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This September 2014 photo from Google Earth shows the Berkeley Pit and the surrounding area.

Water level rising more slowly than originally projected

This September 2014 photo from Google Earth shows the Berkeley Pit and the surrounding area.
Click on the image to view a larger version.

Since the Berkeley Pit was designated as a Superfund site in the 1980s, things have gone largely as expected. In one instance the site remedy has proceeded at a faster pace than mandated in the 1994 Record of Decision (or ROD, available in its entirety here).

The ROD called for the water treatment plant for the Pit to be designed 8 years before the water level at any monitoring compliance point reached the Critical Level of 5,410 feet above sea level, and completed 4 years prior. In fact, the Horseshoe Bend Water Treatment Plant was completed in 2003, 20 years before water is expected to reach the Critical Level.

Water level modeling has also been accurate. The Pit water level has risen more slowly than originally predicted due to several factors, most notably the capture and treatment of contaminated surface water flowing in from Horseshoe Bend. This water is treated and reused in Montana Resources mining operations, with no water discharged offsite.

The 1994 ROD included projections that estimated that the water level in the Pit would be at 5,204 feet above sea level in 2000; 5,353 feet in 2010; and 5,417 feet in 2015. With a water level of just 5,326.01 feet recorded on August 5, 2015, the Pit water level is nearly 100 feet below early predictions.

The 1994 model also anticipated a rate of fill of about 5-6 million gallons per day. With surface inflow captured, treated, and reused, the average rate has been much lower, about 2.6 million gallons per day. The model currently used by the Bureau of Mines and Geology uses monitoring data to project the filling rate, and over the past 5 years the model’s projections have varied by only a few months.

Some surprises have occurred over the years. For example, the 1994 ROD projected that the water level in the Anselmo mineshaft would be the highest in the Pit system. That was the case until the past several years, when the water level in the Pilot Butte shaft overtook it. Since then the highest water level is typically recorded at the Pilot Butte mine, which was at 5,351.11 as of August 5, 2015.

At 58.89 feet below the Critical Level, it is likely that the Pilot Butte water will hit the critical point first, triggering full implementation of the Horseshoe Bend Water Treatment Plant. This is currently projected to happen in July 2023, a few months later than projected in the last edition of Pit Watch in 2013.

Monitoring compliance points in the Berkeley Pit groundwater system

What is being done to manage the Berkeley Pit now?

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.

Water from the Horseshoe Bend drainage is diverted before reaching the Pit and treated in the Horseshoe Bend Water Treatment Plant for use in mining operations. In 2012, the plant treated about 5 million gallons of water per day. Sludge from the treatment process was returned to the Pit at a rate of 491,000 gallons per day. No water or waste leaves the Pit or mine site.

Water levels in the Pit, wells and mine shafts are monitored monthly. An evaluation of the rate of fill is performed each year to determine dates for future reviews and plant upgrades.

Berkeley Pit groundwater monitoring locations and water levels, including wells and abandoned mine shafts, June 2013. Graphic by Justin Ringsak.
Berkeley Pit groundwater monitoring locations and water levels, including wells and abandoned mine shafts, June 2013. Click on the image to view a larger version.
Monitoring compliance points in the Berkeley Pit groundwater system
Monitoring compliance points in the Berkeley Pit groundwater system. The water level a each point is monitored monthly by the Montana Bureau of Mines & Geology. When the water at any compliance point reaches the Critical Level (5,410 feet above sea level), pumping and treating of Berkeley Pit water will begin to prevent contaminated water in the Pit and groundwater system from spreading outward. Click on the image to view a larger version.

 

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Elevations above sea level for Berkeley Pit water and surrouding Butte, Montana landmarks. Map image from Google Earth, graphic by Justin Ringsak.

Could the Berkeley Pit ever overflow?

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.

Elevations above sea level for Berkeley Pit water and surrouding Butte, Montana landmarks. Map image from Google Earth, graphic by Justin Ringsak.
Elevations above sea level for Berkeley Pit water and surrounding Butte, Montana landmarks. Image from Google Earth. Click on the image to view a larger version.

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.

How is the Horseshoe Bend Water Treatment Plant operating?

The plant treats about 3.4 million gallons of water per day. This water currently comes from the Horseshoe Bend drainage. Treated water is used in Montana Resources mining operations.

Sludge from the treatment process is returned to the Pit at a rate of 250,000 gallons per day. No water or waste leaves the Berkeley Pit or mine site.

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.

43 billion gallons and counting: Where does it come from?

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

When ARCO suspended underground pumping operations in 1982, groundwater levels on the Butte Hill began to rise. Nineteen months later the water level in the underground workings and surrounding bedrock reached the bottom of the Pit, allowing bedrock groundwater to start filling the Pit void.

The Berkeley Pit in 1982. The water seen here is surface runoff flowing into the Leonard mine shaft to the right at the Pit bottom.
The Berkeley Pit in 1982. The water seen here is surface runoff flowing into the Leonard mine shaft to the right at the Pit bottom.

Prior to that time alluvial groundwater seeped into the Pit from the east and south walls, beginning to fill the Pit lake. ARCO also diverted water from its mining operations (leach pad water, Continental Pit, Horseshoe Bend, etc.) into the Pit following the 1983 shutdown of their entire Butte operations.

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.

This 2006 image from the NASA Earth Observatory shows the Berkeley Pit and surrounding area after the construction of the Horseshoe Bend Water Treatment Plant and after the resumption of mining at the Continental Pit.
This 2006 image from the NASA Earth Observatory shows the Berkeley Pit and surrounding area after the construction of the Horseshoe Bend Water Treatment Plant and after the resumption of mining at the Continental Pit.
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.

Mine Resumption Affects Treatment Plant Operations

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. Click on the image to view a larger version.

Since the last issue of PITWATCH, Montana Resources has decided to resume operations. With the mine going again and with the water treatment plant coming on line, there have been many questions from the community. Here are some answers to reader questions.

Q: How much total water went into the Berkeley Pit since the suspension of mining at Montana Resources?
A: About 7.5 billion gallons of water or an average of 6 mgd has gone into the Pit since MR suspended operations. An average of 3.4 mgd of this total was from the underground workings and storm water flow. An average of 2.6 mgd of this total was from the Horseshoe Bend discharge.

Q: How much water will go into the Pit once mining operations resume completely and the water treatment facility is operating?
A: The Horseshoe Bend drainage flow will be treated in the new treatment plant, and presently, this water will be entirely consumed in the mining operations. The remaining 3.4 mgd of flow from the underground workings and storm water flow will still flow into the Pit contributing to the rising level there. Eventually, when the water level approaches 5,410′ above sea level (expected about 2018), water will have to be pumped from the Berkeley Pit and treated at the Horseshoe Bend facility. Having the plant in place provides assurance that the capability is there when it becomes necessary to treat Pit water.

Q: Where will the treated water go?
A: Current plans are to treat the entire Horseshoe Bend drainage flow at the treatment plant, and then route all of the treated water to the concentrator for use in mine operations. As a result, and for as long as the treated water is used in the mining circuit, there will be no discharge off-site. In the event the mine was to suspend operations again, Horseshoe Bend drainage water would be treated to discharge standards at the plant. Then it would be transported by a pipeline, being constructed along the historic Silver Bow Creek channel (Metro Storm Drain), to its confluence with Blacktail Creek, just west of the Visitor’s Center on George Street in Butte, Montana.