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Plant found in the pit could help restore damaged land

Plant found in the pit could help restore damaged land

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Plant life at the Berkeley Pit may actually hold the key to helping mine-damaged lands recover their vitality.

Montana Tech researcher Grant Mitman is doing research with a kind of moss he found growing in the pit water which he says has potential to become a vegetation cover for remediated land.

Mitman's name might be familiar to Butte residents. He was the first scientist to find life inside the Berkeley Pit.

Mitman's research into algae growing in the Berkeley Pit's toxic water led to Donald and Andrea Stierle, two scientists at the University of Montana-Missoula, to find fungi also growing in the pit's water. Research on those fungi is ongoing, Andrea Stierle said, and provides hope of finding new ways to inhibit certain cancers.

But these research projects take years.

Mitman's research was inspired about 15 years ago when he found the moss growing in Pit water.

The plant, called copper moss, was used by miners to help them figure out where to dig for precious metal, Mitman said.

Another plant Mitman found that surprised him while doing his moss research at the pit was lichen.

"Typically lichen are sensitive to metals," Mitman told The Standard. "They're usually pollution indicators and won’t grow in contaminated soil, but these are growing."

Mitman's moss research, however, called bioremediation, is his focus these days.

"Moss doesn't have roots; they get their moisture from the air," Mitman said.

Given the area's dry conditions, Mitman thinks this could prove helpful to revegetating land around Butte.

Mitman did an initial demonstration project with moss bioremediation at Badger Mine in 2002. He is hoping to create another moss bioremediation demonstration project soon to further his research into the idea.

Mitman said New Zealand is on the forefront of moss bioremediation.

Butte-Silver Bow Chief Executive Matt Vincent, a self-described plant geek, said he had not heard of the idea but says he has seen a lot of moss on Butte's reclaimed sites.

Reclamation manager for Butte for seven years and a Tech graduate, Vincent said he is interested in learning more about it.

"Moss on reclaimed sites is nothing new; prospectors used moss," Vincent said. "If there's something new, I'm interested in learning more."

Former project manager for the area of Butte that is part of Superfund, Sara Sparks, said she wasn't aware of moss as a remediation tool either.

Involved in Butte's remediation work for more than 27 years, Sparks also expressed interest.

"If there’s something new to look at, we’re interested in doing that," Sparks said. "I look forward to seeing what he actually comes up with.

"We’re always looking at a lot of research and development in new technologies," Sparks said.

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Environmental and natural resources reporter for the Montana Standard.

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