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Berkeley Pit discharge point in Silver Bow Creek

The Berkeley Pit discharge point at Silver Bow Creek is shown. The water barely made a ripple early Monday morning.

The long-awaited Berkeley Pit discharge into Silver Bow Creek began Monday morning, which should keep the pit's water level at its current line of about 5,355 feet forever, mine officials say.

Despite the fact that Butte has been waiting for this historic moment for 36 years, the discharge began with zero fanfare. Atlantic Richfield Company turned off the groundwater pumps in the former open-pit copper mine on Earth Day in 1982. The Environmental Protection Agency added the pit to its National Priorities List the following year.

The two companies, Montana Resources and Atlantic Richfield Company, have been inching toward discharging the treated pit water with initial steps for months. MR originally announced the plan in the winter of 2018 and, at the time, said discharging would begin by early 2019.

Although it didn’t ramp up as quickly as MR initially anticipated, the two companies are still four years ahead of schedule of when the EPA set the discharge to flow out into the world. The federal agency determined the point of no return to be 2023.

This means that the EPA’s critical water level of 5,410 feet for the pit’s nearly one-square-mile lake of metals and acid will likely never be reached, said Mark Thompson, MR vice president for environmental affairs.

Gary Icopini, Montana Bureau of Mines and Geology hydrogeologist, said the current level of water, as of Sept. 3, was 5,355.67 feet. That was the last time he measured. The water rises about half a foot a month, on average, said Thompson. 

“It should hover around that 5,355 number,” Thompson said. “It shouldn’t ever get to the 5,410 number.”

But, the EPA said by email that the Berkeley Pit pilot project has been "conditionally approved." The pilot project is projected to run 3-to-4 years.

Atlantic Richfield, in response to its fear of a potential catastrophic dam failure behind MR's office, proposed a new water treatment plant that would lower the pit's water by as much as 150 feet. No decision on that has been announced yet. 

The news of the discharge was hailed as good by members of the community, although with the caveat that the preferred discharge point should be Texas Avenue.

Former Butte legislator Fritz Daily, who has been keeping his eye on the pit’s rise for decades and posts about it regularly on social media, called the news “a good thing.”

“The pit is the most serious issue facing this town,” he said by phone Monday.

But Daily said he is “extremely disappointed” the water is not being discharged at Texas Avenue, which would allow for upper Silver Bow Creek to be more than a drainage path for contaminated groundwater that flows off the Butte Hill during storms and spring season snow melt.

Daily allowed, however, that at this juncture, the water could not be sent down the straightened channel that lies from Texas Avenue to George Street at the confluence. In order for that to happen, the channel would have to be cleaned of contamination. New systems would have to already be in place on the Butte Hill to prevent contaminated groundwater from making its way there next spring. While the EPA's plan for the Butte Hill, presented last year, would control Butte's mostly copper-heavy groundwater as it travels down the "Richest Hill on Earth," there is still no concrete plan to turn that channel into an actual creek.

There is also the fact that the state still has to excavate more mine and smelter waste behind the Butte Civic Center next year. Workers are expected to begin digging that hole next to the drainage path, called upper Silver Bow Creek, next summer.

Despite the hurdles, others who hailed the news as positive still frowned at the idea that the water is not being used to establish a creek starting at Texas Avenue.

"I would prefer it to come out at Texas," John McKee, business owner and Butte Natural Resource Damage Council board member, said.

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But, McKee said the fact that the discharge has begun is still "100% awesome."

This is the first time in more than three decades that water has been released from the mine site. Thompson said MR has never discharged mine waste water. MR began mining copper and molybdenum, or "moly," in 1986.

The spaghetti junction treatment system is a complex web of pipes, pumps and pit stops that, ultimately, takes Berkeley Pit water to MR's Yankee Doodle tailings impoundment, then sends the relatively clear water from the north side of that pond to Atlantic Richfield's brand-new $19 million polishing plant. From there, the water goes out into Silver Bow Creek.

The system will have another added benefit of lowering the water in Yankee Doodle tailings impoundment, a giant storage space for mine waste for the last 56 years.

Thompson said about 3 million gallons of water a day are coming out of the pit. Michael Abendhoff, BP's Chicago-based spokesperson, said by email that currently 6 million gallons a day are coming out of the impoundment. But that will change "in the coming weeks," he wrote.

"Discharge rates will vary depending on MR's need for water to operate their mining activities and on local stream activities," Abendhoff wrote.

At a so far unspecified point in the future, the release of water into Silver Bow Creek is expected to range between 5.7 million gallons a day to 10 million gallons a day.

That means more water will be coming out of Yankee Doodle Tailings Impoundment, where MR sends its mining waste, than is coming into it.

The EPA gave its approval for the companies to release the flow last week, Abendhoff wrote in his email Monday. Tests showed that the treated water met the requirements previously established by the EPA and the state. The companies will have to continue to monitor. Thompson said the water is tested before it goes through the pipe to ensure it meets standards but in the future a monitoring station will be in place at the pipe's end point so the companies will be able to detect things like potential leaks. 

After The Montana Standard sent emails requesting comment, Abendhoff wrote that Atlantic Richfield is pleased to announce the work has begun. 

"Residents may see water cascading out of the concrete discharge structure located there," Abendhoff wrote.  

The EPA emailed to say Greg Sopkin, Region 8 administrator, is calling it a "milestone."

“This reflects the significant progress being made toward a final remedy for the Berkeley Pit water and the Silver Bow Creek watershed,” said EPA Regional Administrator Gregory Sopkin. “EPA’s approval initiates the pumping and treatment of water from the Pit for the first time in decades, and four years ahead of schedule.” 

Eric Hassler, county Superfund Operations Manager, called it "an historic moment," and said the county is pleased to see the Berkeley Pit Superfund remedy is "progressing forward." 

Northey Tretheway, Restore Our Creek Coalition spokesperson, said it "had to happen."

"It’s a step in a process," he said.  

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