Aug 19, 2010

Even the Worst Laid Plans?

Soren Wheeler takes us to Butte Montana--where an open pit copper mine’s demise leads to a toxic lake filled with corrosive runoff. Reporter Barret Golding goes to visit the pit lake, and writer Edwin Dobb tells Soren the story of a pile of dead snow geese who made an ill-fated landing on the water. Soren also talks to husband-and-wife chemists Andrea Stierle and Don Stierle, whose startling discovery reveals the secret life inside a death trap.

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Jad Abumrad: Hey, I'm Jad.

Robert Krulwich: And I'm Robert.

Jad: And topic remains-

Robert: Oops.

Jad: Final oops coming up. It's a double oops, I would say.

Robert: We start with an oops that leads to another oops that then self-negates.

Jad: It comes to us from a fellow who, within the confines of the show, we will call Oopsy Wheeler.

Soren Wheeler: Maybe we could just start with both of you introducing yourself and saying who you are and what you do. I mean, just something basic.

Andrea Stierle: Hi, I'm Andrea Stierle.

Donald Stierle: Oh, me? I'm Donald Stierle.

Soren: This is Don and Andrea Stierle. They're chemists. They're actually a research team-

Donald: -here at the University of Montana.

Soren: They met back in the '70s-

Andrea: Back in 1979.

Soren: -at the University of California in San Diego.

Andrea: We met and almost fell in love at first sight.

[background music]

Andrea: We dated for a week, he proposed, I accepted.

Soren: They got married, and not long after, Don got offered a job. They left their home in sunny California.

Andrea: Mind you, we lived about half a mile from the ocean.

Soren: Nonetheless, they packed up a truck-

Donald: -with all of our stuff-

Soren: -including--

Andrea: -about 200 plants.

Soren: They moved to-

Donald: Butte, Montana.

Robert: -which is a different thing altogether.

Donald: An old mining town that barely had a tree in the city limits. I don't know if you want to know Andrea's first impression to Butte or not. [laughs]

Soren: Sure.

Andrea: I actually burst into tears and then started laughing. I think we call that hysteria.


Barrett Golding: We had a [unintelligible 00:01:33] up on the hill over here when this wasn't operating.

Soren: I actually grew up in the town over from Butte in Montana. It's a town that you were afraid to go to when you're a kid, filled with abandoned buildings, depressed. Actually, if you walk through town right there, right next to the middle of town-

Barrett: I don't remember exactly where it was. I remember being here in the late '70s.

Soren: -is this enormous, open wound on the hill like--

Barrett: Oh, wow.

Soren: This deep pit.

Barrett: Wow, this is where the pit is.

Soren: The Berkeley pit. The guy saying "wow" is Barrett Golding. I couldn't get back to Butte myself, so I asked Barrett to go over there and visit with a couple of engineers.

Barrett: Tell me who you are. Go ahead.

Joe Griffin: Okay. Well, I'm Joe Griffin, Montana Department of Environmental Quality.

Nick Tucci: I'm Nick Tucci. I'm with the Montana Bureau of Mines and Geology.

Soren: The three of them are standing at the edge of the pit, which is hard to imagine, especially the size of this thing, but when you're at the edge of the pit, and you look down in, what you actually see is-

Barrett: How can you convey what we're seeing?

Soren: -this enormous lake, kind of.

Nick: Well, it's 40 billion gallons of water, which is a lot of water. It's one of the larger lakes in the United States.

Jad: Just carved into this hill?

Soren: Yes. The main difference though, between this lake and one that you might decide to take an afternoon dip in is that this lake is a bizarre-

Nick: The color of the water is red.

[background music]

Barrett: This sickling red-

Soren: -and also-

Barrett: -greens and gray and black.

Soren: It's technical. It shimmers in this way that words can't describe. When you're standing there, you can't help but wonder.

Donald The question I really have, and I'll rephrase it after I ask it because it's not quite-- is like what the [beeps] happened here?

Andrea: I don't think that's going to air.


Donald: I mean, what happened? Well, it's just the price of copper.

Soren: In the 1920s, when we were stringing up telephone wires and electrical wires and going through World Wars, a third of the copper in the US came out of this hill.

Donald: The long and the short of it is, you wouldn't be standing here broadcasting this, or recording this without copper in your wire right there.

Soren: In its heyday, before the pit was even around, Butte was this mining boomtown. By the 1940s, the price of copper dropped, a company that owned all the mines in Butte wasn't doing so well. They figured it'd be cheaper and easier to just blow the top off the hill, but things just kept getting worse. By 1982, right around the time when Don and Andrea were coming to town-

Andrea: -have taken over the mountains.

Soren: -the mine's completely shut down.

Andrea: When they shut the pit in early 1980s--

Soren: But here's the thing, while they're actually mining, they keep all the groundwater pumped out of there so that's dry and they can work. When they shut the mines down, they shut off the pumps.

Andrea: The company turned off the pumps, I think it was Earth Day in 1982.

