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Welcome back to SciShow Talk Show where Hank Green talks with interesting people! In this episode Hank talks with Mike Potts, an environmental engineer at Pioneer Technical Services, Inc. with special guest Jessi Knudsen CastaƱeda.

Hosted by: Hank Green
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(0:11) Hank: Hello and welcome to SciShow Talk Show, that day on SciShow where we talk to interesting people about the interesting things that they do. And today we've got Mike Potts, who is an engineer working on restoring Montana to not be so poisonous any more.

Mike: That's semi-accurate I guess. I work for Pioneer Technical Services Incorporated, Pioneer for short. Basically what we do is try and clean up messes and engineer the environment to be better.

H: So how did you get into this?

M: So I got an undergrad degree in ecohydrology. It's basically ecology and hydrology. Oftentimes you'll look at hydrology kind of from an engineering aspect, where's it's just how to move water from point A. Ecohydrology kind of looks at, OK, let's move water from point A to point B, but let's also focus on this is going to be a stream, so let's think about what kind of aquatic habitat we need. You know, how to restore this to truly natural conditions. Just thinking about the big picture. It's a big picture thing.

So I did that, worked with US Geological Survey, and we basically do science. So you study a big problem, at the end of it you produce a report, and say here's the problem, and that's the end of it. So while working at USGS, I spent a couple of years working on a project, gave them the report, handed it off to the engineer, and then they went and got to go design how you're gonna fix the problem.

H: So you just identified - yeah just identifying problems and never thinking about how to solve them, that's kind of a bummer.

M: Yeah, exactly. Which is what lead me to the aha moment where I need to go become an engineer. And then you can kind of see it to fruition. Because what's cool is that you still have to study the problem to understand it to design the solution, so the science is all there, you just take it that one step further to then solve the problem.

H: So what do you practically do on a day to day basis?

M: I do more ground water modelling, which is really fun cause you don't see it. Y'know it's... some of the guys I work with call it "the black magic" because no one ever sees what ground water is actually doing unless you drill a well and pump it.

H: I never really understood how intricately tied surface water and ground water were until I went through my environmental studies degree. And there are areas where like a whole river will just disappear and then it'll come back in like 30 feet, and there's just no river in between, and it's like, "What? Where did you go?"

M: We call that base flow.

H: There's a word for it. See there's a word for it. This is why you need a hydrology degree.

M: Surface water is just a surficial expression of the ground water, it's either going to be gaining, losing, or static.

H: There's a lot we don't see under there.

M: Yeah and if that ground water is of bad quality, then it becomes bad quality surface water. So it's important to monitor groundwater and surface water and monitor those interactions. Because you can also have surface water that's impacted, and is flowing and the groundwater table is lower and you're discharging surface water into the groundwater. And somebody over there drills a little well by their house and starts drinking it.

H: And it's coming straight from the polluted river.

M: Exactly.

H: Yeah. So tell me about the largest Superfund site in America and first maybe explain what Superfund is.

M: Well Superfund is actually a program that was started in the 1980s that set aside-- the government set aside to clean up the nations most contaminated areas. You know, mining sites, nuclear sites, kinda the bad stuff. So it just so happens that one of those sites is in our backyard, between Butte and Missoula. I live in Butte so a lot of the work I do is convenient, it's right there at home.

H: Yeah some times it feels a little bit like from an environmental perspective, that Butte is a bit of a disaster, but you know, Butte is an amazing part of the country because there were mountains that are now holes, but those holes are the reason we have electricity. Like all the copper in America, like a huge amount of our copper came from that hole, and we needed that to electrify this country.

M: Butte kind has a rough reputation. I never thought I'd live there for one.

H: (Laughs)

M: There's a lot going on, I mean there's a Superfund Operable Unit, which is a portion of the Superfund site, called the Butte Priority Soils Operable Unit, that encompasses the majority of the town of Butte. So really when you live in Butte, a lot of the residents live within an active Superfund site, which is--

H: (laughs) --not ideal.

