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Complete monitoring reports on the Berkeley Pit from the Montana Bureau of Mines & Geology (MBMG).

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The Berkeley Pit, Continental Fault, and the two wells that showed water level changes after a July 2005 earthquake.

Earthquakes did not affect Pit

The Berkeley Pit, Continental Fault, and the two wells that showed water level changes after a July 2005 earthquake.
The Berkeley Pit, Continental Fault, and the two wells that showed water level changes after a July 2005 earthquake.

A 5.6 magnitude earthquake centered near Dillon on July 25, 2005 did not affect the Berkeley Pit. There was no Pit wall sloughing or change in the water levels in the Berkeley Pit, the underground mine shafts, the alluvial aquifer wells, or the majority of the bedrock monitoring wells.

However, two bedrock monitoring wells (A&B) showed changes. Well A showed an initial water level decline of about one (1) foot after the earthquake, and the level stayed lower for a number of days before rising again. Well B, which is located in an area that wasn’t dewatered as extensively by historic mining activities as other portions of the bedrock aquifer had a 9-foot drop in water levels in the month following the earthquake. Recently, the water elevation in Well B is rising again.

One possible explanation for the lower water level in these wells is that the earthquake opened up existing fractures in the bedrock surrounding the wells. Water then flowed into these fractures until the bedrock adjacent to them became saturated. When that happened, the water levels began to rise again.

Since the July earthquake, there have been two additional quakes in the region, one of which was centered in the Butte Basin. Both of these other quakes were considerably smaller in magnitude, and no effects were noted in the Berkeley Pit or bedrock monitoring wells.

This aerial photo taken in 2001 shows the location of the Continental fault east of Butte, Montana. It has been monitored closely for 25 years and has not shown enough activity to prompt earthquake concerns.

Can the Pit Withstand an Earthquake?


PitWatch Issue Volume 10, Number 1

Tsunamis, volcanoes and earthquakes in recent months have created an increased interest in seismic activity. Many readers have written, called, or stopped by questioning what will happen to the Berkeley Pit if an earthquake occurs in Butte, Montana. To help answer these questions, local experts were asked to explain the likelihood of an earthquake and what effect it would have on the Berkeley Pit.

Probability of an Earthquake in Butte

This aerial photo taken in 2001 shows the location of the Continental fault east of Butte, Montana. It has been monitored closely for 25 years and has not shown enough activity to prompt earthquake concerns.
This aerial photo taken in 2001 shows the location of the Continental fault east of Butte, Montana. It has been monitored closely for 25 years and has not shown enough activity to prompt earthquake concerns.

Mike Stickney, Director of the Earthquake Studies Office at the Montana Bureau of Mines and Geology says that Butte is not likely to suffer a severe earthquake anytime soon. Large earthquakes are certainly possible in western Montana as demonstrated by the 1959 Hebgen Lake earthquake (magnitude 7.3), but are most likely to occur in the more seismically active regions located to the north, east, or southeast of Butte. The state of Montana is unlikely to experience earthquakes larger than the 1959 earthquake because the faults are not large enough to produce earthquakes greater than magnitude 7.5.

Stickney also explained that Butte has been monitored closely for seismic activity over the past 25 years. There has never been any significant seismic activity recorded that suggests the nearby faults to be active enough to cause a large earthquake. Most seismic activity that registers in the Butte area is caused by blasting at the open mine site, and very minor underground subsidence, especially near the old block caving zones under the Kelley Mine.

Effects of an Earthquake

Even assuming a worst-case earthquake scenario, the Berkeley Pit would not overflow. Experts suggest that there would be far more damage to buildings and other structures in Uptown Butte than would be caused by adverse impacts from the waters in the Berkeley Pit.

Studies show that the Yankee Doodle Tailings Pond dam would withstand at least a 6.5 magnitude quake. It can also be assumed from similar studies that such a quake could cause some sloughing on the pit walls, but the resulting movements would not discharge enough rock and materials to cause the water in the pit to overflow.

Sloughing and Landslides

Although earthquakes are not likely to be a problem, landslides and sloughing of the Pit could occur. The majority of the Berkeley Pit walls are made of “solid” bedrock. However, the southeast wall is composed of “loose”silts, sands and gravels, and this is the area where sloughing is most likely to occur, with or without a major earthquake.

In September 1998, about 1.3 million cubic yards of “loose” alluvium on the southeast wall sloughed into the Pit. This event caused a 3-foot rise in the water level and surface waves greater than 20 feet.

The water rise associated with any pit wall sloughing would ultimately depend on the volume of material that breaks free and displaces the water. But it should be noted there is enough space for more significant events. For example, there is more than 150 feet between the current Pit water level (5,252′ above sea level) and the Critical Water Level (5,410′), and there is another 100′ feet up to the rim of the Pit.

Summary

If an earthquake were to occur, the effects of seismic activity at the Berkeley Pit would be the least of Butte’s worries. Since a large earthquake is not likely anytime soon, and because landslides are relatively manageable, the public should not be overly concerned. There will probably continue to be some sloughing on the benches and old roads, but not enough to cause the Pit water to rise more than a few feet.

This image from the Montana Bureau of Mines & Geology illustrates the connections between historic underground mining tunnels and the Berkeley Pit. After groundwater pumping ceased in 1982, the tunnels, and eventually the Pit, began to fill with water.

