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Mine-water discharge behind Montana Tech

The Orphan Boy and Orphan Girl mines are discharging hot water behind the Montana Tech campus, creating a small pond. The water levels in those mines has slowly been rising. Tech is now having to pump the water out.

Montana Tech is pumping hot water out of the two underground mine workings west of campus so it can continue to hold classes and museum tours below the earth’s surface.

Scott Rosenthal, mining engineering department chair, said that Tech paid around $2,000 for the pump to push the water out. The college is also footing the electricity bill to keep the pumps running, though Rosenthal didn’t know that cost.

He believes Atlantic Richfield Company and Montana Resources are responsible for the pumping.

Atlantic Richfield and Montana Resources say the companies responsible for the Berkeley Pit and Butte’s underground tunnels are accountable for the flow device that normally monitors the water.

The pumps are now enabling the five required classes for an undergraduate mining engineering degree to take place in the 100-foot level of the Orphan Boy. Rosenthal said two or three are usually held in the fall semester. Other departments also hold classes below ground.

Rosenthal estimated the classes are comprised of about 60 students this term. Classes started last week.

The World Museum of Mining could not conduct its tours at the next door Orphan Girl, another underground tunnel, called a drift, about 1,500 feet away, without the pumping.

Rosenthal said the Environmental Protection Agency held a "high-priority" meeting in August with the two companies to discuss the issue.

Because of the ongoing government shutdown, EPA could not be reached for comment.

Normally the water discharges out of the mine into an area called the green seep, which is south and west of Tech, close to interstates 15-90. The water can no longer travel to the green seep, so Tech is having to pump it out through a small black pipe, which travels through a remote area before forming two small ponds among snowdrifts south and west of Tech.

Rosenthal said the ponds are part of a drainage that joins the green seep.

Atlantic Richfield said via email that the company is required to track the flow of the water at the Orphan Girl and the green seep. Mark Thompson, MR vice president of environmental affairs, also said MR’s only obligation is to monitor the water levels at the Orphan Boy and Girl and the flow rate at the green seep.

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“We weren’t asked to fix it,” Thompson said.

Thompson said the two companies sent in a written plan to repair the flow device in December to the agencies. It appears that because of the government's 24-day shutdown, the repair plan may have gotten held up. The companies cannot get to work until EPA approves it.

Atlantic Richfield said it expects to have the repair work done in early 2019.

Darryl Reed, Department of Environmental Quality project manager, declined an interview with The Montana Standard but did answer some questions by email. He wrote that at the August meeting the agencies asked the companies to remove the vegetation hindering the device used to track the water’s levels.

Rosenthal said that when the vegetation is removed and the flow device is cleared, the problem should go away. 

"... that hopefully will aid in lowering water levels in both the Orphan Boy and Orphan Girl mines," Rosenthal said by email.

The problem began over the summer.

Rosenthal said a bulwark separates the Orphan Boy and Girl’s underground workings from other workings that drain into the Berkeley Pit, so the water isn’t connected to the pit. But like the water in all of Butte’s underground mines, the water in the two mines has been slowly rising over the years, according to a chart provided by the Montana Bureau of Mines and Geology.

Rosenthal said the hot water that is now congregating into two small ponds is of “stock water quality,” meaning it would be OK for a cow to drink it. A fine fog rises off the ground where the water gurgles out of the black pipe.

The area where the ponds have formed, perhaps less than a football field in length southwest of the museum, is currently deep in the midst of heavy snowdrifts. It is unlikely, at this point, that someone would encounter it.

But what is noticeable is the smell. A woman who was out walking her dog on New Year’s Eve found the black pipe, the spot where the water is coming out of the pipe and the ponds because of the overwhelming odor.

She said the stench of rotten eggs permeated the air.

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