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As many as 10,000 snow geese landed on the remains of an open pit mine near Butte, Montana that was filled with toxic water. Now, they are being found sick and dead in places as unwild as a Walmart parking lot and a nearby casino.

The Berkeley Pit, an abandoned open pit copper mine in Butte, Montana—part of the largest Superfund site in the U.S.—is filled with 40 billion gallons of acidic, metal-contaminated water. PitWatch.org

The 700-acre Berkeley Pit closed in 1982, leaving behind a trove of toxic heavy metals. As the pit filled with rainwater, arsenic, cadmium, copper, cobalt, iron, zinc and other inorganic compunds leached into the water. It soon became a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Superfund site.

Snow geese summer in colonies on the Canadian and Alaskan tundra, migrating south in the fall to wintering grounds along the American coasts and inland wetland areas. For those in the central part of the continent, their migration route takes them across Montana.

On the evening of Nov. 28, wildlife spotters hired by Montana Resources, which jointly manages the abandoned mine with Atlantic Richfield, saw an incoming flock about 25 miles away that they estimated at 25,000 geese.

Flickr/Tim Lenz

"I can't underscore enough how many birds were in the Butte area that night," Mark Thompson, environmental affairs manager for Montana Resources told the Associated Press. "Numbers beyond anything we've ever experienced in our 21 years of monitoring by several orders of magnitude."

Workers used hazing techniques including loud noises and non-lethal gunshots to attempt to deter the birds. But they may not have had much choice in where to land.

One theory is that the usual landing place for migrating snow geese—Freezeout Lake west of Great Falls—was largely frozen over when the geese flew by. Others think that November's unseasonably warm weather delayed the timing of their southbound migration or that a storm may have driven the birds to find a new landing spot.

Crews have been trying to rescue as many birds as possible, bringing the geese to animal shelters and veterinarians as they find them. But a similar, although much smaller, die-off in 1995 showed how dangerous the toxic waters can be.

"In each bird autopsied, the oral cavity, trachea, and esophagus, as well as digestive organs like the gizzard and intestines, were lined with burns and festering sores," wrote Harper's in 1996.

Snow geese are not considered an endangered species. The population numbers about 15 million.

Mining in the Butte region dates back to 1864 when gold was discovered in Silver Bow Creek. A large-scale underground mine operated from 1875 to 1955, when open-pit mining at Berkeley Pit began.

A Montana mine circa 1893. U.S. National Archives and Records Administration

A spokesman for the EPA said the companies and agency are keeping a lookout for additional flocks headed toward Butte.

Montana Resources said it will reimburse veterinary costs and investigate this incident. It will look to update its mitigation plan to keep wildlife out of the pit water.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) named 10 sites to the Superfund program's National Priorities List, reaching nine states plus Puerto Rico.

Leading the list is the Bonita Peak Mining District in Colorado, where the EPA by accident spilled 3 million gallons of toxic wastewater from the abandoned Gold King Mine into the scenic Animas River. The river turned bright orange due to heavy metals in the spill, which included lead, iron and aluminum. The disaster has already cost $29 million for initial response and ongoing water-quality monitoring. About 880,000 pounds of metals were released into the Animas River according to EPA estimates.

The disaster affected drinking water and irrigation water for farms in Colorado, New Mexico and Utah. Flowing downstream from the mine in scenic Silverton, Colorado, at an elevation of 9,300 feet, the hazardous flow also contaminated the San Juan River in New Mexico and caused the Navajo Nation to declare a state of emergency. They, along with the state of New Mexico, are suing the EPA.

The Gold King Mine accident was an embarrassment for the EPA, as it occurred while they were working on the site and accidentally struck a dam. The area was already under investigation, as its many old, abandoned mines—some of which date to the 19th century—have been leaking hazardous waste for years. The Superfund site designation includes 35 mines, seven tunnels, four tailings sites and two additional study areas. They include sites along tributaries that flow into the Animas River. The cleanup will be complex and could take years or even decades.

A former California gold mine in Amador County was also added to the Superfund list, along with a dormant shipyard in Jennings, Louisiana. In Dutchess County, New York, a portion of Wappinger Creek was designated for cleanup as a result of industrial waste. A closed aluminum plant in Montana, which contaminated the Flathead River with cyanide and other manufacturing byproducts, has also been listed.

In Puerto Rico, groundwater contamination in the town of Dorado has impacted drinking water for 67,000 people with the industrial solvents tetrachloroethylene and trichloroethylene, which can have serious health impacts including damage to the liver and increasing the risk of cancer, states the EPA. It is considered one of the country's most hazardous waste sites.

Another groundwater contamination site in Indiana has also been added to the Superfund list. There, organic solvents have been found in residential drinking wells. Additional sites include the Eldorado Chemical Co. Inc. in Live Oak, Texas; North 25th St. Glass and Zinc in Clarksburg, West Virginia; and Valley Pike VOCs in Riverside, Ohio.

Currently, more than 1,300 sites are on the EPA's Superfund National Priorities List.

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