M: Just in the time I've been there, I've seen a pretty drastic improvement. You look at, what's interesting about Butte, at the turn of the century there was a hundred thousand people. It used to just be this metropolis, this hustle and bustle, there was trolleys going up and down, there's a lot of history there, um, but as you mentioned the aftermath leaves a mess and we're still in the process of cleaning that up.

For one, you mentioned there's a giant hole in the ground. One of the big problems with that is that hole had to be dewatered. When ever you mine underground, you're usually going to go below the water table, so you have to put in some type of well to pump the water out, to kinda bring the water table down in that area, um so that you can mine, and when you dig a big pit, you have to keep the water out of that pit. When they stopped mining, I think it was the early 80s, they closed down that mine, ah, water levels start to rise.

H: You turn off the pumps.

M: You turn off the pumps, it starts to fill back up and that's one of the problems is that right now all the water is flowing to that hole. When, ah, that kind of stabilizes, the groundwater will then flow back out and it will all be very contaminated.

H: So that hole has not, the kind of water you wanna drink.

M: The hole's not going away. People that say you should fill it in. You should do this, you should do that.

H: Where are you going to get enough...

M: It's a bad idea. You basically have to keep it collecting ground water so the good water's flowing in there, being contaminated, and then you pump that out and treat it. It seems redundant, but it's really the best option. 

H: It's the only way to do it. Otherwise it just fills up and then it starts spilling back over into the water table, it becomes a part of the water table.

M: Exactly. People think, you talk about the critical level in this pit, people have, I think a lot of people have this conception that it's actually going to overflow. It's not going to overflow, it's going to hit the water table and then...

H: And then it's in the ground water.

M: It's not going to overflow back out.

H: And in the surface water. 

M: Yep. exactly

H: 'Cause it's all connected.

M: Yep, Hydrology 101.

H: That's what you learn with your hydrology degree.


H: I lived in Missoula, there was a dam in Milltown, which is just outside of Missoula, and it sort of marked the end of the contamination.

M: So, luckily that dam was built, before 1908, because in 1908 a giant flood came through and up in Butte, there was a huge mine, a lot of tailings had been deposited already at that point in time along the stream there. The mine, the flood came through, flushed all those tailings downstream and luckily, they all got stuck behind the dam, because if the dam wasn't there, the contamination would have gone basically all the way, potentially all the way to the ocean.  

Hank: Okay.

Mike: So it was a very good thing.

Hank: They had just finished the dam, too.

Mike: Yeah, it was only three or four years old at the time, and it withstood the flood, which was good, but it left a huge, you know, mess.  

Hank: So when you say tailings, what is that?

Mike: So tailings, when you mine, you dig up rock, crush it up, kinda process it, and usually what they'll do is mix it into a slurry that's like 80% water and all this really fine material. It's kinda like peanut butter.  

Hank: It doesn't taste like peanut butter, though.

Mike: I wouldn't recommend eating it, no. But yeah, you end up with this, and they just call it mine tailings, and there's different processes that leave different consistencies of it.

Hank: And nowadays we have better systems for dealing with that. 

Mike: Well, nowadays, we don't dump it back into the creek, for one thing.

Hank: Yeah.

Mike: But, you know--

Hank: -- just put it on the side of the river.

Mike: -- live and learn, you know?  

Hank: We have this dam that saved us, pretty much.

Mike: Pretty much.

Hank: Um, it's not there anymore, which is not something that is easy to do to a dam.

Mike: No. It basically involved dredging out all those sediments, or at least the majority of those toxic sediments behind the dam, and then slowly demolishing the dam, basically.  

Hank: Yeah.

Mike: Removing that out and transporting it back up to Butte where it came from.  

Hank: Did you really bring it all back to Butte?  I'm sorry.

Mike: Yeah.  

Hank: Sorry you got all of Missoula's -- I guess you --

Mike: That's where it started, you know, so it's only fitting that it goes back.

Hank: Just bringing it back. These are-- tailings areas set up for that in Butte, around Butte.

