- Cool Water
Hula by the Berkeley Pit
- by George
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
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
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
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
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
on the rising acidic waters of the Berkeley Pit.