The Berkeley Pit

Butte, Montana toxic waste site turned-tourist attraction yielding compounds that may be medically, environmentally useful.

The Berkeley Pit

Berkeley Pit as seen from the air. Photo courtesy of Donald Stierle.

“To go to Berkeley Pit Lake, you have to complete a forty-hour Hazmat program, and that’s just to stand next to the water,” advises Andrea Stierle, a research professor at the University of Montana-Missoula, who began studying samples from the Pit sixteen years ago. And when employees of the Montana Bureau of Mines and Geology venture out onto the lake, they do so in a boat that’s made of fiberglass (as opposed to aluminum), “because they don’t want it to dissolve before they get back to shore,” she continues. It’s probably best that the privately-owned Berkeley Pit—a mile by a mile-and-a-half across, and encircled by a barbed-wire fence—is off-limits to all but a select few. After all, it’s an abandoned open pit copper mine filled with an estimated forty billion gallons of acidic, metal-contaminated water—part of the largest Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Superfund site in the United States, and an ongoing liability for its “responsible parties,” the Atlantic Richfield Company (which merged into British Petroleum) and Montana Resources.

Though it might seem an irredeemable place, it turns out that the Pit—located in the mining town of Butte, Montana, and operational between 1955 and 1982—is proving to be a rich source of unusual extremophilic microorganisms, which have produced novel and compelling bioactive metabolites. In other words, the water is filled with a hardy assortment of fungi, algae, protozoans, and bacteria, many of which have shown great promise as producers of potential anti-cancer agents and anti-inflammatories. Yet as late as 1995, local microbiologists assumed that the environment was too toxic for much of anything to survive, much less thrive. That is, until that same year, when Andrea and her husband Donald (also now a research professor in the department of Biomedical and Pharmaceutical Sciences at UM-Missoula) were provided water samples by a Bureau of Mines and Geology hydrogeologist and found some “fascinating compounds,” including one that has the potential to prevent migraine headaches.

Despite a lack of funding, the Stierles (at the time full-time residents of Butte) decided to take a chance and continue “bioprospecting.” If nothing else, the Pit was conveniently located, and there was zero competition from fellow scientists. “No one was going to arm wrestle us to go look in the Berkeley Pit for microbes that produce anti-cancer compounds,” notes Andrea, who describes herself and her husband as marine natural products chemists with a bent toward drug discovery. (“We are taking what the natural world offers, and giving it the western science flair,” she elaborates.) Yet it wasn’t long before they made their first remarkable find, one which occurred in the wake of a tragic incident that took place within the confines of the Pit.

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