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Answers to frequently asked questions about the Berkeley Pit.

The Berkeley Pit and connected tunnels act as a sink that collects groundwater in the area due to the fact that the basin of the Berkeley Pit lake is the lowest point in the groundwater system. Image from Google Earth.

Do Butte residents need flood insurance?

No. Butte residents don’t need to worry about flood insurance in regard to the Berkeley Pit and connected underground mine workings. The Berkeley Pit and connected tunnels act as a sink that collects groundwater in the area. Water levels in the Berkeley Pit and associated mine shafts are currently 175 to 200 feet below the rim of the Pit.

Elevations above sea level for Berkeley Pit water and surrouding Butte, Montana landmarks. Map image from Google Earth, graphic by Justin Ringsak.
Elevations above sea level for Berkeley Pit water and surrounding Butte, Montana landmarks. Image from Google Earth. Click on the image to view a larger version.

The lowest point on the Pit rim, on the east side near the Montana Resources concentrator, is 5,509 feet above sea level. As of June 2013, the Berkeley Pit water level was 5,310 feet, and the highest water level in the system, in the Pilot Butte shaft, was 5,335 feet.

Under the management plan for the Berkeley Pit, these water elevations will always be maintained at levels 100 feet or more below the rim. This will be accomplished by pumping and treating Berkeley Pit water. Pumping and treating will start when the water level at any one of the monitoring compliance points reaches the critical level of 5,410 feet. The Montana Bureau of Mines & Geology (MBMG) monitors water levels at all compliance points, as well as at several other monitoring sites, on a monthly basis. Based on the rate the Pit is filling now, that should happen around 2023.

Berkeley Pit groundwater monitoring locations and water levels, including wells and abandoned mine shafts, June 2013. Graphic by Justin Ringsak.
Berkeley Pit groundwater monitoring locations and water levels, including wells and abandoned mine shafts, June 2013.

The elevation of the Metro Storm Drain near the Pit at Texas Avenue and Continental Drive is 5,470 feet, about 60 feet above the highest water level allowed for the Berkeley Pit system.

For further comparison, a monitoring well at Greeley School has an elevation of 5,503 feet, about 93 feet higher than the critical level. The current water level in this well is 5,462 feet, about 52 feet higher than the critical level. This difference in water levels tells us that groundwater is flowing toward the Pit, and will continue to do so after the waters in the Berkeley Pit and connected mines reach their highest allowed levels.

In other words, water is flowing into the Berkeley Pit, and the Pit will be managed so that water is always flowing into it. Butte residents can rest easy knowing that the Berkeley Pit is not going to overflow, and that there is no need for flood insurance due to the Pit or underground mines.

This image illustrates how the Berkeley Pit, with the lowest water levels in the area, acts as a sink that collects groundwater. Water levels indicated for each monitoring point are from June 2013.
This image illustrates how the Berkeley Pit, with the lowest water levels in the area, acts as a sink that collects groundwater. Water levels indicated for each monitoring point are from June 2013. Click on the image to view a larger version.
Monitoring compliance points in the Berkeley Pit groundwater system

What is being done to manage the Berkeley Pit now?

The Horseshoe Bend Water Treatment Plant, completed in 2003, captures surface water to slow the rate of fill of the Berkeley Pit lake. In the future, the plant will capture and treat water to prevent Pit water from rising further. Photo by Justin Ringsak.
The Horseshoe Bend Water Treatment Plant, completed in 2003, captures surface water to slow the rate of fill of the Berkeley Pit lake. In the future, the plant will capture and treat water to prevent Pit water from rising further.

Water from the Horseshoe Bend drainage is diverted before reaching the Pit and treated in the Horseshoe Bend Water Treatment Plant for use in mining operations. In 2012, the plant treated about 5 million gallons of water per day. Sludge from the treatment process was returned to the Pit at a rate of 491,000 gallons per day. No water or waste leaves the Pit or mine site.

Water levels in the Pit, wells and mine shafts are monitored monthly. An evaluation of the rate of fill is performed each year to determine dates for future reviews and plant upgrades.

Berkeley Pit groundwater monitoring locations and water levels, including wells and abandoned mine shafts, June 2013. Graphic by Justin Ringsak.
Berkeley Pit groundwater monitoring locations and water levels, including wells and abandoned mine shafts, June 2013. Click on the image to view a larger version.
Monitoring compliance points in the Berkeley Pit groundwater system
Monitoring compliance points in the Berkeley Pit groundwater system. The water level a each point is monitored monthly by the Montana Bureau of Mines & Geology. When the water at any compliance point reaches the Critical Level (5,410 feet above sea level), pumping and treating of Berkeley Pit water will begin to prevent contaminated water in the Pit and groundwater system from spreading outward. Click on the image to view a larger version.

