The guiding documents for Pit management require ongoing assessment and evaluation of the Horseshoe Bend Water Treatment Plant and the technology used to treat contaminated Pit water until several years prior to full-scale implementation. That implementation is required when water levels at any monitoring compliance point reach the Critical Level of 5,410 feet above sea level.
A review of treatment technologies is required 4 years before any compliance point is projected to reach the Critical Level. Current projections show that the Critical Level will be reached in 2023; therefore the technology review will start in 2017 and must be completed by 2019. AR and Montana Resources are already evaluating treatment alternatives, and this work will continue through 2017. This includes treatability studies and testing on the expected quantity and quality of contaminated water. Construction upgrades are scheduled for 2019 through 2021, with upgrades completed at least 2 years before the Critical Level is reached.
In 2010 EPA interviewed local citizens and reviewed the status of Butte area Superfund sites as part of a required five-year review (the full review report is available here). Five-year reviews determine whether remedies or other response actions are protective of human health and the environment in compliance with a site’s decision documents. Methods, findings, and conclusions are documented in five-year review reports that identify issues found and make recommendations to address them.
The 2010 review identified six main issues related to the Butte Mine Flooding Operable Unit (BMFOU), which includes the Berkeley Pit. All involved the performance of the Horseshoe Bend Water Treatment Plant, which was completed in 2003.
The plant currently treats contaminated surface water flowing in from the north. This water is diverted away from the Pit, slowing the rate of rise of the water. Eventually, when the water level at any compliance point reaches the Critical Level of 5,410 feet, the plant will pump-and-treat Pit water to keep levels below that critical point. A performance test was conducted at the plant in 2007, and that data was considered in the 2010 review.
All treated water is currently recycled to Montana Resources active mining operations and is not discharged to Silver Bow Creek or any other surface outlet, Consequently, EPA identified all issues in the review as potential future issues that do not effect the current protectiveness of the remedy. Montana Resources does not allow any water to discharge from the Berkeley Pit and active mine area.
Issue 1: pH
Water treated at the plant did not meet the final pH standard. pH measures the acidity of a liquid. The pH is purposely raised to over 10 in order for it to be used as operating water in Montana Resource’s mill. Discharge standards only apply when water is discharged to Silver Bow Creek.
Issue 2: Gypsum scaling
During the water treatment process, gypsum sometimes builds up, or ‘scales’, on the inside of tanks and pipes. This leads to a need for additional maintenance, as parts of the plant must be shut down for a short period each year so that crews can remove the build up. Measures to help manage and reduce scaling are being evaluated, and gypsum concentrations are monitored weekly.
Issue 3: Cadmium
Testing showed that treated water at times did not meet the standard for cadmium, a toxic metal. After adjustments were made to increase the pH, the standard for cadmium was met.
Issue 4: Test did not include treatment of Pit water
The 2007 performance test measured treated surface water from Horseshoe Bend. While this water is similarly contaminated, Pit water has higher concentrations of toxic metals and sulfate.
Issue 5: Scale Inhibitors used to control gypsum may effect metals removal
This issue is closely related to issue 2. To reduce gypsum scaling on critical pipelines and pumps, scale inhibitors are used. These chemical additions make it more difficult for gypsum to precipitate out of treated water and build up in the plant. Their effect on metals removal was a concern, but studies have shown no discernable effect of inhibitors on metals removal.
Issue 6: Whole Effluent Toxicity
Whole Effluent Toxicity (WET) is a measure of the total toxic effect from pollutants in treated wastewater on aquatic life. In 2010, WET testing had not yet been performed on treated water. Treated water is currently recycled in active mining operations, so it is no threat to aquatic life. Preliminary WET testing was completed during pilot testing using Horseshoe Bend water. Results showed the chronic exposure concentration with the lowest observable effect was 75% treated water mixed with 25% dilution water. More WET testing is planned.
EPA recommended that an additional performance test be completed prior to the 2015 five-year review to investigate all six of these issues and possible solutions.
EPA also noted that operations and maintenance at the plant are now more focused on preventative care, and operations in general have been optimized. After adjustments, treated water met all discharge standards with the exception of pH (issue 1).
In order to be protective in the long term, the various water quality issues in treated Pit water will have to be resolved before discharge to Silver Bow Creek becomes necessary. As long as Montana Resources continues active mining at the Continental Pit, no discharge is expected to occur.