Mike: Well, yeah, there's a huge repository, which is basically a monitored contained storage area for this type of material, it's massive.  Yeah, one of the things that's interesting if you think about it, we still have to kind of restore the stream channel from Butte between the two areas, that's not been done yet, so the dam removal was actually a critical action that we had, you know, in a perfect world, you'd start with the top, clean everything up from the top down--

Hank: Right.

Mike: --so that anything that you dig up and kind of mix up as you're, you know, excavating these things, as you mentioned earlier, water moves downhill, but the problem is that any flood can occur at any time and blow out that dam, and then you're--

Hank: All the way to the ocean.  That's a terrifying thought, like, the fact that like, even the biggest dams that we have eventually--

Mike: Yeah.

Hank: --they're not gonna be there anymore.

Mike: That's true.

Hank: And hopefully, it will be because of intentional removal.

Mike: Hopefully engineers who are trained and highly educated will come in and design a plan to safely remove them and nature will not do it for them.

Hank:  What's one of the most recent projects you've been working on?

Mike: One of them is this stream restoration, there's a stream corridor that runs kind of between Butte and Missoula that had those mine tailings deposited, so what we did was go in and excavate those tailings, redesign the stream channel, and one of the things that we do that's kind of cool is we took it a step further and added this component called greenway, where we designed parks and walking trails to kind of provide the public access to these areas.

Hank: Right, so you're getting, you've got the ecology, you've got the hydrology, and also you've got some civic stuff in there, too.

Mike: Exactly, the fish are back in the stream.

Hank: So now we are going to meet an animal that you very well may have helped in its natural habitat. 

Mike: Glad to be of service.

Hank: Jessi. 

Jessi: Hey.

Hank: You're here.

Jessi: Hey. 

Hank: Well, it's movie magic. 

Jessi: Whoo! 

Hank: Are you two related? 

Mike: I believe so.

Jessi: Are we related?  Yeah. 

Mike: I think we are.

Jessi: This is my cousin!

Mike: My first cousin. 

Jessi: This is my cousin.

Hank: Oh, yeah. 

Jessi: He's awesome. 

Hank: Thanks for setting us up.

Jessi: Yeah.  Thanks for coming. 

Mike: It's been a pleasure.

Hank: Um, what do we got?

Jessi: Um--

Hank: Just a bunch of fake plant.

Jessi: Fake plant.

Hank: Okay, well, thi--so, what's its name?

Jessi: Inorganic.  Inorganic.

Hank: Yeah.  Okay, well, that's, so that's the first one.  It's wet, so I feel like whatever we have is a wet animal.  Right.  Water.

Jessi: Water.  Water animal, and I bet you have helped one of these animals before.  This is a native Montana animal, actually native to a lot of the middle part of North America. 

Hank: Okay.  Oh, hi there.  You're some kind of salamander.  Oh, what a funny face. 

Jessi: Look at that flat, almost froggy type face.

Hank: Yeah.  Froggy face. 

Jessi: Alright, so I'm actually going to pick him up, but I'm gonna wash my hands off first because water and oil don't mix.  

Hank: Yeah.

Jessi: Yeah.

Hank: Don't wanna clog up his pores.  'Cause that's how he breathes.

Jessi: I've got oil, he's got water. 

Hank: Oh, yeah.  Hi there.  You're wa--so, did you already tell me what this was? 

Jessi: This is a tiger salamander.

Hank: It's weird lookin'. 

Jessi: Look at his little face! 

Hank: That is a funny face, it is like a frog with a lizard body. 

Jessi: Yeah.  Tiger salamanders, these are like, these are super cool animals.  I mean, they're one of the largest terrestrial salamanders in America.

Hank: What is a terrestrial salamander?

Jessi: On land.  So they don't need to be in water.  So they're born--

Hank: Oh, so they don't--they don't live in the water.

Jessi: They don't live in the water, they need moisture to, you know, survive, but actually, in their mature state, they're terrestrial, they live on land.

Hank: 'Cause I've seen the ones that live in the streams in the South.

