Berkeley Pit geese

A few snow geese are visible on the Berkeley Pit in this file photo taken in mid-December 2016. Montana Resources and Atlantic Richfield Co. are trying out a new bird deterrent this week called the VRAD. It creates a sonic boom and is expected to potentially be more effective than previous technologies the companies have so far explored. However, the community can expect very loud noises to come from the Berkeley Pit on Tuesday and Wednesday. 

A sonic boom that will blast at the rim of the Berkeley Pit at 10 a.m. Wednesday will cost Montana Resources and Atlantic Richfield Co. $4,500 this week as the mining company tests out a new bird deterrent, said MR spokesperson Mike McGivern.

The bird deterrent, called a Vortex Ring Avian Deterrent (VRAD), arrived from California Tuesday afternoon. The companies responsible for the Berkeley Pit are giving it a test run to see if it’ll keep birds away from the former copper mine now slowly filling with toxic water. McGivern said the company set it off several times late Tuesday afternoon and the blasts were "very impressive." 

The VRAD is comprised of compressed oxygen and a type of gas. The air shoots out of a large cannon. It is not harmful to birds or people, but it is extremely loud and is referred to as a "long range deterrent."

If MR and Atlantic Richfield Co. purchase the VRAD, it will come at a cost of $100,000, McGivern said.

The test run comes as spring migration season winds down. It ends, officially, June 1. McGivern said by phone Tuesday that there aren’t that many birds flying around the pit.

The two companies have been busy looking into various bird deterrent technologies since last December, when thousands of snow geese landed on the pit’s toxic water. Thousands took flight, some after several days of sitting on the pit’s water, but between 3,000 to 4,000 birds perished due to drinking the water. According to the toxicology report, the birds died due to both sulfuric acid and heavy metals in their system.

Bird experts say that due to an unusually warm fall, the birds left the Arctic late but their normal resting spot, Freezout Lake, was frozen over. Unable to find a place to land, the birds, in overwhelming numbers, chose the Berkeley Pit. The companies got the nod from the Environmental Protection Agency in March to create a new plan to keep the birds off the pit for the future. Immediately MR placed propane-based canons along the edges of the pit’s walls to create louder noises than the bird wailers provide. The wailers, which emit a variety of noises, had been considered very successful up until last fall.

The VRAD will be even louder than the propane canons.

“After tomorrow, we’ll evaluate the technology. Does it have value? Could we deploy it in a timely manner? You can’t really tell by a You Tube video. That’s why we made the effort to drag it up from California,” said McGivern.

By fall, the mining company hopes to have a new water fowl mitigation program in place. The companies put together a bird advisory council, made up of local experts, in February to help them come up with new ideas to add to the new water fowl mitigation program. The new plan will be vetted by the EPA and Montana Department of Environmental Quality.

McGivern said he doesn’t anticipate that the VRAD’s boom will be big enough to affect the unstable southeast wall of the pit. Many in the community worry that additional sloughing will cause the pit’s water to rise high enough to cause catastrophe. MR and agency officials say that even significant sloughing won’t affect the water level that much and a buffer of 120 feet has been built into the system above the 5,400 foot critical water level.

According to pitwatch.org, an estimated 820,000 tons of material from the southeast wall collapsed into the Pit in February 2013. Montana Bureau of Mines and Geology monitoring showed that the water rose a little over half a foot as a result. The water rises about half a foot per month. The pit's water is not expected to require treatment until 2023.

McGivern said the sonic boom might knock some rocks down off ledges, but that’s all.

Because the VRAD is both loud and shoots out air, MR is hoping it will be a more effective deterrent to future bird migrations, but one consideration will be the community. McGivern said MR may not be able to deploy the VRAD if the community is too annoyed by the sonic boom.

"We've got a feeling you'll be able to hear it around town," said McGivern.

The VRAD has been used on high-value crops in California - specifically pistachio and blueberry crops - to keep birds away from the fields. MR has invited its bird advisory council, the agencies and members of the media to the demonstration that will take place Wednesday.

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