10 April 2010

The Pit of Life AND Death

Must outside Butte, Montana lies a pit of greenish poison a mile and a half wide and over a third of a mile deep. It hasn't always been so - it was once a thriving copper mine appropriately dubbed "The Richest Hill in the World".  
Over a billion tons of copper ore, silver, gold and other metals were extracted from the rock of southwestern Montana, making the mining town of Butte one of the richest communities in the country.
When running underground mines became too costly in the 1950's, the drastic but effective methods of "mountaintop removal" and  open pit mining were introduced.
As more and more rock was excavated, groundwater-began ot seep into the pit, and pumps had to be installed to keep it from slowly flooding.
By 1983,  the hill s so exhausted that the mining company was no longer able to extract minerals in profitable amounts. The Mine was abandoned, the mining company moving to more lucrative scraps of Earth.  without  the pumps, rain water and ground water gradually began to collect in the pit, leaching out the metals and minerals in the surrounding rock.  The water became as acidic as lemon juice, creating a toxic brew of heavy metal poisons including arsenic, lead and zinc. No fish live there, and no plants line the shores.  There aren't even any insects buzzing about.  The Berkeley Pit had become on e oft he deadliest places on earth,too toxic even for microorganisms.... or so it was thought.

In 1995, an analytic chemist named William Chatham  saw something unusual in the allegedly lifeless lake:   a small clump of  green floating on the water's surface. After examining the slime under a microscope, the researchers identified it as Euglena Mutabilis, a protozoan which has the remarkable ability of being able to survive in the toxic watersof the Berkeley Pit by altering its local environment to something more hospitable.   Through photosynthesis, it increases the oxygen level in the water, which causes  dissolved metals to oxidize and precipitate out. In addition, it pulls iron out of the water and sequesters it inside of itself.  This makes it a classic example of an extremeophile.   Extremophiles are organisms that can tolerate and even thrive in environments that will destroy most other living things.   Some can even repair their own damaged DNA, a trait which makes them extremely interesting to cancer researchers.
The research team collected  water samples, isolated microorganisms, and cultured them. The team eventually identified over 160  different microorganisms.. thus leading to the discovery of  a number of promising chemicals. Three of these,   berkeleydione, berkeleytrione and Berkeley acid.

the next step was to see what effect these chemicals had, if any, on other living cells. To their delight, five of the chemicals showed anti-cancer properties. Further  tests revealed  that berkeleydione helped slow the growth of a type of lung cancer cell,   and Berkeley acid went after ovarian cancer cells.  All five were passed along to the National Cancer Institute for further study.

Other researchers are looking into the Pit as well - not for cancer fighters or other drugs, but simply for ways to help clean the place up. In 1995  flock of migrating snow geese stopped at the massive pond for a rest, and at least 342 of them died there.  Authorities now use firecrackers and loudspeakers to scare away migrating waterfowl, but there have been a few smaller die-offs.

The water level is rising  at a rate of several inches a month, and if unchecked it will spill over into the areas groundwater in twenty years. That danger has earned the area the dubious distinction of being one of the EPAs largest Superfund sites.

Normally such water is treated by adding lime to the water to reduce the acidity and remove much of the metal, however the Berkeley Pit is so saturated with undesirables that this process would produce tons of toxic sludge every day.  Currently  the EPAs plan is to focus on containment.

Grant Mitman believes that the best way to clean up the Pit is to use the algae that already lives there. E. Mutabilis, for one, tends to grow in clumps. These clumps clean up their neighborhoods enough for other extremophiles to move in.  These organisms would collect the metals within their own cells, and upon dying they would sink to the bottom and drag the metals with them. To Mitman, its all a matter of finding the right mix of extremophiles for a self sustaining algal colony.
With metals concentrated at the bottom, and cleaner water at the top, the Pit could conceivably be reopened.   The bottom sludge could be collected and processed for its ever
-more-valuable metal content, and the water could be used for industry  or agriculture.  While it might not be safe to drink, the water could still be worth a quarter million  dollars a year in a water hungry West.  In the meantime, the Pit has become a popular tourist attraction.


  1. I know that this is a very lengthy read.. but there was just so much in this story that I found very interesting.. I hope that some of you read this and find it as interesting as I did.

  2. Wow, Angie.
    That was fascinating!
    Never knew anything about the place and you there on the other side of the world found it. How'd you do that?
    I'm glad you did. This has so much interesting potential.

    I'm going to look up some more and hope to follow the progress.

    Thanks, Sweety!

  3. Cool article ... Thanks, Angie ...

  4. Thanks for sharing Angie... I would have never sought this information out on my own and it is great to happen upon it... thanks to you!

  5. Amazing to see mother nature finding ways of protecting itself. Interesting also that this huge mess could become a tool to battle cancer. I do hope they continue the research in that sense. Its one ugly looking pit. A tourist attraction you say? Yikes, something that kills birds by the hundreds is not quite the spot I would seek for a photo safari!

    Very interesting blog Angie

  6. Once again, you have found an obscure article that is quite fascinating and educational! I lived in Montana briefly in the mid-80s, in Misoula, but I have driven through Butte many times and never saw this. Just driving through a town never shows one the sights outside of the main road. The applications of the "scum" fascinates me! Wouldn't it be ironic after more than 50 years and billions of dollars in cancer research that the "cure" could be found in a fetid pond? LOL! Proof once again that mankind meddles with creating medications that could be found in nature. Great post Angie!

