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Cool Water Hula by the Berkeley Pit
by George Everett

On Sunday July 9, 2000, at noon, cumulus clouds sailed across the cerulean blue of the summer sky above Butte. Beneath, on a gritty table of mine waste overlooking the Berkeley Pit, in the shade of the black steel hulk of the defunct Bell Diamond mine's headframe, Montana artist Kristi Hager assembled more than 150 hula dancers from throughout Montana. At least that many more came to observe and collaborate for the occassion.

The group of men, women, and children clad in cloth sarongs as blue as the sky walked silently to the lip overlooking the Pit, formed ranks and then swayed gracefully to the sounds of the Sons of the Pioneers song, "Cool Water." The sound of more than a hundred and fifty dancers singing in harmony to acoustical guitars mixed in the light breeze with the sound of rustling fabric.

In what she calls an "Art Action," Hager's goal was to bring attention to the rising level of acid water filling the Berkeley Pit at the rate of about one foot each month.The Berkeley Pit is a former open pit copper mine that has been filling with acidic water since 1983. A mile long and wide, the huge man-made lake has become a poster child for the environmental damage left behind in the aftermath of open pit metal mining. The Pit now contains about 30 billion gallons of acid mine drainage.

"I got interested in hula dancing through Hawaiian music," explained Hager. "But the hula seems appropriate to me when you think of it - it's a fluid dance style that celebrates creation and water."

More than 1.5 million gallons of water flows into the Berkeley Pit each day now in the aftermath of open pit copper mining that left one of the largest mine pits when mining and smelting in the area shut down in the early 1980s.

Atlantic Richfield (ARCO) took ownership and responsibility for the Pit along with other mining properties in Butte when they bought the Anaconda Company in 1977. The Pit operated from 1955 to 1982, removing 290 million tons of copper ore. It is more than 1,800 feet deep and getting deeper.

In 1982, ARCO shut off huge underground pumps that diverted water from thousands of miles of stopes and shafts left behind after a century of underground mining. Less than a year later, water began to appear in the bottom of the Berkeley Pit and, since then, it has been rising about one foot a month. This year, the water is about 5,185 feet above sea level.

Unfortunately, the water is laced with a toxic soup of heavy metals. The Pit received national attention as a poster child of environmental damage when a flock of migrating snow geese chose to land and rest on the Pit's toxic waters in November of 1995. They drank the highly acidic water and close to 350 died.

On the day after the Cool Water Hula, Montana Resources (MRI) idled 330 of its workers. MRI still mines for copper just east of the Berkeley Pit but suspended their mining operations on June 30. Deregulation has made industrial operations impossible with fluctuating electricity prices that have made the cost of electricity for the mine rise from $35 for a megawatt of electricity to $672 in June for the same amount of electricity. The mine is expected to remain closed until November when the company hopes that electricity prices will stabilize and make mining possible again.

Public agencies are watching the Pit and discussing how to address the problem but there seems to be disagreement about the best way to handle the problem. For example, ARCO likens the Pit to a natural bucket that retains the polluted waters until they have a practical way to handle the mess. The EPA plan of choice so far is to build a plant that adds lime to the water, to make a sludge that can then be conveyed to a tailings pond or landfill. The plant is not expected to be neccessary before water reaches a "critical level" around 2021. Others want action taken yesterday to ensure that a natural disaster or other unexpected circumstances do not allow contaminated water to flow into groundwater wells. And there are several companies such as Ion Resolutions working on methods of treating the water and extracting metals in the process.

Meanwhile, the waters continue to rise. With the shutdown of Montana Resources, more than 4.5 million gallons that was previously diverted to support mining activities is now flowing in from Horseshoe Bend again, more than doubling the daily intake to the Berkeley Pit.

"We are dancing the hula to alert the public to the need to prioritize funding for the cleanup of the pit," said Hager. "This is an art action but not a protest. We want to demonstrate good will for the Pit, emphasize the positive, and acknowledge the sacrifice made by the environment and the people to mine the copper here."

Hager, who lived and worked in Butte from 1984 to 1997, watched the water rise in the Berkeley Pit from her art studio windows on the top floor of the Metals Bank building, a turn of the century "skyscraper" 10 stories high above the center of Butte's historic district. Hager has traveled around Montana and provided workshops to train hula dancers for the event. As a result, dancers joined her from workshops held in Great Falls, Helena, Missoula, Bozeman, and Butte.

If it accomplished nothing else, the Cool Water Hula gave dancers and observers a chance to express their concerns in a fun way.

"It gives people who are not scientists or lawyers or politicians a chance to participate and express their concerns about the Berkeley Pit in a public way," said Hager. "It's coming at the problem from another angle. We all want clear water," she added.
The Cool Water Hula was funded in part with grant funding from the Cinnabar Foundation and the Montana Artist's Refuge, and the Montana Women's Chorus.
Cool Water Hula dancers Mary Cates and Richard Shafsky look down on the rising acidic waters of the Berkeley Pit.
This site is designed and maintained by George Everett.
© 2002 by George Everett. All rights reserved.

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