There are several reasons why we don’t need to be overly concerned about the Pit in the event of an earthquake, including the fact that there has been no significant seismic activity in nearby faults during the 28 years that the Earthquake Studies Office has been monitoring the area.
In the mining region, the recorded seismic activity is mainly caused by a few mining blasts per week, however, two landslides in the pit have been recorded in the last 28 years and a few very small, non-mining related earthquakes are recorded within Butte Silver-Bow county annually. Most seismic activity in Montana occurs outside of Silver-Bow County, and in the worst-case scenario, a large earthquake could cause landslides or sloughing in the Pit, but would not cause the Pit to overflow. Such an earthquake would cause considerably more damage to buildings and structures in the Uptown area than to the landscape or Pit.
According to the Earthquake Studies Office, there have been approximately 20 very small earthquakes within 25 km of Butte in the past year, ranging in magnitude from -.2 to 1.9. Nineteen of these were less than magnitude 1.0, and only 4 were located within Silver-Bow County. Three of these events were non-mining related events in Butte and were not large enough to be felt.
There have been no reports, past or present, of any earthquake damage to the Pit and the last earthquake greater than magnitude 1.0 in the area was a 2.8 on October 9, 2005, located 3.3 kilometers west-southwest of Butte along Silver Bow Creek.
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.
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
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.
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.