 

The Berkeley Pit looking west from Rampart Mountain near Butte, Montana. The Pit water and connected underground mines and wells are monitored monthly by the Montana Bureau of Mines & Geology. Photo by Matt Vincent.

How is the Pit monitored?

This image illustrates how the Berkeley Pit, with the lowest water levels in the area, acts as a sink that collects groundwater. Water levels indicated for each monitoring point are from June 2013.
This image illustrates how the Berkeley Pit, with the lowest water levels in the area, acts as a sink that collects groundwater. Water levels indicated for each monitoring point are from June 2013. Click on the image to view a larger version.

The Montana Bureau of Mines & Geology (MBMG) measures the water levels at the Pit and in connected mine shafts and wells each month. To monitor water quality, water samples are collected from the Pit semi-annually at multiple depths as safe access allows.

23 wells and 14 mine shafts supply information about the deep bedrock aquifer. 36 wells provide similar data about the alluvial aquifer, which is much closer to the surface. Each month, scientists manually check and record the water levels in these wells. Twice a year, they collect samples to analyze the water’s chemistry. All of this information helps scientists understand where the water is coming from and how it is moving underground.

Complete MBMG monitoring reports and data can be downloaded from our Monitoring Reports page.

The EPA also evaluates site progress and management through five year reviews. The third five year review for the Butte Mine Flooding Operable Unit (BMFOU), which includes the Berkeley Pit and underground mines, took place in 2011. For more information, or to download the 2011 report, click here.

Berkeley Pit groundwater monitoring locations and water levels, including wells and abandoned mine shafts, June 2013. Graphic by Justin Ringsak.
Berkeley Pit groundwater monitoring locations and water levels, including wells and abandoned mine shafts, June 2013.
The water level of the Berkeley Pit in 2012, compared to the Critical Water Level for the Berkeley Pit system. Image from the Montana Bureau of Mines and Geology.

What is the Critical Water Level (CWL)?

The water level of the Berkeley Pit in 2012, compared to the Critical Water Level for the Berkeley Pit system. Image from the Montana Bureau of Mines and Geology.
The water level of the Berkeley Pit in 2012, compared to the Critical Water Level for the Berkeley Pit system.

Set by the U.S. EPA and Montana DEQ, the Critical Water Level, 5,410 feet, marks the point where full-scale pumping and treating of Berkeley Pit water will begin. The level represents the lowest level in the Butte Basin, the stream bottom of Silver Bow Creek. It was set to prevent any contamination from moving into surface and groundwater.

The critical level applies to all of the monitoring compliance points around the Pit, including the mine shafts and wells shown in “Monitoring locations and water levels” below. The Montana Bureau of Mines & Geology regularly checks water levels at all of these points. When the water level in any one of these places reaches 5,410 feet, Pit water will be pumped and treated to maintain the water level at or below the critical level. As you can see in “Water levels over time” at right, currently the highest water level is at the Pilot Butte mine. At 5,335 feet, water in the Pilot Butte will have to rise 75 feet before it reaches the critical level.

Based on the rate the water is rising, scientists expect the water to reach the critical level around 2023. The Critical Level includes a safety buffer of at least 50 feet. In other words, Pit water would not spread until the water level reached about 5,460 feet.

Berkeley Pit groundwater monitoring locations and water levels, including wells and abandoned mine shafts, June 2013. Graphic by Justin Ringsak.
Berkeley Pit groundwater monitoring locations and water levels, including wells and abandoned mine shafts, June 2013. Click on the image to view a larger version.
The waterfall on the southeast rim of the Berkeley Pit, near the Horseshoe Bend Water Treatment Plant as it appeared in 2009. The waterfall has stopped flowing since a Feb. 2013 slough from the Pit wall knocked out a pump used for Montana Resources copper precipitation plant. Prior to Feb. 2013, the waterfall was created by Pit water returning after Montana Resources had removed most of the copper in the water in its precipitation plant. Photo by Justin Ringsak.

What was the waterfall on the northeast wall of the Pit?

The waterfall on the northeast rim of the Berkeley Pit, near the Horseshoe Bend Water Treatment Plant as it appeared in 2009. The waterfall has stopped flowing since a Feb. 2013 slough from the Pit wall knocked out a pump used for Montana Resources copper precipitation plant. Photo by Justin Ringsak.
The waterfall on the northeast rim of the Berkeley Pit, near the Horseshoe Bend Water Treatment Plant as it appeared in 2009. The waterfall has stopped flowing since a Feb. 2013 slough from the Pit wall knocked out a pump used for Montana Resources copper precipitation plant.

