Pit of Death, Thermodynamics and Karma

One of my earliest memories of Butte was the fight to save the Columbia Gardens. I barely remember the Columbia Gardens but what I do remember seems almost magical. I remember it as lush, green, and full of life. People laughing, playing and all-around having a fun relaxing time. There was a large, terrifying wooden roller coaster, an amazing hand carved wooden carousel, and a variety of other rides (deathtraps) to test your courage (sanity).

The park had been around since 1899, when the 68 acres were purchased by Senator W. A. Clark (one of “The Copper Kings”) in 1899. The park was sold to the Anaconda Company upon his death in 1925. The Anaconda Company (founders included the Hearsts, the Rothchilds, and the Rockerfellers) kept it running until it started to get in the way, both physically and financially, with their open-pit strip mining ventures. There was a campaign by the people to keep the gardens open but conveniently (suspiciously) enough, the gardens burned to the ground in 1973 and the dispute ended. But Butte had already been beaten down by then, in the 20 years leading up to losing the Gardens big chunks of the historic uptown area had been flattened or burned, and the working class ethnic neighborhoods of Meaderville, Dublin Gulch, and McQueen, were also gone. Jobs were gone, homes were gone, neighborhoods were gone, and bit by bit the town was being consumed by “The Pit”.

Columbia Gardens…Then
Columbia Gardens…Now

Berkeley Pit “Fun” Facts:
Created by:The Anaconda Mining Company in 1955
Size:5600 ft wide by 1600 ft deep
Water Volume:37 billion gallons (2007 data)
Status:Slowly filling with water at a rate of 2.55 million gallons per day
Current “Owner”:BP/ARCO (Yes – the same BP that brought us the Gulf Oil Spill disaster just last year)
Water Quality:The water in “The Pit” is highly acidic and contains high concentrations of arsenic, copper, cadmium cobalt, iron, manganese, zine and sulfate.
Goal:Keep “The Pit” a terminal sinkto contain the contaminated water from the nearby mining operations.

Berkeley Pit, Butte Mt

So what you  might ask is the big deal?  A big hole in the ground in the middle of nowhere is filling with water, so what?  It turns out that just as “The Pit” looms over Butte, it also looms over a large part of the Pacific NW.  To better understand this we have a talk a little bit about Watersheds.

Butte sits at the headland of the Clark Fork river, the Clark Fork river travels  320 miles from Butte to Lake Pend Oreille, Idaho’s largest lake.  Water from Lake Pend Oreille ends up in the Columbia River…which happens to be the biggest river in the Pacific Northwest…which happens to run just a mile or so from my current home.  The Clark Fork is one of the largest water systems in the Columbia River Basin, there are 60 tributaries in total.

Columbia River Drainage Basin

Again, So what? Everything is under control right? The government is monitoring the water level in “The Pit”, the goal is to keep the water level below the water table and keep all the water that is currently in the pit, in the pit.  And surely with ARCO/BP in charge of the cleanup (monitoring) everything should go smoothly – right?  (GULF  OIL SPILL ANYONE?)

BP/ARCO is still mining copper in Butte.  They are mining copper from the leftover water and they are mining in the newer Continental Pit, alongside the Berkeley Pit.  The current plan, as agreed to the consent decree by the EPA, DEQ and BP/ARCO, allows BP/ARCO to let the water in the pit continue to rise, and for them to continue to mine, until it reaches a predetermined level, 5,410 ft.  At that point, estimated to be in 2019, they will run the pit water through a treatment facility to remove the metal contaminants before allowing it to discharge into the silver bow creek (headland to the Clark Ford river mentioned earlier).

Pit History

As long as there isn’t a big earthquake or  flood or any changes in the regulations agreed to by the government and ARCO/BP, then everything should be “A-O-kay”. I applaud Butte, the Government and BP/ARCO for addressing this issue at all…but….”color me skeptical”….I’m just not convinced that the current plan will be executed as envisioned…and even if it is….that it will hit all it’s goals. (GULF OIL SPILL ANYONE?)  Never-the-less, I have to trust that people are doing the best they can and that everyone involved carries with them a sense of responsibility to the current and future residents that live downstream.

Bringing this back around to my personal journey…envrionmental distaster areas like the “The Pit” and the wastelands around it,  in the past, have left me paralyzed with hopelessness, fear and dread.  I’ve handled these feelings by employing varying unsuccessful  techniques of distraction, disregard, and delusion.

As I said in my last post Why Biophilic Design, “I can do better”.   One of the first steps on my journey is to decide where to focus my energy. A very good friend of mine, whom I respect a great deal, explores and coaches people on how to recognize and change the way they create and transmit energy in their lives in her blog , Goss Coaching.  She discusses in great detail the concepts of catabolic (destructive) and anabolic (constructive) energy in our spiritual/mental lives.  I strongly encourage you to read her blog to learn more – it could change your life.

I’m an engineer by training, so the study of energy and how it’s transmitted has been an integral part of how I view life.  Catabolic and anabolic energy are the two main driving forces in nature.  Catabolic energy is released when matter decomposes, and anabolic energy is consumed by processes that create life, right down to the cellular level.  Again, from a scientific point of view the 1st law of thermodynamics (The Law of Conservation of Energy) states that “Energy can neither be created or destroyed.  However, energy can change forms, and energy can flow from one place to another.” (I did warn you there would be geeky stuff….)  In Buddhism, Karma, is the “The Law of Conservation of Moral Energy”.

These are very important concepts and will come up again and again in this blog.   But for the purposes of this post, it’s important to simply take away that you really have two choices when it comes to spending your energy.  You can spend it breaking this down (catabolic) or you can spend it building things up (anabolic).   Also, it’s known from science, that “like attracts like”, so doesn’t it stand to reason that we have a much better chance of attracting positive, rebuilding energy in our lives if that is what we are projecting?

One of my favorite authors/teachers these days is Pema Chodron (teaches the Shambhala Buddhist lineage), I will be liberally referencing her and her teachings throughout this blog. One of her primary teachings is to help people learn to take the very situations, people and events that cause us to shut-down and numb out and use them as tools to help us tap into and open up our ability for limitless love and compassion. I want to use my early memories of destruction based on greed, my life in Butte amongst the mining wastelands, and ever-present looming “Pit” as reminders that I can choose to take that destructive energy and turn it into something productive and beautiful.

3 thoughts on “Pit of Death, Thermodynamics and Karma

  1. Thanks Hanna!

    The concepts of anabolic and catabolic energy and their impact on our emotional lives really resonate with me. I look forward to learning and practicing more!

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