This article on the Berkeley Pit in
I know of closed mines whose liquors were simply passed through a trough full of tin cans. This was sufficient to reduce the copper. In fact driving truck loads of tin cans down to soaking pad and leaving them there for a few months may not be a stupid idea. If I recall correctly, a ton of iron will naturally precipitate a matching ton of copper. This is today an eight fold jump in dollar value. Hmm!
There are many industrial waste sites that need resolution. Relying on biological agents is the only cost effective way of solving these headaches. It does take imagination and perhaps a prize for the best practical solution. At least with mine products, we are dealing with materials that are chemically active.
With the oil industry we are always dealing with some form of salty water which resists such elegant fixes.
What is not mentioned here is that once the
Written by Richard Solensky on July 1st, 2008 at 3:09 pm
By 1983, the hill was so exhausted that the Anaconda Mining Company was no longer able to extract minerals in profitable amounts. They packed up all the equipment that they could move, shut down the water pumps, and moved on to more lucrative scraps of Earth. Without the pumps, rain and groundwater 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
In 1995, an analytic chemist named William Chatham saw something unusual in the allegedly lifeless lake: a small clump of green slime floating on the water's surface. He snagged a sample and brought it to biologist Grant Mitman at the nearby
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 waters of the
The Stierles were so intrigued by the possibilities that they started work even before securing funding. A squadron of expert researchers was recruited from the undergrads at
The next step was to see what effect these chemicals had, if any, on other living cells. Thanks to modern biochemical assay techniques, dozens of chemicals can be tested against one organism– or one chemical against dozens of organisms– in a single pass. For reasons that are not entirely clear, many compounds which attack cancer cells are also harmful to brine shrimp, therefore most modern assay tests include the brine shrimp lethality test as a standard procedure. The Stierles exposed swarms of tiny crustacean volunteers to the
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, a 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 nonetheless. Also, on certain mornings, a sinister mist creeps out of the Pit and wraps its tentacles around the streets of
Grant Mitman believes that the best way to clean up the Pit is to use the algae that already live 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, it’s all a matter of finding the right mix of extremophiles for a self-sustaining algal colony. Once the right mix is found, there are many other mine-contaminated waters awaiting treatment that could use a similar biology-based cleanup.
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. There's a small museum and gift shop located well above the water level. A number of National Historic Landmarks related to mining are in the area, which has prompted some people to call for the creation of a National Park centered on the Pit. With luck, what was once the Richest Hill in the World could eventually provide riches of a different sort.