Vortex Cannon

A sound vortex emitting cannon is secured into place for a demonstration Wednesday morning on the rim of the Berkeley pit . The cannon made by Flock Free could be used by Montana Resources in their hazing efforts to keep water fowl from landing on the pit's toxic water.

The new bird deterrent Montana Resources and Atlantic Richfield tested on Tuesday and Wednesday at the Berkeley Pit may have already hit a deterrent of its own — U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has expressed reservations about the technology.

With the exception of USFWS, the overall response to the VRAD (Vortex Ring Avian Deterrent) demonstration was positive Wednesday. The VRAD sent loud booms, with percussive sounds echoing and bouncing off the Berkeley Pit’s walls after each launch of oxygen and gas Wednesday morning. When shot, the vortex ring of air travels thousands of yards at a speed of 200 mph.

The companies organized the demonstration for local media, the agencies and a few members of the bird advisory council formed to help the companies figure out a better plan to keep migratory birds off the Berkeley Pit. The company, Flock Free, which built the VRAD, set it off several times Wednesday morning.

At a potential cost of $100,000, MR and Atlantic Richfield are open to considering purchasing the machine, which looks like a very large cannon. MR spokesperson Mike McGivern said that if the companies buy the VRAD, it would be not be used every day but as a last-resort measure to try to prevent another situation where thousands of snow geese land, and then perish, in the Berkeley Pit. 

On the night of Nov. 28, 2016, thousands of snow geese flew into the pit, unable to find another resting spot, and landed on the toxic water. Thousands flew away, but between 3,000 to 4,000 perished from drinking the water. The toxicology report indicated that the birds died from a combination of both the sulfuric acid and the heavy metals in the pit’s water. The companies responsible for the pit immediately began considering new technologies to try to keep such an event from happening again. The VRAD is only one of many such technologies already in play or under consideration.

Montana Tech biology professor Stella Capoccia, head of the bird advisory council, said the council would have to evaluate the VRAD during its next meeting, but at first glance, she said she was impressed.

Montana Department of Environmental Quality Berkeley Pit project manager Darryl Reed said MDEQ defers to the Environmental Protection Agency but MDEQ is “open to looking at new technology.”

“This may be one of many layers of protection that gets used,” Reed said.

The EPA was unable to attend the demonstration, but EPA’s Helena-based Community Involvement Coordinator Robert Moler said, via email, that EPA would analyze and discuss the VRAD demonstration. He added that the overall goal is to come up with long-term strategies to protect the birds and prevent them from landing on the pit.

USFWS Toxicologist Karen Nelson, also based out of the Helena office, attended the demonstration but declined to comment to The Montana Standard. Nelson referred the Standard to a USFWS Denver, Colorado, spokesperson, Ryan Moehring, who said, via email, that USFWS "has unanswered questions about the effectiveness of" the VRAD. Moehring said USFWS is concerned the machine has "the potential to injure birds rather than haze them."

But VRAD project manager Steve Rehberg said the machine is already hazing birds off pistachio and blueberry crops in California. Rehberg said a cannon shooting compressed oxygen and gas would likely be safer than shooting high-powered rifles at the birds, which is the current "last resort" method of getting the birds off the pit when they land in large numbers. Rehberg said the VRAD has “hit lots of birds but they’re never close enough to the muzzle to hurt them.” 

It was not immediately clear how the VRAD could be deployed on agricultural crops in California to haze birds but not be considered safe for birds at the Berkeley Pit. Moehring was unable to answer that question by press time.

Others expressed satisfaction with the VRAD. 

Butte-Silver Bow County Commissioner John Sorich, who represents the Greeley neighborhood, sat in his car on Continental Drive to see how loud the blast would be to MR’s most immediate neighbors. Sorich said he could hear the blast and some of the echo, but he didn’t think it was all that bad. Sorich likened the noise to the sound of a firework going off on the Fourth of July. Sorich said the sound wasn’t as loud as MR’s blasting, which occurs a few afternoons a week.

Sorich said that, so far, he has not received any complaints from constituents concerned about the noise.

A couple, Bill and Karen Dykstra, traveling from Washington state, were standing on the Berkeley Pit viewing stand when several blasts went off. Bill called the blasts “impressive.” Karen called it “a bonus that we got to see this.”

The VRAD sends a ring of oxygen and gas out of the cannon across the Berkeley Pit. The VRAD was originally designed to help agricultural producers during hail storms. It was later redesigned to keep birds off high-value crops, such as the pistachio and blueberry fields in California where it is already in use.

If it does become part of the arsenal MR and Atlantic Richfield use to keep birds off the pit’s water, the company behind the VRAD, Flock Free, would have to redesign the machine so it would be more flexible. The current machine cannot be moved around, but McGivern said MR would want to be able to pivot and tilt the cannon to shoot up into the air to try to deter the birds from landing in the first place. Rehberg said such adjustments could be made.

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