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The future site of the Berkeley Pit in Butte, Montana as it appeared in 1952.

1955-1982: Berkeley Pit history

The Berkeley Pit in 1963, shortly after the construction of the Weed Concentrator seen below the Pit, with the city of Butte, Montana to the bottom and right in the photo.
The Berkeley Pit in 1963, shortly after the construction of the Weed Concentrator seen below the Pit, with the city of Butte, Montana to the bottom and right in the photo.

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.

The historic Berkeley mine in Butte, Montana, where the Berkeley Pit started in 1955. Photo from the Butte-Silver Bow Archives.
The historic Berkeley mine in Butte, Montana, where the Berkeley Pit started in 1955.

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.

A street in Meaderville, one of the Butte neighborhoods destroyed to make way for Berkeley Pit expansion between 1955 and 1982. Photo from the Butte-Silver Bow Archives.
A street in Meaderville, one of the Butte neighborhoods destroyed to make way for Berkeley Pit expansion between 1955 and 1982.

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).

The Holy Savior church, along with several historic neighborhoods in Butte, Montana, was buried to make way for Berkeley Pit expansion. Photo from the Butte-Silver Bow Archives.
The Holy Savior church, along with several historic neighborhoods in Butte, Montana, was buried to make way for Berkeley Pit expansion.

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.
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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.

Water treatment plant working as expected

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.

Looking northeast from the Berkeley Pit viewing stand, visitors can see one of the most important components in the future management of the Pit: the Horseshoe Bend Water Treatment Plant. Sitting on four acres near the former McQueen neighborhood, about 600 feet east of the Berkeley Pit, the treatment plant was constructed in 2002-2003. It sits on native land that is very stable, and the plant was built to withstand the maximum probable earthquake.

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.