Sunday, December 2, 2007

Superfund Sites Yield New Drugs/Tourist Attractions/Physics Laboratory

Superfund Sites Yield New Drugs/Tourist Attractions/Physics Laboratory

Jack Dini
Livermore, California

In 1993 Travel and Leisure Magazine ran an article on the Continental Divide. It was tough on Butte, Montana: “the ugliest spot in Montana…despite a spirited historic district amid the rubble, the overall picture is desolate.” It called nearby Anaconda “a sad sack mining town dominated by a smelter smokestack.” (1) Today things are somewhat different for these two sites.

Butte, Montana- Lake Berkeley

Edwin Dobb reports, “At one time Butte provided a third of the copper used in the United States—all from a mining district only four miles square. Eventually open-pit mining was used and the pit became the world’s largest truck operated mine, along the way displacing some Italian and Serbo-Croatian neighborhoods. Mining came to a halt in the early 1980s, as did the pumps that had been sucking groundwater out of the mines for a century. The flooding began.”(2)

The 1.5 mile wide, 1,800 foot deep pit, part of the nation’s largest Superfund site, has been filling for the last 20 years with a poisonous broth laced with heavy metals—a legacy of Butte’s copper mining days. When mining officials abandoned the pit and stopped the pumps that kept it dry, they opened the spigots to about 3 millions gallons of water per day. Today, the lake is about 850 foot deep and contains more than 3 billion cubic feet of water. (3)

Lake Berkeley, also known as The Berkeley Pit, covers almost 700 acres of the former open-pit copper mine. It holds some 30 billion gallons of highly acidic, metal-laden water. It’s the country’s largest and most unusual body of contaminated water, with a pH of 2.6 and metals such as aluminum, arsenic, cadmium, copper, iron, manganese, zinc, and others. (1) Yet, as New Scientist reports, “Every cloud has a silver lining.” The contaminated lake designated hazardous is turning out to be a source of novel chemicals that could help fight migraines and cancer. (4)

In recent years more than 40 small organisms have been discovered in the lake and these hold much potential for agriculture and medicine. It’s even thought that some of these organisms can be employed to reclaim the lake and other similar contaminated waters by neutralizing acidity and absorbing dissolved metals.

Andrea and Don Stierle and their colleagues have found a strain of the pithomyces fungi producing a compound that bonds to a receptor that causes migraines and could block headaches, while a strain of penicillium fungi makes a different compound that inhibits the growth of cancer cells. In July 2006 the Stierle team revealed that a novel Berkeley Lake compound called berkelic acid from another new strain of penicillium fungus reduces the rate of ovarian cancer cell growth by 50 percent. (5)

How is this possible? Essentially, some organisms actually flourish in the presence of acidity and make use of some of the dissolved metals in the lake. These are called extremophiles (liking extremes), because they not only tolerate, but even thrive in extreme conditions. Extremophiles can tolerate heat, very cold climates, high pressure, and low pH and high pH solutions. Japanese scientist Koki Horikoshi has found a variety of chemically tolerant extremophiles in the deepest parts of the ocean; some of them can even degrade hydrocarbons while thriving in water containing up to 50% solutes such as toluene, benzene, or kerosene. (6)

Why do extremophiles show new antibiotic and anticarcinogenic activities? Best guess is that some of them have evolved powerful toxins to attack an enzyme associated with a particular fungal growth phase. Another possibility is that they are particularly adept at sticking tightly to surfaces and this is one of the attributes researchers look for in anti-cancer drugs. (7)

Anaconda, Montana—The Old Works Golf Course

Twenty-five miles down the road from Lake Berkeley is the town of Anaconda, another Superfund site. The Anaconda smelter was once one of the shining stars of the American mining industry employing thousands of people. The facility first began copper smelting operations in 1884 and the smelter rose quickly to national prominence because of its noticeable annual copper production. However, this all came at a price to the environment. The land was left gouged with mines and extensively contaminated with heavy metals. The Anaconda smelter was demolished after its closure in 1981. However, the smelter stack, the tallest and possibly largest free-standing masonry structure in the world, remains standing. The site is now a Montana State Park. (8)