Mine Resumption Affects Treatment Plant Operations

This image from the Montana Bureau of Mines & Geology illustrates the connections between historic underground mining tunnels and the Berkeley Pit. After groundwater pumping ceased in 1982, the tunnels, and eventually the Pit, began to fill with water.
This image from the Montana Bureau of Mines & Geology illustrates the connections between historic underground mining tunnels and the Berkeley Pit. After groundwater pumping ceased in 1982, the tunnels, and eventually the Pit, began to fill with water. Click on the image to view a larger version.

Since the last issue of PITWATCH, Montana Resources has decided to resume operations. With the mine going again and with the water treatment plant coming on line, there have been many questions from the community. Here are some answers to reader questions.

Q: How much total water went into the Berkeley Pit since the suspension of mining at Montana Resources?
A: About 7.5 billion gallons of water or an average of 6 mgd has gone into the Pit since MR suspended operations. An average of 3.4 mgd of this total was from the underground workings and storm water flow. An average of 2.6 mgd of this total was from the Horseshoe Bend discharge.

Q: How much water will go into the Pit once mining operations resume completely and the water treatment facility is operating?
A: The Horseshoe Bend drainage flow will be treated in the new treatment plant, and presently, this water will be entirely consumed in the mining operations. The remaining 3.4 mgd of flow from the underground workings and storm water flow will still flow into the Pit contributing to the rising level there. Eventually, when the water level approaches 5,410′ above sea level (expected about 2018), water will have to be pumped from the Berkeley Pit and treated at the Horseshoe Bend facility. Having the plant in place provides assurance that the capability is there when it becomes necessary to treat Pit water.

Q: Where will the treated water go?
A: Current plans are to treat the entire Horseshoe Bend drainage flow at the treatment plant, and then route all of the treated water to the concentrator for use in mine operations. As a result, and for as long as the treated water is used in the mining circuit, there will be no discharge off-site. In the event the mine was to suspend operations again, Horseshoe Bend drainage water would be treated to discharge standards at the plant. Then it would be transported by a pipeline, being constructed along the historic Silver Bow Creek channel (Metro Storm Drain), to its confluence with Blacktail Creek, just west of the Visitor’s Center on George Street in Butte, Montana.

Looking west from Rampart Mountain over the Yankee Doodle Tailings Pond, located north of the Berkeley Pit, in 2007.

Tailings covered to prevent blowing dust

The blue lines in the graphic indicate system in place during mine operations; these water lines were discontinued when the mine ceased operation.
The blue lines in the graphic indicate system in place during mine operations; these water lines were discontinued when the mine ceased operation.

Pitwatch Issue Volume 6, Number 2

The visibility of the recent blowing tailings events prompted numerous questions to the Committee. Although this topic is not directly related to Superfund and mine flooding issues, the Committee wanted to provide a brief update to readers.

When Montana Resources was operating, blowing dust was not a concern because water from the concentrator and the Horseshoe Bend diversion kept the tailings wet. When milling operations were suspended and the Horseshoe Bend flow was directed back to the Pit, the tailings began drying out. By October, Montana Resources had spread about 1.5 million tons of rock, approximately eighteen inches deep, to cover about 507 acres of the Yankee Doodle Tailings Pond north of the Berkeley Pit to keep the dust down.

The blue lines in the graphic on the right indicate system in place during mine operations; these water lines were discontinued when the mine ceased operation.

Montana Bureau of Mines & Geology

Bureau of Mines Publishes 15-year Report on Mine Flooding



PitWatch Issue Volume 3, Number 2

Montana Bureau of Mines & GeologyThe Montana Bureau of Mines and Geology has issued a 15-year report containing water-level data collected from all of the mine flooding monitoring points from 1982 to 1997. The comprehensive document also includes numerous graphs, maps, and historic photographs, plus explanations of the various areas that comprise the Butte Mine Flooding Superfund Site. To request a copy, call 496-4167. In 1999, the Bureau will release a companion report on water quality in these monitoring wells and shafts. Both reports will be updated annually.

Butte, Montana, mine flooding west camp wells, shafts and area of 1960s flooding. The west camp groundwater system is monitored and maintained separately from the Berkeley Pit and connected east camp mines.

High Water History

Butte, Montana, mine flooding west camp wells, shafts and area of 1960s flooding. The west camp groundwater system is monitored and maintained separately from the Berkeley Pit and connected east camp mines.
Butte, Montana, mine flooding west camp wells, shafts and area of 1960s flooding. The west camp groundwater system is monitored and maintained separately from the Berkeley Pit and connected east camp mines. Click on the image to view a larger version.

PitWatch Issue Volume 3, Number 2

When the Anaconda Company stopped pumping groundwater out of the West Camp in 1965, the water level in the Travona quickly climbed to over 5,500 feet. Water started seeping into basements in the area bounded by Iron Street in the north, Front Street in the south, Montana Street in the west, and Maryland Street in the east. Surface water seeps were also observed north of Centennial Avenue between Montana Street and Missoula Gulch. In response, what became known as “Relief Well No. 21” was installed close to the spot where today’s new main pump is located. Keeping the Travona water more than 70 feet lower than it was back in 1965 should ensure that this case of ‘high water history’ won’t repeat itself.