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.
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.
There are two reasons why the Pit will never overflow. First, the 1994 Record of Decision and 2002 Consent Decree established the maximum level that the water will be allowed to reach to make sure the Berkeley Pit is lowest point in the cone of depression (see center graphic). Wells to monitor water levels have been set up. Failure to keep the water below the 5410′ elevation would result in steep fines for BP/Atlantic Richfield and Montana Resources. Second, the Horseshoe Bend Water Treatment Plant is already in-place and operating. It has the capacity (7 Million Gallons per Day) to treat water from the Berkeley Pit, when it becomes necessary. This will ensure the water level remains below 5,410′.
The Horseshoe Bend Water Treatment Plant will empty the Berkeley Pit.
In the 1994 Record of Decision, the agencies decided that it would be unfeasible for the Potentially Responsible Parties (PRP’s) to ever completely empty the Berkeley Pit. The remedy selected for the Berkeley Pit is to treat all water inflows to maintain the level below 5,410′ above sea level.
Congress is cutting the national Superfund program and the operation of the Horseshoe Bend Water treatment Plant will be discontinued.
The ‘Butte Mine Flooding Superfund Site’ is the responsibility of BP/Atlantic Richfield and Montana Resources. Thus, the plant will not be affected by any changes to the EPA’s Superfund Program. The legally binding Consent Decree, which was signed by the responsible parties in 2002, established the financial commitment to operate and maintain the water treatment plant in perpetuity.