In past years, many visitors were curious about the waterfall visible from the Pit Viewing Stand. Montana Resources pumped water out of the Berkeley Pit, then removed the copper from that water before returning it to the Pit (click here for more information on mining copper from Pit water). The waterfall was created by this returning water. However, this activity stopped after the 2013 slough (click here for more information on the slough), so there is no longer a waterfall on the Pit rim.

The northeast rim of the Berkeley Pit in July 2013, after a Feb. 2013 slough from the Pit wall knocked out a pump used for Montana Resources copper precipitation plant. When the precipitation operation was ongoing, Berkeley Pit water was pumped to a precipitation plant where copper was removed from the water. The water was then returned to the Pit, creating the waterfall seen in past years. Photo by Fritz Daily.
The northeast rim of the Berkeley Pit in July 2013, after a Feb. 2013 slough from the Pit wall knocked out a pump used for Montana Resources copper precipitation plant. When the precipitation operation was ongoing, Berkeley Pit water was pumped to a precipitation plant where copper was removed from the water. The water was then returned to the Pit, creating the waterfall seen in past years.
The Horsheshoe Bend Water Treatment Plant at the Berkeley Pit

What is the Horseshoe Bend Water Treatment Plant?

The Horseshoe Bend Water Treatment Plant can be seen on the northeast edge of the Pit. The plant was constructed in 2002-2003 to fulfill the EPA Record of Decision, which requires that surface water flowing into the Berkeley Pit be captured and either used in the mining process or treated.

The Horseshoe Bend Water Treatment Plant, completed in 2003, captures surface water to slow the rate of fill of the Berkeley Pit lake. In the future, the plant will capture and treat water to prevent Pit water from rising further. Photo by Justin Ringsak.

The Horseshoe Bend Water Treatment Plant, completed in 2003, captures surface water to slow the rate of fill of the Berkeley Pit lake. In the future, the plant will capture and treat water to prevent Pit water from rising further.

The plant was designed to treat up to 7 million gallons of water per day using lime (calcium oxide) to raise the pH (reduce the acidity of the water) and remove metals. As pH rises, metals come out of the water and form sludge. The sludge is separated from the water and returned to the Pit at a current rate of about 491,000 gallons per day. Montana Resources incorporates the treated water into their mining process.download full movie The Discovery

In 2012 the plant treated about 5 million gallons of water per day. This water comes from the Horseshoe Bend drainage north of the Pit. The plant has been working continuously since it came online in November 2003. No water or waste leaves the Pit or mine site.

The Horeseshoe Bend Water Treatment Plant, seen here in 2009, was constructed in 2002-2003 to fulfill the EPA Record of Decision, which requires that surface water flowing into the Berkeley Pit be captured and either used in the mining process or treated. Currently the plant is used to capture and treat surface water that would otherwise flow into the Pit. Treated water is then used in Montana Resources mining operations. Photo by Justin Ringsak.

The Horeseshoe Bend Water Treatment Plant, seen here in 2009, was constructed in 2002-2003 to fulfill the EPA Record of Decision, which requires that surface water flowing into the Berkeley Pit be captured and either used in the mining process or treated. Currently the plant is used to capture and treat surface water that would otherwise flow into the Pit. Treated water is then used in Montana Resources mining operations.

A timeline projecting future Berkeley Pit management.

Will the Treatment Plant be able to meet the demand to pump-and-treat Pit water in the future?

A treatment pond at the Horseshoe Bend Water Treatment Plant (2009). Photo by Justin Ringsak.
A treatment pond at the Horseshoe Bend Water Treatment Plant (2009).

Yes, after a treatment technology review and upgrades to the plant are completed.

The 1994 EPA Record of Decision and 2002 Consent Decree require a review of treatment technologies when the Critical Water Level (5,410 feet) is about four years away. The review will consider the plant’s ability to treat both Pit water and water coming from the Horseshoe Bend drainage to the north. Based on the review, the Treatment Plant will then be upgraded to best treat the water.

Upgrades must be completed two years before the critical level is reached. Projections show water levels at one of the compliance points connected to the Pit will near the critical level around 2023, so a treatment review would take place in 2019, with any needed upgrades completed by 2021, as indicated by the timeline below.

