Al Lewis: A Pit So Deep it's Become a Tourist Attraction
In Butte, Mont., they've got this hole.
It's 1,700 feet deep, a mile across and flooded with more than 40 billion gallons of toxic soup.
They call it the Berkeley Pit.
"They took hundreds of millions of dollars of gold and silver and copper out of the side of the mountain and they left us with a century of pollution" is how Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer once described this mine-ravaged portion of his state. "The money from the minerals went to Wall Street and the pollution went into Montana rivers."
Copper wire for our increasingly electronic nation had to come from somewhere. For more than a century, it was Butte.
In the 1940s, Anaconda Mining Co. produced most of the copper for our nation's war efforts. And in 1955, Anaconda started digging the Berkeley Pit, demolishing entire neighborhoods as it went.
If you watched "I Love Lucy" or "Leave it to Beaver," you started digging the Berkeley Pit, too, because the wires powering your TV were made of copper.
ARCO, or Atlantic Richfield Co., acquired Anaconda in 1977 and abandoned Berkeley Pit operations in 1982. ARCO sold mining interests to Montana Resources in 1986, and in 2000, ARCO was acquired by BP PLC (NYSE:BP).
As the years wore on, and assets changed hands, the shuttered Berkeley Pit -- fed by two aquifers and ground runoff -- filled with water.
Today, the water is more than 1,000 feet deep. It's as acidic as lemon juice and contains so many heavy metals it is mined.
Scouts ride boats and fire rifles to scare off aquatic birds. Sometimes, when it's foggy, they can't see the birds, and if the birds stay too long, they die.
Fog, curling up from the polluted pit, can be creepy when it wafts into town. The Berkeley Pit, after all, remains one of the nation's largest Superfund sites.
The plan for the pit focuses more on containment than reclamation. So the pit will always be a pit. Yet life around it presses on.
The Butte Silver-Bow Chamber of Commerce has turned the Berkeley Pit into a tourist attraction. For $2, visitors can walk through a tunnel that leads to a platform overlooking the imponderable hole.
It's advertised in visitors' guides: "Butte, Montana: Truly, a state of mine."
Leave it to a chamber of commerce to turn waste water with the pH of lemon juice into lemonade. Comedy Central's "The Daily Show With Jon Stewart" spoofed the pit in 2006, reporting, "The city of Butte, Montana, has taken lemons and turned them into something that if you drink could kill you."
Nevertheless, the Berkeley Pit is a hit, drawing more than 30,000 visitors a year, said the Butte chamber's executive director, Marko Lucich.
Tours include a five-minute audio that explains the mine's historical significance and how the copper it produced went into everything from telephones to automobiles.
"If we didn't have this, visitors would walk down that tunnel, look at the Berkeley Pit . . . then leave and say, 'Wow, we went to Butte, Montana, and saw the biggest hole we've ever seen in our life, and it's ugly and it's toxic,' " Lucich said. "If you don't know the whole story, that's probably all you'll come away with."
Besides the pit, tourists flock to Butte for Evel Knievel Days in July. Butte is renowned as the birthplace of the pioneering motorcycle daredevil, who once tried to jump Idaho's Snake River Canyon.
If only Evel were alive today to jump the Berkeley Pit. Now that would be a tourism attraction: a death-defying leap over a giant pool of acid, with Evel in his red, white and blue leather suit.
Maybe the folks in Washington, D.C., should take a cue from Big Sky Country and open a new visitors' center overlooking the pit they they've been digging. You know, the one filling up with red ink.
On Monday, this pit got so deep that Standard & Poor's finally downgraded its credit outlook for the U.S.
Mary Miller, assistant Treasury secretary for financial markets, said, "We believe S&P's negative outlook underestimates the ability of America's leaders to come together to address the difficult fiscal challenges facing the nation."
She could have just said, Don't worry about the pit. It's just another sight to see.
(Al's Emporium, written by Dow Jones Newswires columnist Al Lewis, offers commentary and analysis on a wide range of business subjects through an unconventional perspective. Contact Al at firstname.lastname@example.org or tellittoal.com)