The Environmental Protection Agency gave the OK Friday for Montana Resources and Atlantic Richfield Co. to begin hazing birds off the Berkeley Pit.
A council of bird experts gave a five-hour long presentation Thursday to the companies and to the government agencies in Butte to discuss new technologies to keep the migrating waterfowl from landing in the pit's toxic water.
Those technologies include lasers, strobe lights, and a high-speed boat to haze birds. Mark Thompson, MR's manager of environmental affairs, said Friday morning he was going to pick up propane for propane-powered cannons, which are intended to scare birds from landing.
MR and ARCO sent a memo in late February to the government agencies outlining an interim plan to keep birds off the pit. The plan, which was the point of discussion during Thursday's meeting, includes a list of technologies the companies want to experiment with to keep as many birds as possible off the largest contaminated body of water in the U.S.
The full cost of this experimentation is unknown. Thompson said a two-month rental for one radar system he is looking at will cost $57,000.
The new plan calls for a host of technologies, from sophisticated green lasers to scare birds from landing to simple bird decoys placed at Yankee Doodle tailings pond to divert birds away from the pit.
MR and ARCO share responsibility for the Berkeley Pit, the beginning point for the largest Superfund site in the U.S. The details of the monetary arrangement between the two companies over the Berkeley Pit have never been released. Thompson would say only that the two companies are working "in partnership" when asked about the financial burden for the new technologies.
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With EPA approval, the companies can begin putting the new technologies immediately into action. That will help MR and ARCO prepare for April, when MR sees the most birds around the pit during spring migration, according to Thompson.
Both MR and ARCO could face fines from both the EPA, which has oversight over the plan to keep birds off the pit, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which protects migrating waterfowl.
Spokespersons from both agencies told The Montana Standard this week that their investigations are still ongoing into the fact that as many as 4,000 snow geese died the week of Nov. 28.
Designed in 1996, the original plan to keep birds off the pit was never expected to prevent all water fowl deaths from occurring. EPA Helena spokesperson Robert Moler said Friday that the original plan was intended to "mitigate waterfowl death."
EPA project manager Nikia Greene said Friday that the fact that MR and ARCO discontinued the manned boat in 2013 due to unsafe conditions in the pit would not be held against them when EPA considers fining the companies. Greene said EPA granted a variance to MR and ARCO to allow the companies to stop using the boat due to sloughing on the pit's southeast wall in February 2013.
MR and ARCO reported on numbers of bird fatalities in the pit up until 2013, which is when the manned boat had to be removed from use. According to records kept by MR, between 2,000 and 5,000 birds were observed at the Berkeley Pit each year from 2010 to 2014. During those years, the largest number of observed bird deaths — 9 — happened in 2013.