Jessi: Yeah.

Hank: They're like.

Jessi: Okay, okay, well, these guys, okay, so the average length of the tiger salamander is like, 6-8 inches. 

Hank: Okay.

Jessi: But they can get huge, I mean, the longest one is about 13 inches, that they've found. 

Hank: Okay.

Jessi: I mean, they get big, but the thing about these guys is, so they're, they are, they're eggs are in the water, and then they can either rapidly mature within like two months, really fast, or they can take five months and more slowly mature, or they just decide not to go through their metamorphosis into this adult stage here and they stay aquatic, and they mature in their aquatic state, and those guys get like, 15 inches, and they become sexually mature.

Hank: So they can basically become a different--?

Jessi: They can stay where they are and get ginormous, or they can become terrestrial, get out of there, and stay small. 

Mike: Like a mudskipper? 

Jessi: Some people call them mudskippers, yeah.

Mike: Oh, okay.

Jessi: So yeah, so why, I mean, why do you think they would have that just--

Hank: Well, it's not why, I mean, obviously there are good reasons to have like, alternate paths that you might want to take if like, there are different circumstances in your habitat--

Jessi: Yeah, yeah, yeah, exactly.

Hank: --more food in one place than another place, but how?  Like how can--how, how could it like, you know--

Jessi: I know, the how is really cool.

Hank: --its like, it's like the caterpillar makes its cocoon and it's like, am I gonna become a butterfly or am I gonna become a bird? 

Jessi: Or a big fat caterpillar, just stay a caterpillar and get gigantic.

Hank: Like, which, yeah, yeah, right.  It's gonna become like, really, or like a praying mantis, I just don't know, who knows, which one will it be, we'll never find out until they hatch.  That's really strange. 

Jessi: Whoo, it's a door one, two, or three, yeah, yeah, but the reason that they can do that adaptive thing is because all of a sudden their pool dries up really fast--

Hank: I've never heard of that before.  Okay, oh man, that's weird.  I love that so much.

Jessi: They stay big babies. 

Mike: So it's like a tadpole just either stays a tadpole and gets huge or it becomes a frog?

Jessi: Yeah, yeah. 

Hank: Just like becomes a huge tadpole.

Jessi: Yeah.  And there are, so the other really cool thing is when they are competing and when they're finding their resources to go into their final adult stage, and they're still larva, there are some like carnivorous larva where they'll go and eat the other ones of their kind, but they grow huge heads and huge mouths and they just go around and eat all of their buddies, all their siblings, and then when they become an adult like this, then they will retail a very large head and very large mouth.  So there's just so many, it's like, it's like so many options in life. 

Hank: That's super, super weird.

Jessi: I was, I was that, you're like, forever you're like labeled with your big head and mouth, I was that dude that ate my kid, my friends, my family.  

Hank: You can tell by looking at him what--

Jessi: Look!

Hank: Yeah, he's got a ridiculous face, I need to take a picture of that face.  Wow.  That's pretty.  You kinda got pretty eyes.  I did not realize what a--what a looker you were.

Jessi: Do you have to see the pretty eyes?

Mike: I think they're pretty. 

Jessi: You guys are being very kind. 

Hank: Well, they're kinda--

Mike: They have cool colors.

Hank: --spaced far apart.  There's that.

Jessi: Yeah.

Hank: But the, but the eye itself, he looks a little dopey just to try to take in the whole face, I wanna take a picture of this, let me take a picture of you. 

Jessi: A tiger salamander, you save the life of who knows, countless tiger salamanders which are the craziest animals ever.

Mike: You're welcome.

Hank: Probably whole--so Jessi, you can learn more about Animal Wonders, where she has lots of cool animals at, and also, our new SciShow for kids and Mike, thanks so much for coming and visiting with us and doing amazing work for both humans and salamanders. 

Mike: Thanks for having me.

Jessi: Yay!

Mike: Yay.

Hank: Thanks all of you for watching, we are SciShow, where you can see sciencey stuff at

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