Recommendations for additional performance testing will be addressed by treatability studies starting in 2016 and concluded by 2019, well before any discharge would potentially occur.
EPA determined that the ongoing remedy for the Pit is functioning as intended. When the water approaches the Critical Level, additional testing will help to further refine plant performance. The 2015 five-year review of Butte area Superfund sites will be published later in 2015, and will be available online here and on the EPA’s Butte Superfund website.
Interested citizens should contact EPA with any questions or comments regarding the 2010 or 2015 site reviews.
Over 31 years ago economic factors led the Atlantic-Richfield Corporation, or ARCO, now a subsidiary of British Petroleum, to cease mining operations at the Berkeley Pit in Butte, Montana. Underground mining had come to an end seven years earlier, but the underground pumps had continued to operate, pumping groundwater out from the mines and the Berkeley Pit.
The 1982 suspension of mining coincided with the stoppage of pumping, allowing groundwater to begin rising in the underground mines and eventually into the Berkeley Pit.
With ARCO’s suspension of mining in the neighboring East Berkeley Pit (now known as the Continental Pit) on July 1, 1983, the future of mining on the Butte Hill was uncertain at best.
Soon after, the Berkeley Pit was classified as a federal Superfund site by the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). According to the EPA, a Superfund site is an uncontrolled or abandoned place where hazardous waste is located, possibly affecting local ecosystems or people.
The end of mining at the Berkeley also marked the beginning of the Berkeley Pit lake we see today. 3,900 feet deep underground in the Kelley Mine , the pumps used to dewater the underground mines and the Berkeley Pit ran until April 23, 1982. Without pumping, the Berkeley Pit began to fill with water flowing in from both surface runoff and groundwater. Due to the natural geochemistry of the area and mining activities, the water is highly acidic and contains high concentrations of dissolved heavy metals.
By 1985, ARCO had sold a portion of its holdings to Montana businessman Dennis Washington. Mining operations in the Continental Pit, as well as heap leaching of old Berkeley Pit leach pads, were resumed by his new company, Montana Resources.
Over the active lifespan of the Berkeley, approximately 320 million tons of ore and over 700 million tons of waste rock were mined from the Pit. Put another way, “The Richest Hill on Earth” produced enough copper to pave a four-lane highway four inches thick from Butte to Salt Lake City and 30 miles beyond.
In 1955, mining in Butte saw the light, literally. Excavation on what would become the Berkeley Pit, named from one of several nearby historic underground mines that the Pit would later engulf, began that year in a transition from underground to open pit mining.
The Pit would, in the next decade, swallow Butte neighborhoods like Meaderville, Dublin Gulch, and McQueen. The transition to open pit mining, a highly industrialized form of mining, also meant fewer jobs for the city’s miners. But mining had always been the lifeblood of Butte, and so the community embraced the new mine, and there was little objection to the sacrifice of some of the city’s neighborhoods.
The Anaconda Company’s decision to begin open pit mining in Butte was not without its reasons. In 1955, copper prices were the highest they had been since the end of World War I in 1918. And the following year, 1956, would mark the highest copper price seen until 2006 (with the exception of the lone year 1974, when copper briefly spiked due to an end to price controls and the ongoing demands of the Vietnam War).
Those high prices gave the Company a big incentive to rethink its Butte operations. The most accessible parts of the Butte hill had already been mined out. Legend has it that Marcus Daly’s original ore vein was 30% copper. That is extraordinarily rich ore, and the veins of that quality could not last- as a point of comparison, when it opened, the ore mined at the Berkeley was about 0.75% copper, and the ore being mined at Montana Resources nearby Continental Pit operation today is approximately 0.25% copper. In order to economically extract copper from lower grade ore, the Pit was born.
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.
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.
The anatomy of the thousands of miles of tunnels beneath the Butte Hill is daunting to consider and little understood by many. Important details, such as the distinction between the “West Camp” and “East Camp”, can cause consternation for many a curious observer.
The West Camp lies southwest of the Berkeley Pit/East Camp drainage and includes the Travona, Emma, and Ophir mine workings. Just as in the East Camp, the groundwater in this area has been closely monitored since the suspension of pumping in 1982 to ensure that water levels do not rise high enough to significantly impact surrounding aquifers—in this case, 5,435 feet is the magic number.
