A mighty flock of swirling snow geese, looking for a place to land while migrating through South Dakota. It can be pretty spectacular when the geese are migrating through the state, but alas, these birds have to land SOMEWHERE to rest and refuel. A massive flock in Montana made the mistake of landing in a toxic mine pit, resulting in the death of thousands of birds.
I had to travel to Minneapolis yesterday for a work trip. We’re about a 4-hour drive from the Twin Cities, I HATE flying, and especially given that I’d have to tly, pick up a rental, and then drive 20 miles through town to the north part of the city where my meetings were, I decided I’d drive instead of flying. Winter has finally hit the area after an incredibly warm and beautiful fall, with 40+ mile-per-hour winds yesterday and plummeting temperatures, but that huge weather change did trigger a massive migration of Snow Geese through the area. As I drove I often saw many very large flocks of Snow Geese, struggling a bit in that wind, but all moving south to escape the cold temperatures.
Around here in South Dakota, you’ll typically find Snow Geese in two types of locations. During the day, you’ll often see massive flocks sitting in open agricultural fields, feeding on grain residue. When they’re looking for safety and a place to rest, they’ll choose a lake or other water body. Imagine a flock of 10,000 Snow Geese, heading south to escape winter. They’re flying for many hours, are tired and are looking for a place to rest, and upon finally spotting a large patch of open water, they circle and head down and land on surface to rest.
It’s not just South Dakota and Minnesota where the migration has been in full swing. In Montana a flock of many thousands did the same thing this week, circling down to rest in a large water body. Unfortunately, that open water body was the infamous Berkeley Pit, an EPA Superfund site, and a toxic cesspool of cadmium, copper, zinc, and a host of other dissolved minerals that result in water acidic enough to dissolve metal. The bodies of thousands of geese were found in the lake this week, chemical burns covering their bodies, as well as the linings of their mouths and throats for birds that tried to drink or feed. Some birds temporarily escaped the toxic hell, but the bodies of many other Snow Geese have been found scattered throughout the area as they succumbed to the chemical mix after leaving the mine pit.
There are no physical barriers to prevent waterfowl or other wildlife from accessing the toxic water in the mine pit. The story notes the company that owns the mine (Atlantic Richfield Company) uses noise and other deterrents to try to scare away wildlife from accessing the water. The company touts “official” numbers they report to the EPA, that only 14 birds died in the mine pit in the period from 2010 to 2013. Yeah, sure. The company may have reported finding 14 carcasses during that span, but I find it very hard to believe that open water didn’t attract more wildlife, deterrents or not, and that intentionally or unintentionally that 14 count is a woeful undercount of the true toll.
Don’t think a company would try to cover up other such incidents? The Washington Post story notes that a similar, yet smaller scale event happened in the same pit back in 1992. During that incident, Atlantic Richfield Company tried to pass blame of the birds death to other causes, stating that perhaps “toxic grain” or some other poison killed all the birds that were floating in their mine pit. That defense fell apart when the University of Wyoming did postmortems on the birds and found their deaths were caused by severe burns, from water acidic enough to dissolve aluminum and other metals.
This is but one incident, in one mining pit. There are literally thousands of such waste pits in the western U.S., relics of either past or current mining operations. Very short-term economic gain drives the development of these mining areas, but what about the long-term impacts? What is done with waste pits like after mining ceases? Are there any plans to ever detoxify the waters and clean up the mining residue? Or is this the “norm”, where seemingly the only plan to avoid environmental catastrophe is to make a little noise to try reduce how many animals die in the toxic stew? This pit was in operation from 1955 to 1982, a 27-year run of productivity, but in the 34 years since mining ceased, what has been done to mitigate the toxic stew that’s been left behind? It’s an EPA Superfund site, but that designation clearly hasn’t fixed the problem 34 years later.
A mining company profited for 27 years from this pit. The environmental damage and what’s been left behind will end up taking a toll for a much longer period of time. We’ve now got a new administration coming into office with an obvious laser-sharp focus on corporate America. Cabinet appointments to date, stated policies that are being pushed once they take office, a desire to slash regulation and even kill off the EPA…it all typifies that “ME FIRST!”, selfish, greedy, short-term gain mindset that sadly “Trumps” any thought of long-term devastation such as this. I’ve said it before…I always wonder if people with this kind of mindset have any children, or give a damn about their futures if they do have children. I can’t ever imagine putting money and short-term well-being over the well-being of future generations.