And speaking of parks and tourism, these days the town of Anaconda has redefined itself turning to tourism and recreational pursuits to attract visitors and provide jobs for its citizens. A major attraction is the Old Works Golf Course built on the site of the copper smelter. Jack Nicklaus, hired to design the course, reportedly called the site the ugliest he had ever see. One of the most expensive golf course reclamation projects ever undertaken, the $15 million project included capping the entire area with crushed rock, clay, and topsoil. Lakes were created to catch and filter water, and plastic liners were installed to protect trees, greens, and bunkers. (9)

The course includes capped slag and tailing pipes and some of the landscape’s century old flues and smelting ovens. Sand traps are black, a clever use for more than 14,000 cubic yards of inert smelting slag ground to the texture of sand. Massive stone furnace walls line some of the fairways. For the non-golfer, a historic hiking trail highlighting Anaconda’s smelting heritage and giving hikers an insight into copper mining techniques of years past winds its way around the course.

Some Other Sites

The Homestake Gold Mine in South Dakota, site of a spill of six to seven tons of cyanide-laced tailings into a creek in 1998, has been selected as the preferred site for a $500 million Deep Underground Science and Engineering Laboratory. (10) Because of the up to 8000 foot depth in the mine, this would make it the best shielded laboratory in the world for neutrino studies and a major advance in sensitivity in the search for proton decay.

An artificial lake in El Salvador brimming with sewage and industrial waste is mystifying scientists by attracting thousands of migratory and sea birds. Built in 1974 to drive El Salvador’s biggest hydroelectric project, the 33,360 acre Cerron Grande reservoir collects some 3,800 tons of excrement each year from sewage pipes, as well as factory run-off and traces of heavy metals like chromium and lead. What surprises scientists is the fact that some 150,000 seabirds from more than 130 species have chosen to make the reservoir their home. At least 90 of the species are migratory birds arriving from as far away as Alaska. (11) Birds do not survive in Lake Berkeley. So what’s the difference between the two lakes? Could it be the 3,800 tons of excrement?


1. Florence Williams, “Butte, Montana, seeks a new life,” High Country News, Volume 25, November 29, 1993
2. Edwin Dobb, “New Life in a Death Trap,” Discover, 21, 86, December 2000
3. Mark Matthews, “Could a Toxic Lake Yield Life-Saving Microbes?” The Washington Post, March 8, 1999, Page A09
4. “Dirty old mine has rich seam of drugs,” New Scientist, 191, 19, July 15, 2006
5. Andrea A. Stierle, Donald B. Stierle, and Kal Kelly, “Berkelic Acid, A Novel Spiroketal With Selective Anticancer Activity From an Acid Mine Waste Fungal Extremophile, J. Org. Chem., 71, 5357, June 10, 2006
6. Carol Stone, “Extremophiles, Life at the Edge,” ChemMatters, 17, 14, December 1999
7. Michael R. Taylor, Dark Life, (New York, Scribner, 1999), 119
8. “Anaconda Smelter Stack,”
9. Alex Markels, “The Greening of America,” Audubon, July-August 1998, Page 42
10. Geoff Brumfiel, “Deep science strikes gold after latest site is named,” Nature , 448, 232, July 19, 2007
11. Alberto Barrera, “Contaminated Salvador Lake is Mystery Brid Magnet,”, May 21, 2007

1 comment:

Brent Beckley said...


How thrilled I am to find your blog! I LOVE IT. I hope you don't mind if I comment from time to time. I'm still running The Monday Nut ( and its a lot of fun. Haven't done too much on the Environment issues yet, but was hoping to do so. Please email me ( when you get a chance.

Brent Beckley
"Wrestling Zeus"