Since November 1989, pumping operations have kept West Camp water below this level. In the late 1950s, the West Camp mine workings were sealed off from the rest of the shafts and drifts on the Butte Hill by a series of barriers, or bulkheads—some made of wood, some cement.
Three main cement bulkheads block the connections between the Emma in the West Camp and the Original mine in the East Camp at the 1,600-foot level, and between the Emma and Colorado mines at the 1,400- and 1,000-foot levels.
Anaconda Company crews originally installed the bulkheads for two main reasons: 1) there were no plans to continue mining in the West Camp, and 2) they wanted to increase the efficiency of continuing mining operations in the other underground mines of the East Camp and the Berkeley Pit.
The bulkheads allowed the company to eventually reduce the volume of both groundwater pumped out from underground shafts and the area underground that required fresh air to be pumped in. However, even after the bulkheads were installed, water was pumped out of the West Camp Emma shaft until 1965.
The facility was designed to treat up to seven million gallons per day, or about 5,000 gallons of water per minute. The facility cost approximately $18 million to build, and, depending on how much water is treated, operating expenses run about $2 million per year.
Once the Berkeley Pit water comes online, which is projected to happen in 2023, annual operation and maintenance costs could be as high as $4.5 million. Under the terms of the 2002 Consent Decree negotiated with the government, BP-ARCO and Montana Resources have agreed to provide financial assurances to pay operation and maintenance expenses in perpetuity. The two companies also paid all construction costs for the facility.
The actual construction of the treatment plant was a massive undertaking. It is estimated that workers put in 125,000 hours of total labor, and the facility also required more than 4,500 cubic yards of concrete.
The general construction contractor and subcontractors were all from Montana, with several from Butte, and, during the course of construction, they reported no safety incidents of any kind.
As per the schedule listed in the 1994 EPA Record of Decision and included in the 2002 Consent Decree, based upon current water level projections, a review of the Horseshoe Bend Water Treatment Plant design and operation would begin in 2019. Any necessary upgrades would have to be completed by 2021, two years before Pit water itself is currently projected to be pumped and treated in 2023.
In November, 2007, a performance review of the Horseshoe Bend plant was completed by Montana Resources, ARCO, and North American Water Systems, with cooperation from the Montana Bureau of Mines & Geology, the Department of Environmental Quality, and the EPA.
The performance test was undertaken to ensure that the treatment system is capable of meeting the water quality standards set in the Consent Decree for the site. For this test, only water from the Horseshoe Bend drainage was treated, as water from the Pit is not yet required to be pumped and treated at the plant.
The test began on November 18, 2007, and continued for 72 hours. All of the water quality standards for contaminants of concern were met. Additional adjustments still need to be made to address pH. For this test, the pH was kept at a high (basic or alkaline) level in order to effectively remove contaminants of concern and meet water quality standards.
The optimization of the plant in the future may result in a lower pH. Additionally, methods of adjusting the pH prior to discharge to Silver Bow Creek have been evaluated conceptually. Any method of adjusting the pH will be formally evaluated, if necessary, before any water from the plant is discharged to Silver Bow Creek.
After several highly publicized incidences of bird deaths at the Berkeley Pit, a popular myth arose: migratory waterfowl are instantly killed if they land on water in the Berkeley Pit. In fact, hundreds of waterfowl land on the surface of the Berkeley Pit every month during migration seasons, and they typically fly off unharmed within a few hours, either on their own or through Montana Resource’s hazing activities, also known as the waterfowl mitigation program.
The 2002 Consent Decree recognizes that “birds exposed to Berkeley Pit water for less than 4-6 hours should not be at substantial risk.” If a bird is observed suffering from the effects of water toxicity, it is netted and brought on board the houseboat used to patrol the Pit lake. The bird is placed in a 5-gallon bucket of fresh water and brought to shore. It is then transported to a veterinarian or released into fresh water at the north end of the Yankee Doodle Tailings Pond; tailings particles settle out on the south portion of the pond, leaving clear, alkaline (or non-acidic) water in the north end which mixes with snowmelt runoff from upper drainages, resulting in very low concentrations of dissolved metals.
