gift shop. We were there to see a pre-tragedy.
After paying a pittance to see the pit, we walked down a long, lighted tunnel with rounded edges almost like the passageway of a spaceship until we were deposited onto a wooden deck overlooking what could indeed be the setting of a science fiction movie: The Berkley Pit itself.
Various placards scattered around the observation deck broke down the history and science in an upbeat fashion, while a loudspeaker blurted forth its narrative less like the pit was a ticking doomsday clock and more like it was an artistic feat that rivaled Mount Rushmore.
Honestly, for the seat of inevitable disaster that it is, scientist and engineers are persistent in pointing out that the pit is safe and contained for now and will be until 2020 when the water finally rises to the point that it will infect the water table. And those guys are pretty smart. Except that the Berkley Pit happened in the first place. But that’s us. Pretty smart until we’re pretty dumb.
But at least in 2020, I’ll be far away from Butte, Montana.