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Posted on October 7th, 2014

Outside the Box – Superfund Sites

I recently went up to Montana for a string of concerts that started in Butte. Upon arriving at my hotel, I received a call from a friend back in Colorado reminding me not to drink the water while I was there. You see, the Berkeley Pit, an old copper mine nearby, had allegedly been the source of poor water quality in the area since its opening in 1955. As recently as 2012, Butte residents have been warned about the quality of their tap water from local officials. Students from Montana Tech in 2013 produced a documentary about the safety of drinking the water. They concluded it was indeed safe to drink, but many disagree with their findings.

The Berkeley Pit was once known as “The Richest Hill in the World.” Today, it is known more for its acidic water and poisonous contents. How the mighty have fallen. 60-cm color image captured by QuickBird on May 2, 2002, and comes courtesy of DigitalGlobe. Photo enhanced by Apollo Mapping.

But let’s get back to the heart of the matter. The primary reason this is even up for debate is the old copper pit which has been closed since 1982 – on Earth Day. When it was closed, the nearby water pumps were shut off and waters from the surrounding aquifers filled the pit. This water was polluted by acidic compounds that remained in the pit, and when it leached back into the natural aquifers, it contaminated formerly clean drinking water supplies.

So, you might ask, is this just a case of hippies over-reacting? Well, in 1995 a flock of geese landed in the pit and died. Over 300 carcasses were removed, and while the custodians of the pit attributed it to a fungal infection, the state of Montana found otherwise, stating that deadly levels of copper and arsenic were found in their system. This was a significant red flag about the health concerns of this toxic pit and those of over 1,300 others across the country.

In 2013, a South African engineer developed a process that should treat the acid mine drainage and turn it into potassium nitrate, a compound used in fertilizers. The proposal included a test-pilot at the site that would process 1,000 gallons an hour, but state officials did not want to go forward with the idea. Some say the state did not go forward with the pilot due to instability around the pit which had been caused by recent landslides; others attributed it to the already in-existence Horseshoe Bend Water Treatment Plant on site. Controlled by the EPA and shrouded in bureaucratic secrecy and red tape, the likely reason for not using the novel idea dates back to a 1994 mandate stating how these sites should be run – whether or not they are done so efficiently and effectively is a whole other question.

And as mentioned earlier, Superfund sites are all over the country. In a recent article on the existence of these potentially hazardous sites in the New York City metro, it was shown that because of housing costs, population growth and urban sprawl, people are moving closer and closer to some areas that may harbor very real threats to health and quality of life. The three worst sites in NYC are the Newtown Creek, on the border between Queens and Brooklyn; the Gowanus Canal in western Brooklyn; and a site which happens to be home to a chemical plant near Brooklyn, the Wolff-Alport building.

Newtown Creek has been as issue since 1867 when inhabitants first began to take notice of pollution. “Smelling committees” were established to examine the sludge and buildup in the water, and while the area continued to evolve into an industrial center, those with ample means began to move out, leaving behind factories and folks without the financial ability to leave. But now the area has become ‘hip’ to live in, those with means are starting to return, even in spite of the potentially negative health and environmental contaminants that abound.

So what do we do? Good question. I recently saw a bumper sticker that said, “Throw it away? There is no away.” While we have made great strides as a nation in terms of our environmental awareness and activism, we still need to consider the residual effects of our past discretions. Perhaps more of our efforts should be turned to fixing our past problems, instead of just sweeping them aside.

Justin Harmon
Staff Writer

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