This timeline reflects project changes agreed to in the Consent Decree that governs Berkeley Pit management. The timeline is reviewed and adjusted by the Montana Bureau of Mines & Geology each year. Any future timeline changes will be reported in PitWatch and on the PitWatch website at www.pitwatch.org. Graphic by Justin Ringsak.
This timeline reflects project changes agreed to in the Consent Decree that governs Berkeley Pit management. The timeline is reviewed and adjusted by the Montana Bureau of Mines & Geology each year. Any future timeline changes will be reported in PitWatch and on the PitWatch website at www.pitwatch.org. Click on the image to view a larger version.

 

Berkeley Pit water quality has shown changes over time. It is regularly monitored by the Montana Bureau of Mines & Geology. The reddish color typically observed is due to high concentrations of iron solids. Photo by Justin Ringsak, 2009.

What’s in the Berkeley Pit water?

The water level at the Berkeley Pit has been recorded every month for more than 23 years. In addition to that monitoring, scientists at the Montana Bureau of Mines and Geology have been sampling and analyzing water from the Berkeley Pit twice a year for its chemical composition and physical properties.

Berkeley Pit Facts 2013. Graphic by Justin Ringsak.

In the Berkeley Pit, samples are taken from anywhere between three to nine different depths and analyzed for various dissolved chemicals.

Berkeley Pit water quality has shown changes over time. It is regularly monitored by the Montana Bureau of Mines & Geology. The reddish color typically observed is due to high concentrations of iron solids. Photo by Justin Ringsak, 2009.
Berkeley Pit water quality has shown changes over time. It is regularly monitored by the Montana Bureau of Mines & Geology. The reddish color typically observed is due to high concentrations of iron solids.

Water quality conditions, such as temperature, pH, specific conductance, and dissolved oxygen, are also measured at five- to ten-foot intervals from the surface to a depth of 600 feet. These same conditions are also measured at a depth near the Pit bottom.

In past years, the Berkeley Pit was a chemically layered system, which means that the chemistry of the water changed with depth. The brownish-red water at the surface was actually the least contaminated water in the pit, and the lower layer the worst water quality. The color changed as well, going from brownish-red on top to bluish-green at the bottom.

At a certain depth, the chemistry of the water changed so rapidly that it formed a chemical boundary scientists refer to as a chemocline. Water above the chemocline was chemically lighter, in other words, less dense, than the water below. The layering of the two waters is similar to oil floating on water. The water above the line was also less acidic (higher pH), with lower concentrations of metals.

A chemocline, or a difference in water chemistry depending on water depth, was seen in the Berkeley Pit prior to about 2011. Since that time, mixing of the water in the Pit lake has  caused the water chemistry to become more uniform. Graphic by Justin Ringsak.
A chemocline, or a difference in water chemistry depending on water depth, was seen in the Berkeley Pit prior to about 2012. Mixing of the water in the Pit lake over time has caused the water chemistry to become more uniform. Click on the image to view a larger version.

Due to mixing in the Berkeley Pit lake over time, this previously layered system disappeared around 2012, and the Pit water has since become more uniform.

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Elevations above sea level for Berkeley Pit water and surrouding Butte, Montana landmarks. Map image from Google Earth, graphic by Justin Ringsak.

Could the Berkeley Pit ever overflow?

The Berkeley Pit will never overflow. In 1994 the EPA established the Critical Water Level (the maximum level the water will be allowed to reach) at 5,410 feet above sea level, which is one hundred feet below the rim.

Elevations above sea level for Berkeley Pit water and surrouding Butte, Montana landmarks. Map image from Google Earth, graphic by Justin Ringsak.
Elevations above sea level for Berkeley Pit water and surrounding Butte, Montana landmarks. Image from Google Earth. Click on the image to view a larger version.

Water levels are regularly monitored at the Pit, in historic underground mines, and in wells surrounding the Pit. Failure to keep the water below 5,410 feet would result in steep fines for the companies responsible for the site, BP-ARCO and Montana Resources.

In addition to careful monitoring, the Horseshoe Bend Water Treatment Plant was constructed to make sure water in the Pit remains below 5,410 feet. Pit water will be pumped, treated, and discharged when the level nears the critical point.

Even if the water was allowed to rise unchecked, it would still never reach the rim. The groundwater flow would reverse direction and, instead of flowing toward the Pit, as it does now, the water would flow away from the Pit, underground into the sandy aquifer beneath Butte’s valley.

Due to the underground flow, Pit surface water would never reach the rim. Considering the federal orders, potential fines, and frequent monitoring, Pit water will not rise unchecked.