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This photo from July 2013 shows the rim of the Berkeley Pit were a slough deposited surface material into the Pit lake in Feb. 2013. Photo by Fritz Daily.

Study details slope stability

The rate of rise of water levels in the Berkeley Pit and connected monitoring points is affected by many factors, including rain and snowfall and occasional ‘sloughs’ or ‘slumps’ of material from the Pit’s sidewall slopes.

The most recent slough occurred on February 8, 2013. An estimated 820,000 tons of material from the southeast wall collapsed into the Pit. Montana Bureau of Mines and Geology (MBMG) monitoring showed that the water rose about 0.6 feet as a result. For comparison, over the past several years the water has risen about 0.65 feet per month.

This photo from July 2013 shows the rim of the Berkeley Pit were a slough deposited surface material into the Pit lake in Feb. 2013. Photo by Fritz Daily.
This photo from July 2013 shows the rim of the Berkeley Pit were a slough deposited surface material into the Pit lake in Feb. 2013. Photo by Fritz Daily.

Sloughs or landslides are relatively common in open pit mines and can potentially raise water levels. To address the potential effects of future sloughs on the Pit’s rate of rise, EPA required the Potentially Responsible Parties (PRPs) for the site, Montana Resources and the Atlantic Richfield Company (AR), to study the stability of the slopes around the rim of the Berkeley. Publication of the final report on that study is expected later in 2015, and it will be published here on the PitWatch website.

EPA and the PRPs have stated that preliminary results indicate that the rising Pit water level will continue to increase the potential for slope failure, especially in the southeastern part of the Pit. Future sloughs are expected to occur in the absence of any stabilization or mitigation measures, but, based on past sloughs, are not expected to significantly affect the Pit management timeline.

Two much smaller landslides, which had no noticeable impact on the water level, occurred in August and November 2012. A larger landslide occurred in 1998. The November 2012 slide damaged the Montana Resources pontoon boat used for water quality sampling in the Pit. Following the 2013 slide, those sampling activities were suspended for the safety of the MBMG scientists who conduct the sampling.

Berkeley Pit awards for student science (2013)

Since 1997, the Berkeley Pit Public Education Committee has given awards at annual Montana Tech Science & Engineering Fairs to students with projects that explore topics related to the Berkeley Pit.

At the 2013 fair, five students received awards for Pit-related projects. Brian McGeehan from Butte Central received an award for his project, How Can We Clean Up the Berkeley Pit Water? Jacob Wheeling of Townsend was recognized for his project, To Drink or Not to Drink. Jordan Russell from Whittier Elementary in Butte was given an award for asking Could We Use Berkeley Pit Water to Irrigate Our Lawns? and Kellen Lean from Hillcrest Elementary in Butte was recognized for Contents of H2O.

At the high school level, Chelsea Anderson from Big Sky High School in Missoula earned the Berkeley award with her project, The Feasibility of Purifying Water in Ethiopia Using Low Cost and Easily Accessible Materials.

Many past winners have gone on to pursue careers in science and technology.

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.

Catching up with past Science Fair winners

And announcing our winners for 2009

Since 1997, the Berkeley Pit Education Committee has given awards to area students competing in annual Montana Tech Science and Engineering Fairs who use their projects to explore important topics related to the Berkeley Pit and mine waste cleanup technologies.

At the 2009 fair, three East Middle School students received awards for Pit-related projects: Jessica Robertson for her project on cementation, Katie Metesh for her project on geothermal heating, and Robin Gammons for her project on mining copper from Butte’s groundwater. Many past winners have gone on to pursue careers in science and technology.

Kels Phelps won his first Berkeley Pit awards in 2001 and 2002. Kels went on to win a Berkeley Pit award again in 2006 for his project on the metabolites produced by a microbe growing in the unique environment of Silver Bow Creek.Kels Phelps won his first Berkeley Pit awards in 2001 and 2002. Kels went on to win a Berkeley Pit award again in 2006 for his project on the metabolites produced by a microbe growing in the unique environment of Silver Bow Creek. His research involved isolating a compound produced by the microbe and analyzing its potential for medical applications. Kels was able determine the compound’s molecular structure, and found that it displayed activity in inhibiting enzyme reactions associated with various disorders such as multiple sclerosis, Huntington’s disease, and cancer metastasis.

A double-major in philosophy and religion at Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma, Washington, Kels is currently completing a semester studying abroad in Trinidad and Tobago. He feels that his experience doing research in the Butte area has served him well.

