PitWatch reader Coleen Christensen pointed out this blog from the Smithsonian about a possible use for acid mine drainage stream waters. Streams near the Berkeley Pit were similarly impacted during historic mining activities.
On February 8, 2013 material from the southeast wall of the Berkeley Pit collapsed into the Pit water in what is known as a rotational slump or slough. Such sloughs are relatively common in open pit mines. For example, a similar slough occurred at the Berkeley Pit in 1998.
The recent slough was about 550 feet wide and caused an estimated 820,000 tons of material to collapse into the Pit. Montana Bureau of Mines & Geology (MBMG) monitoring showed that the water level in the Pit lake rose about 0.6 feet as a result of the slough. For comparison, over the past several years the water in the Berkeley Pit has risen about 0.65 feet per month.
Current projections still estimate that water levels at one of the surrounding monitoring compliance points for the Berkeley Pit system will reach the Critical Level (5,410 feet) around 2023.
Pumping and treating of Berkeley Pit water will be required when water levels at any of these compliance points reach the Critical Water Level. Currently, the highest water level is in the Pilot Butte shaft to the north of the Pit. As of June 2013, the Berkeley Pit water level was 5,310.89 feet above sea level, and the water level in the Pilot Butte shaft was 5,335.72 feet above sea level, or about 75 feet below the critical level.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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 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.
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.