Montana Resources will begin treating water from the Berkeley Pit, perhaps as early as the end of this year — five years ahead of schedule, according to a Montana Resources official.
The original plan, agreed to almost 20 years ago by state and federal agencies and both Atlantic Richfield Company and Montana Resources, established that treatment of the toxic, metal-laden water in the Berkeley Pit would begin by 2023, when the water in the pit and Butte's flooded mine shafts was expected to reach critical level.
The pit, home to a former open pit copper mine, has been slowly filling with contaminated water since Atlantic Richfield turned the pumps off when the mine shut down in 1982. EPA declared it a Superfund site in 1983.
Critics of Butte’s Superfund, such as long-time Superfund watchdog Fritz Daily, have argued for years that 2023 was too late to begin pumping and treating the water.
Mark Thompson, Montana Resources' vice president for environmental affairs, told The Montana Standard Monday that MR and Atlantic Richfield will begin pumping and treating the pit’s toxic water by the end of this year or the beginning of 2019.
Lindy Hanson, deputy operations manager for Atlantic Richfield, said through an emailed statement that "the goal of the project is to slow down and even ultimately halt the rise of the water level in the Berkeley Pit."
Daily called the new plan “great news.” He feels it means MR has been paying attention to the community’s concerns.
“It appears we’ve been listened to, and I believe this comes mostly from Montana Resources. I say that because MR is a part of the community and the people who work there are a part of this community. I believe they initiated this process,” Daily said.
The Environmental Protection Agency concurred and said MR put forth the proposal.
The new system will mean that 3 million gallons of water per day will come out of the pit on the northwest side through an existing pumping station MR will rehabilitate. From there, the water will travel to MR’s precipitation plant, which uses iron to recover copper from the water.
The mine expects to recover 100,000 pounds of copper a month from the pit water, Thompson said.
From there, the 3 million gallons will flow to Horseshoe Bend Water Treatment plant to get treated, and then travel to the mill, where it will be used in the mill workings. After it gets used in the mill, it will be sent up to Yankee Doodle Tailings Pond, along with the rest of the mill’s waste water.
About 7 million gallons of clear water each day will, simultaneously, travel from the northern end of Yankee Doodle Tailings Pond to a new polishing plant, which will take even more copper from the water and neutralize the water's acidity.
Moving from the polishing plant to a discharge facility, the 7 million gallons of pond water will then be piped to a discharge point right at the confluence of upper Silver Bow Creek and Blacktail Creek.
Thompson said the clear water from the tailings pond is in pretty good shape. Beavers live in that edge of the pond. With filtration and adjusting the amount of acid in the water to bring it to a neutral condition, the pond’s water will meet the discharge standards set forth in the 2002 agreement on the pit’s water, according to Thompson.
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Montana Department of Environmental Quality said, through spokesperson Karen Ogden, that the agency can’t say for sure what the water quality is like that comes from the clear water portion of Yankee Doodle. MDEQ hasn’t had a chance yet to evaluate the water quality based on MR's latest findings.
“We can say the Yankee Doodle Tailings Pond … water is much less contaminated than … the Berkeley Pit water,” Ogden said.
EPA said, through a written response, that the agency will “ensure that any discharged water meets water quality standards.”
Thompson called the effort a “pilot project,” and said that, for now, it will run for 3 to 4 years. What happens after that, he's not sure.
“We don’t know yet, that’s why we’re testing,” he said.
To move forward like this, five years ahead of schedule, means that both companies will expend more money than anticipated on cleaning Berkeley Pit water. Thompson declined to give details on the cost.
EPA said it supports the project and sees it as “part of the effort to move faster on Superfund in Butte.” Since EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt became head of EPA last year, the agency has put renewed attention on Superfund. Pruitt added Butte, as well as Anaconda, to his Superfund "emphasis" list late last year to fast-track the cleanup work at both sites.
Sister Mary Jo McDonald, who has been a vocal critic of Butte’s Superfund cleanup, said she is “very pleased” with the ahead-of-schedule pumping and treating for the Berkeley Pit.
“My hope is they’ll begin that flow (of the discharge water) at Texas Avenue,” McDonald said.
EPA indicated, through an emailed response, that McDonald could get her wish.
“In the proposal, water that will be discharged is not slated to be used to create a creek during the pilot phase. That doesn’t exclude the discharged water from being used for purposes like this in the future,” EPA said.
McDonald is part of the Restore Our Creek Coalition, which has long advocated a free-flowing creek from Texas Avenue to George Street as a result of the Butte Hill cleanup.
Hanson said in her email that Atlantic Richfield is also "excited" about the project. She added that the pumping and treating of Berkeley Pit water will enable the companies to monitor groundwater around the site and that water treatment technologies will be tested later this year.
Thompson said there was one other reason MR wanted to speed up the process on treating Berkeley Pit water.
"For 30 years we've watched the pit control the groundwater," Thompson said. "It’s time we show we can control the pit."