Weird American pit stops: why you need to see this toxic open-pit mine

Berkeley Pit Montana ButteBerkeley Pit Montana Butte
Laura Brown, 2020

This toxic pit is one of the biggest environmental cleanup projects in US history. It's also a tourist attraction.

There’s something remarkably apocalyptic and American about a Superfund toxic waste site that moonlights as a tourist attraction, but that’s exactly what you get from the Berkeley Pit in Butte, Montana. It makes for a fascinating stop on your Montana road trip.

The Berkeley Pit was once called “The Richest Hill in the World” for the sheer amount of ore and valuable copper that was mined from it. Now, the Berkeley Pit is a giant hole in the ground filled 1800 feet deep with toxic acid. When the copper mine closed in 1982, rainwater continued to fill the pit, mixing with the heavy metals and minerals found in the rock, and producing an acid so strong that birds die instantly if they happen to land on it, something that has unfortunately happened several times in the history of the pit. The water is an eerie still green color that reflects the sky. At random intervals, loud booms and bangs can be heard from the various technologies installed to keep the birds away.

Because the pit contains such a mix of toxic heavy metals, it is a great worry that the pit will ever overflow its boundary into the Columbia River watershed nearby. This would poison Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks, as well a river that supports over 8 million people. Needless to say, it would be catastrophic if this were to happen.This is why the Environmental Protection Agency has earmarked hundreds of millions of dollars to clean up the Berkeley Pit. Starting in 2019, a treatment plant located nearby is able to clean 7 million gallons of water a day, removing heavy metals and toxins; lowering the overall water level, and protecting the public.

For $2.00 from March to November, tourists can see the Pit from a tourist vantage point, complete with audio narration about the history of the “attraction”. The Berkeley Pit is located in Butte Montana, just off of I-90 and I-15. You can read more about the fascinating history of the Berkeley Pit, as well as ongoing cleanup efforts, here: https://pitwatch.org/

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