“The opportunities that I was able to take advantage of, specifically due to the Berkeley Pit and the Upper Clark Fork, provided excellent intellectual stimulation and helped me prepare for college.”

Emily Munday won Berkeley Pit awards in 2000 and 2003 for her projects studying mining’s impact on Silver Bow Creek using aquatic insects as bioindicators of stream health.Emily Munday won Berkeley Pit awards in 2000 and 2003 for her projects studying mining’s impact on Silver Bow Creek using aquatic insects as bioindicators of stream health. She delved deeper into Silver Bow Creek water quality by analyzing parameters such as pH; conductivity; copper concentrations in sediments, insects and water; and nutrient levels.

“I ultimately learned that copper mining has negative impacts on stream health, something that many Buttians know,” Emily stated when asked to reflect on her experience with the science fair. “However, I also learned that after remediation, Silver Bow Creek is recovering and can someday be very similar to what it was historically – before Butte’s mining days. If we continue to care for it, and locate and block or treat ongoing pollution sources like metals runoff from the hill and eutrophication from the waste water treatment plant, Silver Bow Creek will recover and be the trout fishery it once was.”

Emily currently attends Boston University, where she is busy earning a degree in marine science. As part of her studies, she traveled to Belize for a coral reef study. Last summer she interned with the Water Environment Federation at the national headquarters in Alexandria, Virginia, helping with the national Stockholm Junior Water Prize competition. This summer, she has a research grant to assess coral reef health in marine protected areas in the Caribbean. She also swims for the BU Terriers, which she describes as her “20-hour per week part-time job.”

“Studying impacted areas in my hometown and learning that there is hope for recovery made me want to use science to protect beautiful places. I am studying marine science because the ocean is an important source of biodiversity, food and oxygen production, and beauty. I want to help people learn about it so we can save it.”

Alexandra Antonioli was a recipient of a Berkeley Pit award in 2002 for her project investigating whether modification of a native Berkeley Pit microbe could be used to enhance the organism’s ability to bind heavy metals. Alexandra Antonioli was a recipient of a Berkeley Pit award in 2002 for her project investigating whether modification of a native Berkeley Pit microbe could be used to enhance the organism’s ability to bind heavy metals. Researchers at Ohio State University had modified an algal strain so that it could bind metals such as cadmium from contaminated soil. Alexandra’s goal was to insert the same gene used to modify the algae into a native Berkeley Pit yeast species. Initial results with the newly modified yeast were promising, but more research is needed to determine the full impact of the organism.

Alexandra graduated from Yale University in 2007 with a B.S. degree in Biophysics and Biochemistry. After graduating she worked full-time as a research assistant in Professor Scott Strobel’s laboratory for two years. Her research investigated an RNA structural motif called the K-turn in the Azoarcus group I intron. This type of advanced research involved structural biochemistry and crystallography.

In August 2009, Alexandra will enter the University of Colorado’s Medical Scientist Training Program where she will earn dual M.D. / Ph.D. degrees. She looks forward to being closer to Montana and is excited for a career in academia as a physician scientist.

“My interest in research started with science fair and the research with the Berkeley Pit. I was fortunate to find mentors like Professor Andrea Stierle and Professor Grant Mitman who encouraged and helped me gain valuable research skills. I think that their excitement about research helped inspire me to study science and continue with research throughout college.”

Today Alexandra considers the Berkeley Pit from a scientific perspective. “As a scientist, I view the Berkeley Pit as a place for exploration and discoveries. Andrea and Don Stierle’s lab has shown that numerous compounds can be isolated from Berkeley Pit waters that have potential antibiotic and anticancer properties. This type of research is extremely challenging because it may take years to isolate, develop, and characterize one compound. However, the rewards of finding a new compound with the drug potential to help thousands of lives are immeasurable.”

To describe her hometown to people in Boston, Emily still refers to the Berkeley Pit with a kind of stubborn pride. “I think that when it is cleaned up, we still need to remember what it looked like so we can use it as an example of how humans can change and destroy a landscape so we don’t make similar environmental mistakes in the future.”

Kels offers a similar view of the Pit, acknowledging the good and the bad. “I think that the Berkeley Pit is the result of some very serious mistakes, and I am a hearty proponent of efforts to contain the damage, and eventually try to restore it, in some way, to some semblance of naturality. I also find it very encouraging to know that, even from such a huge environmental crisis as this, there are positive discoveries that can be made. The compound isolated in my 2006 research doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface of the potential for novelty that lies in the Berkeley Pit. As long as we have to live with it, we must continue to use it in this way.”