Soren: Yes, on Earth Day.

Andrea: After that, the pit started filling up with groundwater. It took a good 10 years to actually see the rust-colored puddle in the bottom of the pit itself.

Soren: But it was a puddle that was growing and growing and growing. Now here's the thing about that water. The rock around the pit is filled with pyrite. When the water hits the pyrite and the air, the three react to create sulfuric acid. Uh-oh.

Edwin Dobb: In turn-

Soren: That's Edwin Dobb-

Edwin: Freelance writer, have been for about 20 years.

Soren: -who actually grew up in Butte.

Edwin: The sulfuric acid hastens the removal of the metals from the ore itself like gold and silver and copper.

Andrea: Copper, cadmium, zinc, iron sulfate, arsenic.

Soren: What you end up with this is toxic, acidic disaster.

Andrea: It's still rising.

Soren: In fact that since we started working on this piece, Jad, it's risen like about a foot.

Edwin: There was an incident, infamous incident in the mid-1990s.

Soren: Anybody who grew up anywhere near Butte knows this story.

Edwin: One stormy night, some 340 snow geese landed-

Barrett: They landed on the water-

Edwin: -looking for shelter.

Barrett: -and they, of course, drink some of it.

Soren: The next day, there were 342 goose carcasses floating on the water.

Edwin: They were all dead. The autopsy showed lesions in the esophagus throughout the digestive system.

Jad: It sounds like the water ate their insides.

Soren: Yes. Were you struck at all upon arriving there? Did you actually go visit the mine, the old mine site?

Andrea: No, avoided it like the plague. We were two staunch environmentalists, and the idea of living in a mining town was so completely foreign.

Soren: When they first showed up in Butte, Don and Andrea, they were struggling to fit in at the university because they're trying to study this little microorganisms.

Andrea: The sponge in Bermuda.

Soren: But they're in Butte.

Andrea: Landlocked Butte, Montana.

Soren: To make matters worse, when they took off for a year on sabbatical-

Andrea: Our college accidentally unplugged our refrigerator, destroying all of our samples.

Soren: Oh my God.

Andrea: Desperation.

Soren: Definitely.

Andrea: We had no funding. We decided we just needed to start over.

Soren: But one day-

Andrea: -a scientist named Bill Chattam-

Soren: -came into their lab-

Andrea: -with a piece of wood. On this wood, there was some green slimy stuff.

Soren: He said, "You won't believe this, but I found this stick with the slime on it in the pit-

Andrea: -floating about a foot below the surface of the water."

Soren: Here's the thing, that lake, this is the most deadly place you can imagine. Nothing grows here. Nothing should grow here.

Jad: Nothing.

Soren: Absolutely not.

Jad: Not even anything but nothing.

Soren: Yes.

Jad: What's less than nothing? Maybe absolute nothing.

Soren: Like negative numbers of-

Jad: Of nothingness.

Soren: It's more than nothing is an active, getting rid of thing.

Jad: It's a negating nothingness.

Soren: You know how there's love and hate. This is not a lack of love. This is hate.

Jad: [laughs] Okay.

Soren: But they got together with some colleagues. They looked at the slime, and they realized against all odds, the stuff was alive.

Andrea: Life in acid mine waste.

Soren: Life that no one had ever studied before.

Andrea: It really is what started everything we've been doing now, gosh, for the last 15 years.

[background music]

Soren: So far-

Donald: -we've had virtually hundreds of compounds, organisms that were growing-

Soren: organisms that make molecules that can fight viruses.

Donald: Several turned out to be good in our anti-cancer screens.

Jad: They fight cancer, really?

Soren: Yes.

Andrea: We have Berkelic acid and Berkeleyamides and the Berkeleyacetals.

Soren: They've now published tons of papers. Their work has just taken off.

Donald: It's been pretty exciting research.

Soren: But then they told me this story that totally took them by surprise. It was about a year after they had first started looking at the pit water.

Andrea: We found this sticky, opaque, thick, gooey, black organism.

Soren: Then they noticed that, weirdly, if you put this little guy into a thing of the water from the pit-

Andrea: It actually absorbs the metals in pit water.

Jad: What does that mean they're taking the metals out of the water?

Soren: They become a little metal sponge, yes.

Jad: They're cleaning the water is what you're saying?

Soren: Yes, and there's lots of people that work with microorganisms to try to clean up metal-laden water, but usually these things taking maybe like 10%, 15% of the metals. This little guy-

Andrea: -will actually absorb between 85% and 95%.

Jad: Wow.

Soren: They got really curious about it, and they started trying to figure out where it had ever been seen before.

Andrea: We had it identified-

Soren: -and they eventually discovered-

Andrea: -that the only place this yeast had ever been found was-

Jad: Where?

Donald: Well-

Andrea: -in the rectal swabs of geese.

Jad: You mean like the snow geese that landed on the water?

Soren: Yes. The geese left a little something behind.

Jad: Wow.

Soren: A present.


Jad: Soren Wheeler. More information at


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