Can life truly exist in Montana’s toxic Berkeley Pit?
The great state of Montana is not usually, shall we say, the most popular tourist destination in the U.S. It’s especially mysterious for those that live on the east coast, who may only know it as the big state that doesn’t have a lot of people living in it.
But that’s not all there is to the treasure state. Montana has beautiful wildlife and wide-open plains – there’s a reason they call it “Big Sky Country”! And don’t forget the rolling hills of Yellowstone National Park.
Apart from all this, Montana has a lesser-known attraction that may make you rethink where you book your next vacation. Montana is home to a swirling toxic pit that might just hold the cure to cancer.
Oh, you hadn’t heard?
The Berkeley Pit
Head on down to Butte, Montana and you can find the famed Berkeley Pit, a former copper mine now full of gallons upon gallons of toxic water. This reddish-brown liquid gets its color from the high levels of heavy metals and toxic chemicals. Think substances like iron, cadmium, copper, sulfuric acid, zinc, and arsenic.
Go a little further below the surface, however, and the water turns to an appetizing lime green color thanks to higher concentrations of copper. Needless to say, you don’t want to dip your feet into this lake.
Some people do want to take a look, though. If you’re interested in getting a glimpse of Berkeley Pit (one of America’s most toxic places), you can pay a two-dollar fee and visit an observation deck that overlooks the water. There you can enjoy a view of the mile-long lake, measuring half a mile wide, and reaching a depth of 1,780 feet. It’s been getting deeper, too. The lake has accumulated water since 1982, when the Atlantic Richfield Company stopped their work in this mine.
In fact, according to Atlas Obscura, the water has been rising at a rate of roughly 0.7 feet per month. That’s 0.7 more feet of a dangerously toxic water that can corrode someone’s digestive system if consumed. Naturally, you might be wondering what happens when the pit overflows.
This is exactly what residents were concerned about back in 2003. No one wanted Berkeley Pit’s toxicity leaching out and contaminating groundwater. That would leave all of Butte, Montana – some 35,000 people – without clean drinking water.
Thankfully, the city built a water treatment plant that is set to pump out the toxic water and treat it before it can reach the surface level.
The cancer cure… maybe?
For a long time, scientists thought no living things could survive at Berkeley Pit; there were never animals surrounding its shores nor birds swooping in from above. Only once did a flock of birds descend upon the lake in 1995, and to residents’ horror, they were all dead within a short time.
To put it simply, Berkeley Pit seemed to be a truly inhospitable place.
But things are rarely as they seem. New York Times reports on a scientist couple, Don and Andrea Stierle, who have stationed their laboratory near the pit’s shores to study what things might lie therein. These two have worked during the past two decades to find at least 142 living organisms residing in the lake’s murky waters.
That’s right! The Stierle’s have found living things that can survive in the incredibly toxic environment of the pit. According to the scientists, these organisms contained 80 chemical compounds not seen anywhere else.
Initial tests of these compounds have shown that they can successfully kill breast and ovarian cancer cells. The keyword here, however, is initial. It takes many years of testing and development before any of their findings can turn into real treatments.
But they’re working on it! In 2007 the couple was already beginning to discuss the possibility of developing a drug with a pharmaceutical company. And if the initial results were so promising, one can only imagine what other positive outcomes could arise.
At this point, only time will tell.
A lesson in resilience
So what can the Berkeley Pit of Butte, Montana, teach us about life on Earth?
For one thing, it shows us just how resilient living things can be. We’ve already learned this lesson, of course, by way of thriving organisms surrounding toxic deep-sea vents, or cave-dwelling fish that never see the light of day. Even with these examples, we often forget the diversity that exists on our planet.
Our Berkeley Pit scientists, for example, discovered the unlikely organisms thanks to curiosity and circumstance. They already lived nearby, and in their words, they decided to test the waters with a kind of “why not?” attitude. Most didn’t think life was possible in the lake.
But because of their willingness to take a chance on Berkeley Pit, they made incredible discoveries that blew the scientific community away. Who knows what other harsh environments might harbor life, yet no one has thought to check?
This discovery also puts the abandoned copper mine in a new perspective. Where people once saw an empty, toxic, dangerous byproduct of human mining, they now see the potential for good things to come. In this day and age, where climate and environmental resource issues loom large, it’s a good reminder that solutions can emerge from the least likely sources.
For Montana and the country as a whole, Berkeley Pit’s reddish-brown waters now represent life instead of death, possibilities instead of consequences, and hope where there once was none.