July 17, 2006

The Toxic Tourist Attraction

The Berkeley Pit in Butte, Montana, is a Superfund hazardous waste site. Gelf visits its gift shop.

David Goldenberg

Admission to the Berkeley Pit in Butte, Montana, supposedly costs $2, but there's no one there to take my money Sunday as I wander down the 100-foot-long tunnel to the overlook of one of the largest toxic lakes in the country. Indeed, it seems as though my fiancé and I have snuck in just before closing time; the penultimate group of visitors—a small group of young locals—leave almost as soon as we arrive. The resonant sounds of our fellow visitors' burping contest echo throughout the chamber as they leave.

Berkeley Pit
Courtesy Wikipedia
The Berkeley Pit
As we walk out onto the small deck high above the pit, the color of the water appears to alternate between orange, red, and a deep, brownish purple. A series of below-Kinko's-quality charts behind us describes the history of mining in Butte and how this particular Superfund site came to be. One chart informs us that the 39 billion gallons of hazardous waste, with a pH of 2.5, contain ample doses of aluminum, cadmium, cobalt, iron and, yup, arsenic to go with the remnants of copper ore that were once trucked out of the pit by the ton.

Ever since the mine closed in 1982, ground water has seeped in and slowly started to fill the mile-deep hole. Sometime before 2020, the level of the lake will start endangering Butte's water supply and millions of gallons will have to be removed and treated. Until then, though, the EPA has decided that there's no real danger in letting the toxic stew collect in a giant pool just outside of downtown.

Now the town of Butte is hoping to turn the toxic waste site into a bona fide tourist attraction—complete with a gift shop. The idea is pretty silly—silly enough to merit a segment on Comedy Central's The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. On the show (click on the play button below to watch), correspondent Jason Jones interviews a local politician, Jon Sesso, about the touristic possibilities of Butte. Jones also talks to a worried townsperson and a couple of researchers who have discovered that there may be some therapeutic properties in the algae that grows in the sludge.

According to Sesso, Comedy Central first became interested in doing a story after hearing that the Butte Chamber of Commerce was planning to increase admission prices at the pit in an effort to turn the eyesore into a Butte tourist attraction. The resulting AP story leads with "Turning lemons into tourist lemonade..." (Perhaps that's why Jones opens his monologue, "The city has taken lemons and turned them into... something that if you drank, could kill you.")

But once Daily Show crew descended on the town, the folks over at the Chamber of Commerce declined to participate in something they thought could make the town look bad. "It was their deal," says Sesso, a democratic state senator. "I was disappointed that they didn’t participate." So Sesso, who helps run the Superfund site and publishes a newsletter called PitWatch, talked to a few regular Daily Show viewers, decided it was all in good fun, and submitted to an interview himself.

Sesso's story provides a pretty good illustration of how the Daily Show goes about creating its segments. The effusive Sesso tells Gelf he was interviewed for roughly two hours. "They asked me everything under the sun," he says. "I was pretty well prepared, though, and apparently was pretty boring to them. So they closed by asking me to tell a joke."

Jon Sesso
Courtesy Montana Legislature
Jon Sesso
Sesso was unable to come with anything clean, he says, hence the pregnant pause that dominates much of the segment. (In the show, the interview is edited to make it appear that Sesso is vainly trying to come up with other things for tourists to do in Butte.)

After the interview was finished, the Daily Show crew claimed that they needed to refilm the interview from another perspective to get Jones's reactions. The second time around, though, Jones was animated and crude. "I was getting a glimpse of where they were going with this show," Sesso says. "Quite frankly, it was a lot worse than what actually aired. They were actually pretty kind to us compared to what they had intimated about how they were going to cover it."

Over at the gift shop, the one employee on duty is 20-year old Brian Sandford. A student at Montana State University, Sandford has been working in the shop for two years, and says that one of the store's best sellers is a wide-angle postcard of the pit. He also saw the Daily Show bit. "I thought it was funny, but some things offended me," he says. "They said it was a toxic waste land and everything." Pressed into admitting that the pit is indeed a toxic waste land, Sandford counters that he didn't like that his hometown was used as fodder for laughs. "The pit doesn't look that good," he says, "but without it, our town wouldn't exist."

