Butte, Mont. • These days, the skies above Southwest Montana are teeming with birds headed north. Which means on a windy Tuesday in April, bird protection specialist Mark Mariano has been on duty since sunrise at the Berkeley Pit, Butte’s abandoned open pit copper mine turned toxic lake.
This morning, he's been tracking a bunch of dabbling ducks paddling across the Pit's white-capped surface, and recording himself on his phone, Montana Public Radio reported. Now, it's time to use a long-range sporting rifle to scare them away. The pit's acidic, metallic water can be deadly to birds.
"Yep, ready! (gunshot) One shot, that was about 10 feet in front of them and every single one is up!"
Since it's the middle of spring bird migration, Mariano's work is considered essential under Montana's stay-at-home order amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
From his post at the bird shack, he tells me this season, there's just a lot more to worry about. Instead of getting right to birding at the Berkeley Pit, he now arrives with a camo buff covering his face, Clorox wipes on each hand, and religiously cleans the shack and their arsenal of bird hazing gadgets.
"We do have to share these tools, so that's the weak spot in this. You know, you haven't really lived until you've disinfected an AR first thing in the morning — that's used to scare birds off a giant toxic lake."
Mariano says overall he feels safe going to work. He's flying solo in the bird shack, and the closest person he can see is a mile away, on the opposite side of the colossal open pit mine.
"It's been nice, because I know a lot of essential workers are still pretty exposed, and I'm essentially out here in this big void."
Joe Vranka, the Environmental Protection Agency's state Superfund chief, says the waterfowl protection program is just one of a number of high priority Superfund activities continuing across Montana.
"Right now, the way we're operating, the work hasn't slowed down at all. We're as busy as we've ever been. There's plenty of stuff to do."
He says there have been no changes made to Superfund enforcement policies. Right now, staff are working virtually to the extent possible, and deciding what on-the-ground actions are essential on a case-by-case basis at the 20 or so Superfund sites EPA oversees in Montana.
For example, EPA's initial site investigations typically involve sampling soil, water and air over multiple years. Vranka says that type of field work isn't as urgent, and has been postponed in areas like West Side Soils in Butte, a swath of land behind Montana Tech checkered with mine dumps.
"We can delay it for some months and maybe collect those data a little later and still be in a position to stay relatively on schedule with conducting the remedial investigation, doing things like risk assessment work."
(Related: Richest Hill, a podcast about the past, present and future of one of America's most notorious Superfund sites.)
On the other hand, there are Superfund areas where if certain actions were halted, there could be an immediate threat to public health or contaminants released into the environment.
At the top of that "mission critical" list are water treatment facilities, like the Butte Treatment Lagoons. The system — which collects dirty groundwater, treats it with lime, and discharges it into Silver Bow Creek — is operated by Pioneer Technical Services, a regional environmental engineering firm headquartered in the Mining City. Pioneer's president, Brad Archibald, says, "The technology available allows us to reduce the number of people on site at any given time, but you still have to be there, you still have to calibrate equipment, you still have to collect samples to assure that the system is working."
Pioneer is also contracted to manage water treatment at the Warm Springs Ponds Superfund site, which is a series of dams and settling ponds trapping tons of contaminated sediments.
When that earthquake shook western Montana at the end of March, Pioneer's crews went out to inspect all the dikes, while driving in separate vehicles and staying a safe distance from each other. They didn't find any damage.
Archibald says that as an environmental engineer, he's confident that the Superfund cleanups will be maintained effectively during this pandemic. But as the leader of a company owned by its 140 employees, he's also concerned about the coronavirus' growing impact on the economy and jobs. Luckily, Superfund-driven environmental remediation, most of which doesn't stop during this time, is a big slice of Pioneer's work pie.
"In the Superfund world, where things are done per order, we actually, in some ways, are insulated from economic recessions because that work has to be done and will continue to be done."
Archibald says if the economy stays slow, that could reduce the other kinds of work, like general construction and civil engineering projects that contractors like Pioneer perform in the future.
Waterfowl specialist Mark Mariano, back at his perch above the Berkeley Pit, says he's discovered some reasons to keep looking up. Fewer planes in the sky, and boats on the water, mean the world is quieter.
"It's been some really awesome birding."
He says if you can safely go to a body of water, you should do it. Now. Chances are, you'll see and hear species of migrating birds you never could before.
“It’s a wild time to have an ecological education. And it’s a distraction from the crazy.”