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Berkeley Pit

The Berkeley Pit from a vantage point within Montana Resources' mining operation in 2015. MR does not need a permit to mine copper from the water during its pumping and treating process, expected to begin around the beginning of 2019. 

Montana Resources does not need a permit to remove copper from the Berkeley Pit water, according to a state official.

John Tubbs, director of the Department of Natural Resources and Conservation, told The Montana Standard Monday that after reviewing MR’s planned pilot project to begin pumping and treating Berkeley Pit water late this year or early next year, the agency has determined that the mining company does not need a permit to remove the copper.

The Butte mining company expects to recover around 100,000 pounds of copper a month from the pit water when the project begins. With today’s price of copper, which is $3.11 a pound, that would mean MR would gain approximately $311,000 a month from the extraction process should the price of copper remain at that level by next year.

MR declined to say how much the pilot project would cost MR and Atlantic Richfield Company. Both are the responsible parties for the pit's toxic water, which contains around 50 billion gallons of water contaminated by sulphuric acid and a host of metals. The Berkeley Pit was once a major open-pit copper mine. It closed down in 1982 and Atlantic Richfield turned off the pumps that were keeping groundwater from entering into the pit. The Berkeley Pit became a Superfund site in 1983.

Around 3,000 snow geese perished in the pit's toxic lake in late 2016 when the birds couldn't find open water to land on in Montana due to unusual weather patterns that fall. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service did not fine the companies for the birds' deaths.

Tubbs said that if extracting the mineral is part of a treatment process to discharge the water and meet water quality standards, then MR doesn’t need a water right.

“From a water-use perspective, there’s nothing in the pilot project that raised any concern,” Tubbs said. “You can do all of that (extracting the copper) without getting a water right.”

Tubbs said there are exceptions carved out for mine processes.

The question came up because The Montana Standard inquired a couple of years ago as to whether MR had the right to mine copper from the pit’s water when it did so for about 11 years, mostly through the 2000s.

MR did not have a permit to remove that copper. The mining company never made a secret of the fact and told The Standard in 2016 that they believed they did not need a permit during that previous mining process.

But when The Standard asked the question in 2016, the DNRC said MR should have had a permit for those 11 years of extraction.

Tubbs said Monday that that might not have been the case.

“It wasn’t clear what they were doing. If they’re using this water for dust abatement or to use in their crushers where it’s a beneficial use, as opposed to treating pit water and in the process extracting copper and selling it to defray the treatment cost, those are very different statements and one doesn’t need a water right,” he said.

The DNRC began considering whether MR would need a permit shortly after the Butte mining company announced in late February its new plan to pump and treat the toxic water in the Berkeley Pit. MR and Atlantic Richfield are five years ahead of schedule to begin pumping and treating the pit lake. So far, even the most vociferous critics of Butte's Superfund and the Berkeley Pit have called that good news.

Tubbs and other officials with the DNRC visited MR last week to get a tour and a demonstration of the complicated plan in order to make a decision on the permit issue.

MR and Atlantic Richfield plan to pump water out of the pit, extract the copper, then treat it at the Horseshoe Bend Water Treatment Plant. From there, the water will run through the mine’s milling process before getting pumped up to the Yankee Doodle Tailings Pond, where much of the muck settles out onto a “beach.” That leaves relatively clear water to pool into the northern portion of the pond.

Around 7 million gallons a day will simultaneously flow down from the clear water portion of the tailings impoundment to a polishing facility where the water will be put through a filtration system to ensure it meets water quality standards and doesn’t harden. Calcium, used as part of the treatment process, can cause a hardening problem if not handled right.

But both the Environmental Protection Agency and MR say that won't happen.

Joe Vranka, EPA Montana Superfund chief, told the Standard a few months ago that this new pilot project is not a tacit acknowledgement that Horseshoe Bend Water Treatment Plant could not treat Berkeley Pit water on its own.

"No, it's not," Vranka said by phone in early March. "It has to do with how they’re reconfiguring the water."

Horseshoe Bend Water Treatment Plant was built in the early 2000s and, since it was built, has been treating around 5 million gallons of water a day. That water comes from an area of the mine called Horseshoe Bend. Without the treatment process to capture it, treat it and send it through the mine's workings, the Horseshoe Bend water would flow into the Berkeley Pit and cause it to rise faster than it is.

The pit's water level currently increases about 7 feet per year. As of the beginning of May, the water is 5,346 feet above sea level, according to pitwatch.org. That places it at around 71 feet below the critical water level, which is the point at which the water had to be pumped and treated according to the original plan. That was originally set to begin in 2023.

Mark Thompson, MR's vice president of environmental affairs, said Monday that the pilot project is still on schedule and that MR and Atlantic Richfield are hoping to see “some discharge” to begin right around the beginning of 2019, with the full-scale pilot project operation to get off the ground sometime later in 2019.

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Nat'l Resources / General Reporter

Environmental and natural resources reporter for the Montana Standard.

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