While the algae and an insect called the water boatman thrive in the pit, there are few questions about the effects of the toxicity on larger organisms. Back in 1995, an entire flock of over 300 snow geese died after landing in the pit. One year later, Outside Magazine ran a piece about the incident that described the dead geese as having "feathers matted with sticky yellow residue, skin blistered with lesions, bodies ravaged with a grisly variety of internal injuries—corroded esophagi and tracheae, livers and kidneys bloated with presumably toxic levels of copper, manganese, zinc, and cadmium." To prevent a repeat of the gruesome event, a manned observation station has been set up—complete with faux-predator alarm sounds and rifles—to scare away any wayward bird flocks. (That said, a stray dog—nicknamed The Auditor for his habit of appearing out of nowhere—managed to live in and around the site without any apparent harm for almost 16 years (Billings Gazette).)

While Sandford says no human has ever fallen into the toxic water, there has been a close call. A few years ago, he says, an elderly former employee of the Berkeley pit followed an old mining rode around the back side of the lake and drove his car out onto the winter ice covering the ruddy pit. The police were able to coax the man, who appeared disoriented, back to safety.

After the Daily Show segment was filmed, several state papers, including the Montana Standard and the Great Falls Tribune, covered Butte's foray into national television. Several local and expat bloggers also posted their reactions to the spot. As Big Sky Girl writes, "I curse you Jon Stewart because from now on when I say I'm from Butte people will reply, 'Oh, I saw that on the Daily Show.' Fan-tastic."

We walk back out of the gift shop to get one more look at the pit before heading to the airport. Apparently, during my time browsing through the copper knickknacks and postcards, a Chamber of Commerce employee had locked the tunnel entrance and left.

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- Comedy
- posted on Aug 20, 07
Born Butte Boy

Of course, I find it very interesting to run across a site with information and commentary about one of the harshest aspects of living in my hometown.
Although I no longer live in Butte, I grew up there, and I do not find it humorous to joke about the fact that my generation and several generations after me have and will live in the midst of years of irresponsible mining practices. It is interesting fact, and the slow approach to dealing with the issue is in itself an interesting walk down the road of politics, denial, and danger. However, the very real existence of the Pit and the delays surrounding its rejuvenation are simply sad, not funny.
The mining industry made this town, put it on the map, and contributed greatly to the economy of the US in the early 1900's, yet after the decline of the local industry, companies and responsible parties simply left. The government and EPA made sweeping changes to mining policy, including waste removal and clean up. Funding even existed for such projects until cuts for war and other policies greatly outstripped the need to repair the damages left by prior generations. All the while tens of thousands of people sit and wait for what they hope will never come...a Berkley Pit water level that will impact and poison the water table. I am so completely lost as to how this is funny.
Probably the biggest disappointment about this whole scenario is the fact that national news coverage did not find this issue before comedy personalities did. Some will argue that through this show, some able bodied persons will take notice. What an expensive exposure though, to a community of current and old Butteites, a sector of the population who is very kind, proud (despite what we have to be proud of) and desperately in need of assistance, not ridicule.
And on the comment about "tourist attraction," for years it was free, and then it cost a buck, recently $2 to see how horribly mankind can mess things up, both before and after the fact. The visitor's center has been there for as long as I can remember, selling Butte wares at one of the few locations left where one can find such items. It is also worth a note that every time I come "home" to Butte, I stop at the Pit, to see how it's changed. I'll pay the damned $2, and be quiet about the small amount that those reporters didn't have to pay in order to create a story. Not funny, but sad...but then creating stories always has been sad.
Butte Boy
PS, below-Kinko's-quality prints are better than nothing, and perfectly acceptable for small town America...

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Article by David Goldenberg

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