In November 1995, a flock of snow geese landed on the Pit lake. After several days of stormy weather and fog, 342 birds were found dead. In response to this incident, the two responsible parties for the Pit under federal Superfund law, Montana Resources and British Petroleum-Atlantic Richfield, also known as BP-ARCO, implemented a waterfowl mitigation plan, which was approved by the EPA and other agencies in May 1998. This program is aimed at locating waterfowl in the area and then inciting the birds to fly away. An observation station was set up overlooking the Pit area. This station is an enclosed building equipped with spotting scopes and spotlights for night viewing to locate, count and identify species of waterfowl on the Pit lake.
Montana Resources’ personnel make hourly observations for birds during the spring and fall migrations, while the pit is not frozen, and cut back to 5-6 observations per day during non-migratory seasons. A variety of devices are used to chase birds off the water and out of the Pit. From the observation station near the southeast rim of the Berkeley Pit, Montana Resources’ personnel use rifles and shotguns to scare birds into the air.
In addition, three Phoenix Wailers – high-tech devices that emit predator and electronic sounds – are located near the surface of the Pit lake to discourage birds from landing. A 22-foot houseboat, docked near the pump barge, is used for periodic excursions on the water to haze waterfowl that ignore other warnings. Not all types of birds react to hazing. Typically, most ducks, geese and swans will react immediately to the noises. Diver birds such as grebes and loons tend to go underwater as a natural defense mechanism when they are alarmed.
Normally, if birds are not hazed or disturbed, they leave the Pit area at nightfall. If a dead bird is found on the water or near the Pit, then the US Fish and Wildlife Service is contacted. They decide if an autopsy is necessary.
From 1995 through 2004, 75 birds were found dead. The advances made to deter migrating waterfowl from landing on the water or staying on the Pit appear to be working. Thousands of birds land and are hazed off of the Pit each year.
Though many local authorities decided that the 1995 incident was isolated and not likely to happen again with the safeguards that are in place, in October 2007, 37 birds, including ducks, geese, and one swan, were found dead at the Pit after a weekend of fog. It is unclear why mitigation activities failed to haze these birds away from the site, although the weather was almost certainly a factor. As the mitigation program continues, all involved continue to work to keep such incidents to a minimum.
The chart below, from the 2011 EPA Five Year Review Report on the site, shows Pit-related bird deaths from 2006-2009.
When Montana Resources began operations in 1986 a number of these surface water sources were diverted away from the Pit, however, the Horseshoe Bend water continued to flow into the Pit until April 1996 when it was incorporated in Montana Resource’s mining operations for treatment and disposal in the Yankee Doodle Tailings Dam.
When Montana Resources suspended mining operations from 2000 through 2003, about 7.5 billion gallons of water, or an average of 6 million gallons per day, went into the Pit. Of this total, an average of 3.4 million gallons per day came from rising groundwater flows in the underground mine workings and surface stormwater flow. An average of 2.6 million gallons per day came from the Horseshoe Bend drainage. Montana Resources also diverted water from the Continental Pit into the Berkeley Pit for containment during their suspension.
Since the Horseshoe Bend Water Treatment Plant began operating in 2003, water flows from the Horseshoe Bend drainage have been diverted to the treatment plant. After treatment, this Horseshoe Bend water is entirely recycled or consumed in mining operations, or, in other words, no water is discharged off of the site.
About 2.6 million gallons per day from groundwater and stormwater still flow into the Pit, contributing to the rising level there. Eventually, when the water level approaches the Critical Level of 5,410 feet above sea level, water will be pumped from the Berkeley Pit and treated at the Horseshoe Bend facility. Present projections put this date around 2023. Having the plant in place provides assurance that the capability to manage Berkeley Pit water levels is there when it becomes necessary to treat Pit water.
The Atlantic Richfield Co., a subsidiary of British Petroleum (ARCO or BP-ARCO) which bought out the Anaconda Co. in 1977, and Montana Resources (MR), the company now mining in the Continental Pit adjacent to the east of the Berkeley, are responsible, along with four other entities affiliated with MR: Asarco, Inc.; AR Montana Corp.; MR Inc., and Dennis Washington. If they fail to pump and treat the water to keep levels below 5,410 feet, the U.S. government (EPA) can take over the project and charge these companies up to three times the project cost.