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Water in the Berkeley Pit rising over time, 1979-2013. Photos from the Montana Bureau of Mines & Geology, Justin Ringsak, and Fritz Daily.

1982-2013: 31 years since pumps stopped

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.

Water in the Berkeley Pit rising, 1979-2013. Photos from the Montana Bureau of Mines & Geology, Justin Ringsak, and Fritz Daily.
Water in the Berkeley Pit rising, 1979-2013.

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.

EPA LogoSoon 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.

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.

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.

Berkeley Pit water quality has shown changes over time. It is regularly monitored by the Montana Bureau of Mines & Geology. The reddish color typically observed is due to high concentrations of iron solids. Photo by Justin Ringsak, 2009.

What’s in the Berkeley Pit water?

The water level at the Berkeley Pit has been recorded every month for more than 23 years. In addition to that monitoring, scientists at the Montana Bureau of Mines and Geology have been sampling and analyzing water from the Berkeley Pit twice a year for its chemical composition and physical properties.

Berkeley Pit Facts 2013. Graphic by Justin Ringsak.

In the Berkeley Pit, samples are taken from anywhere between three to nine different depths and analyzed for various dissolved chemicals.

Berkeley Pit water quality has shown changes over time. It is regularly monitored by the Montana Bureau of Mines & Geology. The reddish color typically observed is due to high concentrations of iron solids. Photo by Justin Ringsak, 2009.
Berkeley Pit water quality has shown changes over time. It is regularly monitored by the Montana Bureau of Mines & Geology. The reddish color typically observed is due to high concentrations of iron solids.

Water quality conditions, such as temperature, pH, specific conductance, and dissolved oxygen, are also measured at five- to ten-foot intervals from the surface to a depth of 600 feet. These same conditions are also measured at a depth near the Pit bottom.

In past years, the Berkeley Pit was a chemically layered system, which means that the chemistry of the water changed with depth. The brownish-red water at the surface was actually the least contaminated water in the pit, and the lower layer the worst water quality. The color changed as well, going from brownish-red on top to bluish-green at the bottom.

At a certain depth, the chemistry of the water changed so rapidly that it formed a chemical boundary scientists refer to as a chemocline. Water above the chemocline was chemically lighter, in other words, less dense, than the water below. The layering of the two waters is similar to oil floating on water. The water above the line was also less acidic (higher pH), with lower concentrations of metals.

A chemocline, or a difference in water chemistry depending on water depth, was seen in the Berkeley Pit prior to about 2011. Since that time, mixing of the water in the Pit lake has  caused the water chemistry to become more uniform. Graphic by Justin Ringsak.
A chemocline, or a difference in water chemistry depending on water depth, was seen in the Berkeley Pit prior to about 2012. Mixing of the water in the Pit lake over time has caused the water chemistry to become more uniform. Click on the image to view a larger version.

Due to mixing in the Berkeley Pit lake over time, this previously layered system disappeared around 2012, and the Pit water has since become more uniform.

Geothermal Project Heats Up

The 10,000 miles of underground tunnels beneath Butte have filled with water since the closure of the Berkeley Pit and, in 1982, the shut-off of groundwater pumps that had dewatered the underground in the past. These waters are typically regarded as a liability, but a new project at Montana Tech is viewing the watery mines of Butte as a potential asset.

American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 to develop a demonstration system for capturing geothermal energy from mine waters beneath Butte. The demonstration will involve the installation of a heat-pump system in Tech’s new Natural Resources Building. The system will provide geothermally-based climate control for the building, illustrating the feasibility of using mine waters in heat-pump systems.

The project utilizes some of the advantages of mine waters compared to other sources of groundwater. Easy access to mine waters already exists in the form of mine shafts, saving the costs of drilling wells. Butte mine waters are also unusually warm; the mine waters used in this project are consistently 78°F (25°C). Additionally, it takes a lot of water to fill 10,000 miles of tunnel, so there is plenty available for geothermal applications.

Estimates show that heating costs for the Natural Resources Building could be cut by more than half by preheating incoming air with mine waters. By reducing energy needs that would traditionally be met by burning fossil fuels, the project has the added benefit of promoting environmental sustainability by reducing emissions. The concept could also be extended to other regions where warm geothermal waters exist. In mining communities that lie in warmer climates than Butte, cooler mine waters could be used similarly, but for cooling rather than heating. The project is currently in its early phases. After a feasibility study is completed this year, if all goes as planned, construction could begin in 2011. If successful, the project could be applied to buildings throughout Butte.

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Irrigating with mine water

Post-mining redevelopment efforts in Butte rely on the availability of water to irrigate vegetation on reclaimed and capped areas. Water recovered from the Belmont mine and other parts of the flooded underground mine workings is a possible source of irrigation water that would reduce the stress on the city water supply, leaving more water in the Big Hole River.

