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The Berkeley Pit, Montana

Berkeley Pit in Butte, Montana is a unique tourist site. This is not a water hole that visitors can swim in or go boating in, nor it is a typical beautiful landscape you would view or take photos of to cherish the memory. Rather it is today a reflection of its grim history.

Once an open-pit copper mine, today it is a pit of acidic waste filled with dangerous chemicals such as copper and arsenic. The pit has slowly filled with water over the years, making it resemble a lake.

Taking a dip here is far from wise, as the water is deadly. In fact, the pit has had issues with birds landing in the pit and dying. The water here is so deadly Berkeley Pit is often even called the “Lake of Death” by some.

Despite a dark history, the site can still be visited by tourists for $2. There are informational signs about the history of the place as well as a viewing platform where visitors can get a view of the pit.

With an unpleasant history and dangerous waters, many people might find it odd that this is somewhere tourists visit.

Yet many people find the history of the pit fascinating, as well as a cautionary example of the consequences of not having any environmental protections in place. With it also costing only $2 dollars to enter, it’s also relatively cheap to visit.

Berkeley Pit Details

berkeley pit details
Image: James St. John

If you want to learn more about the Berkeley Pit, you might want to consider looking at the official website.

The website has great information on the water levels, history, and the research being done on the pit. Below you can also find contact info and other useful information:

Getting There

The Berkeley Pit is a short drive from Butte, Montana. It is on the east end of Park Street near uptown Butte. The best way to get there would be to drive because it is not really a place you can reach by walking or biking.

The city of Butte itself may be also worth checking out for visitors before you head straight to Berkeley Pit. With a decently sized population, there is a good range of businesses and restaurants to check out. It’s worth seeing if you can grab a bite before or after your trip to the pit.

To get to the pit, take I-90/15 exit 126. Then drive north through Butte on Montana St. Then you’ll turn right on Park Street. Drive for about a mile east, then you should see the destination on your left. You’ll pay at the entrance.

Visiting Berkeley Pit

visiting berkeley pit
Image: James St. John

After paying $2 dollars at the entrance you’ll walk through a tunnel that takes you to the viewing platform. Visitors can learn about the lake’s history through the various signs here and also see how the pit has changed. The lake has a strange black/brownish color that makes for an interesting sight.

To see the pit, you can go to the viewing platform where you can see the lake from above. By the viewing platform, there is also a snack bar and picnic tables if you wish to take a snack break. There are also restrooms.

The Berkeley Pit also has a small gift shop.

History of Berkeley Pit

The pit has an interesting history, to say the least. In 1953 drilling on the pit began. It was later in 1955 that mining began, and during that year there was a transition from underground to open-pit mining. Open-pit mines, unlike underground ones, allow miners to use heavy machinery and mine in the open.

Open-pit also generally created a safer environment for miners, so this was considered beneficial overall. There were various materials mined from the pit, though copper was the one mined the most.

Slowly the pit began to expand and many people nearby were forced to move. By 1966, the majority of residents and businesses nearby have relocated to areas south of Butte.

The pit continued to grow and saw huge success in extracting minerals. In 1970, more than 275,000 tons of ore and waste rock are removed each day from the open pit operations. Later in 1973, the pit expanded to the point where it is a mile wide and more than a mile long.

In 1982, the Kelley Mine Pump Station used at the pit is stopped, after the discovery that the 10,000 miles of underground workings were beginning to fill with contaminated groundwater.

Later that year the operations at the pit were suspended on Earth Day. The water has slowly risen since the pumps were turned off, forming the lake of toxic waste we see today.

The Water of the Pit

the water of the pit
Image: James St. John

The water of the pit is highly toxic and dangerous. The pit is about 1,780 feet deep and filled with heavy metals and dangerous chemicals.

It is highly acidic with a 2.5 pH level, about the same as Coca Cola or lemon juice. The water is contaminated with over 21+ elements and sulfuric acid. It is so acidic it could destroy a boat turbine.

The water high in iron near the surface is red in color, which helps create a green hue below the surface where the copper concentration is higher.

The water is incredibly deadly and has been an issue for wildlife as snow geese have been landing in the pit and dying. In 1995 it even killed over 300 snow geese that landed on it by accident.

Although you won’t find fish down in the pit, surprisingly there is some life within the pit despite it being extremely acidic and dangerous.

Scientists have found microorganisms that have managed to survive the treacherous waters of the area. There have been several microbes discovered in the pit and many are of interest because they appear to fight cancer cells.

These microbes are being researched for their use as potential drugs to fight cancer and as antibiotics that would be able to defeat otherwise antibiotic-resistant bacteria. A

lthough the pit itself has a grim history, perhaps the life discovered in the pit may be at least one positive thing to come out of there, as it may help the field of science and medicine.

Conclusion

The Berkeley Pit is a grim sight to see, certainly, but it does have a fascinating history. From a large mining site to a pit of toxic waste, the place has changed drastically over the years.

It might not be a “fun” tourist site to visit, but it is educational and perhaps provides insight into the risks of mining and how it can potentially harm the environment greatly without regulations in place.

Although it’s not a tourist site we’d recommend for everyone, people who are interested in the environment or the history of mining may find it a place worth checking out.

The site does have a rather rich history and the ecology of the water is rather unique. Overall, the Berkely Pit is a grim but interesting site to visit.

You can also check out this quick informative documentary that shows the history of the mine as well as photos and videos from when it was in operation.

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