  7. it was always there...the companies don't want anyone to believe it kills cancer cells...but I take it all the time

  8. this was suppose to go with my comment

  9. Omg..as I read this it made me cry, but in the end it was slightly uplifting. Whenever I read about birds (or any creature) being killed with chemicals or oil ponds(as was the case here in Canada, the oil sands in Alberta, where thousands of birds landed on this effluence pond and died, the company of course didn't feel totally responsible for this....shame on them) I feel that big companies need to be forced to take greater responsibility for their devastation of the earth,not just take and never give back. Thankfully something good came of this in a bittersweet way.

    Great blog Angie....

  10. Hello there, and welcome to my page. Thanks for commenting, I know it was a rather lengthy read but I found it SO interesting I just had to share!

    Hope to see you back here regularly. Angie

  11. Excellent Idea Jen.. keep me informed, ok?

    I stumbled on a really great site and thats where I stayed last night reading heaps of interesting stuff.


    There was so much to this one story. Aren't those little Protozoan life forms amazing to be able to adapt to the environment like that?? And to think that such a huge HUGE problem may be fixable?? what a huge task.
    Every now and then I find something online which really grabs my curiosity and I am still thinking about it when I head to bed.. those nights in the past, when Glenn was home and in bed HOURS before me.. Id go up stairs around 1am and yap yap yap about what Id been reading about.. poor guy he must really love me lol

  12. Howdy Mr KJ nice to see you here!

    I love articles like this ( as you may have noticed). Hope your doing well over there. I loved the poem you wote late last week, I dont believe I left a comment as I was in a hurry, but it was so beautifully written.

    Enjoy the rest of your weekend.

  13. Heyyy Sam.. its so very nice to read your comment, thankyou. Last week I was over on your page looking through your pictures from Housten.. some very lovely ones, interesting textures shown on a couple with the old buildings. Work trip I think you said? Im curious.. and if you dont mind Id love to learn more about your life there and what line of work your in.. anything actually that you would care to share.. if possible could you contact me via private message and fill in some of the blanks?? If thats a big ask, I appologise. Its not that I mean to be nosey, or rude, its just that I love visiting your page, reading your poems, looking at your pics.. and each time I do I am filled with alot of questions.

    I hope life is treating you well and your not putting too many hours in at work ( I get the impression that you do that on occassion). Hows the guitar playing? Ive not touched my guitar for many months, infact Brett has been using it more than myself. .. At least it is getting put to good use hey?
    Take care, see you soon I hope.

  14. Agreed Mimi.. I think its more interesting from the air.. that way its easier to see the full extent of the damage done.

    How are you?!.. I read your Easter Blog and was in the middle of a comment and had to dash.. so I didnt post what Id written, thinking that Id get back.. I havent.. but I intend to!! Enjoyed the blog and the pics and it sounded like a great heart warming weekend.. Excellent.

    Yes the scientific findings were amazing. The fact that something good could come from such a devistation is a marvel in itself dont you think? What a huge mess to try and correct. Like Jen I think I will try to keep track of what happens here. I found the comment interesting. at present the EPA is more interested in containment rather than rectifying the problem... I mean seriously.. where would you begin?? ( I know that feeling... sometimes I look about my house and am totally lost as to where to begin lol )
    Talk to you soon x

  15. Wow, thanks for such a nice comment Jen. You obviously were as interested as I was reading this. As I have said.. there was just so much of interest in it. Very interesting that you actually have been to Butte. So very true that unless you know the points of interest in a town, you can miss out on so many points of interest. I often think that when we go on holidays.. always stress that Im going to miss something hahaha

    Indeed Ironic, the amount of man hours and finances that have been involved in one aspect of human health, the fight of cancer.. I doubt that there is ONE family in the whole of the World who hasnt been affected by that disease. My Mother has had two operations to rid her of the disease, I am Extremly happy to say that both operations were successfull.. she was lucky enough to need no follow up treatment as Kemo or Ray treatment .. exceptionaly lucky!!

    Actually a vast majority of our medications do use substances found in nature dont they?

    Fascinating and educational.. mmmm yes yes.. I love them!!

    Again.. hows the feet?

  16. Helen, G'day to you!

    Sorry for upsetting you .. I have, in the past found a couple of articles that I have found very intriguing , but also extremely upsetting as they dealt with the topic of animals, so I decided not to share them here in Multiply.

    I agree that many large companies do only take and they should be more responsible and less apathetic.. doubt it will change though.. money speaks volumes.

    I think the enormity of the problem was one of the factors that I found so interesting.. amazing that someone would actually think to research this area, dont you think?

    Hope your weekend has been a good one Helen.. get up to much?

  17. Howdy Dana, Im somewhat confused about your comment.. care to enlighten me a little please?

  18. Hi again Angie, please don't ever not post something cause it might hurt someones feelings or is too brutal. The truth needs to be known, no matter how harsh it is and the more people read about such things the more educated the world is. Sometimes I get overwhelmed by all the bad things in the world, there are days when I hear a bunch of awful stuff and it just seems to weigh on my heart. Then there are other days when I hear about something good happening and it gives one faith in human kind again. This blog was both bad and good and very interesting, I love stuff like this. Please post more when you find it. Hugs....

  19. Extremely interesting article, thanks for sharing

  20. Jazz, Hello and thanks for taking the time to read all that. Well worth the read, indeed, and Im glad you found it interesting.... it just had so many levels of interest.

    Hope you can find something else of interest and that I hear from you again. Angie