Butte-Silver Bow recently received a grant from the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation to demonstrate a treatment system at the Belmont Mine on East Mercury Street to determine if it is cost-effective to treat mine water to meet irrigation standards. Following a trial irrigation conducted by MERDI in 2004, a pumping test and treatability study were performed by MSE under the federal Mine Waste Technology Program in 2007 to characterize the water at the Belmont. Results indicated that this water could meet irrigation standards with three unit operations: oxidation, pH adjustment, and solid/liquid separation.

The results of optimized treatment from the treatability tests met target irrigation levels. If the demonstration of the water treatment system and trial irrigation are successful this summer, beneficial reuse of water in the underground mine workings could become a reality and lead to a greener Butte.

Montana Tech geothermal project heats up

The 10,000 miles of underground tunnels beneath Butte have filled with water since the closure of the Berkeley Pit and, in 1982, the shut-off of groundwater pumps that had dewatered the underground in the past. These waters are typically regarded as a liability, but a new project at Montana Tech is viewing the watery mines of Butte as a potential asset.

Tech has been funded through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 to develop a demonstration system for capturing geothermal energy from mine waters beneath Butte. The demonstration will involve the installation of a heat-pump system in Tech’s new Natural Resources Building. The system will provide geothermally-based climate control for the building, illustrating the feasibility of using mine waters in heat-pump systems.

The project utilizes some of the advantages of mine waters compared to other sources of groundwater. Easy access to mine waters
already exists in the form of mine shafts, saving the costs of drilling wells. Butte mine waters are also unusually warm; the mine waters used in this project are consistently 78°F (25°C). Additionally, it takes a lot of water to fill 10,000 miles of tunnel, so there is plenty available for geothermal applications.

Estimates show that heating costs for the Natural Resources Building could be cut by more than half by preheating incoming air with mine waters. By reducing energy needs that would traditionally be met by burning fossil fuels, the project has the added benefit of promoting environmental sustainability by reducing emissions. The concept could also be extended to other regions where warm geothermal waters exist.In mining communities that lie in warmer climates than Butte, cooler mine waters could be used similarly, but for cooling rather than heating.

The project is currently in its early phases. After a feasibility study is completed this year, if all goes as planned, construction could begin in 2011. If successful, the project could be applied to buildings throughout Butte.

The Yankee Doodle Tailings Pond, part of the active Montana Resources mine that borders the Berkeley Pit, in 2008. Photo by Justin Ringsak.

Above the Pit: The Yankee Doodle Tailings Pond

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

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

North of the Berkeley Pit stands one of the largest earthen dams in the United States. The dam, constructed from waste rock mined out of the Berkeley Pit and, in more recent years, the Continental Pit, stands over 650 feet (200 meters) tall. It holds back the Yankee Doodle tailings impoundment, also known as the Yankee Doodle Tailings Pond. As part of active mining operations, Montana Resources pumps tailings and water to the Yankee Doodle Pond. Lime rock is also added, resulting in a non-acidic pH (above 7.0) tailings slurry, thus mitigating or avoiding the phenomenon of acid mine drainage.watch T2 Trainspotting 2017 film now

The Yankee Doodle Tailings Pond, part of the active Montana Resources mine that borders the Berkeley Pit, in 2008. Photo by Justin Ringsak.

The Yankee Doodle Tailings Pond, part of the active Montana Resources mine that borders the Berkeley Pit, in 2008.

Tailings particles settle out on the south portion of the ponds. Snowmelt runoff from upper drainages also mixes with the water at the north end of the pond. These factors result in clear water with an alkaline (or non-acidic) pH and very low concentrations of dissolved metals at the north end of the pond.

When mining operations were suspended from 2000 through 2003, water was no longer pumped to the Yankee Doodle site, and the tailings deposited there began to dry out. In response to concerns from the community over dust clouds blowing in the vicinity of the tailings pond, Montana Resources spread about 1.5 million tons of rock, approximately 18 inches deep, over about 506 aces at the tailings impoundment site to keep the dust down. Since the mine reopened, the tailings deposit has remained wet, resulting in no further instances of tailings-dust clouds on Butte’s northern horizon.

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.

West Camp also part of mine flooding site

A timeline of the history of the West Camp portion of the greater Butte, Montana Superfund site, which is monitored and managed separately from the Berkeley Pit and connected East Camp mines.
A timeline of the history of the West Camp portion of the greater Butte, Montana Superfund site, which is monitored and managed separately from the Berkeley Pit and connected East Camp mines. Click on the image to view a larger version.

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 Berkeley Pit and surrounding underground mine workings and bedrock wells are referred to as the “East Camp”, and are separate from the “West Camp”, which is located more to the south and west. The Camps essentially refer to two water systems. In the East Camp, surface and underground water flows to the lowest point in the system, namely, the Berkeley Pit. The West Camp, whose waters never reach the Berkeley, is another story.

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 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.