With Montana Resources’ new plan to pump and treat Berkeley Pit water later this year or early next year, the Restore Our Creek Coalition appears to be one step closer to its goal of having a meandering creek through Butte.
The Environmental Protection Agency Superfund Chief Joe Vranka told The Montana Standard Wednesday that “we got a ways to go” before the final elements of the Butte Hill Superfund cleanup are in place, but he said this new normal “provides a real opportunity” to try to meet the community group’s vision.
For now, the new plan MR made public earlier this week calls for the 7 million gallons of treated mine water to hit Silver Bow Creek at its confluence with Blacktail Creek at George Street by early next year at the latest. Atlantic Richfield Company, which is also responsible for the approximately 50 billion gallons of contaminated water in the pit, is on board with MR’s plan, as are the agencies.
The problem with the Restore Our Creek Coalition’s earlier vision of a meandering creek was where the water would come from, Vranka said.
Now that question appears to be – at least potentially – answered.
According to a report previously created by Montana Bureau of Mines and Geology director John Metesh for the Restore Our Creek Coalition, many of the potentially available water sources are owned by MR and are nearly infinitesimal, such as Yankee Doodle Creek, which at high flow comes in at 0.8 cubic feet per second.
One of the biggest potential water sources, according to the report, could come from Metro Sewer’s treated water. That flow would amount to nearly 8 cfs on a regular basis.
Silver Lake water, which travels through a pipe to MR’s operations, is another possibility, the report states. High flow from Silver Lake water could amount to as much as 28 cfs. Although MR has lowered their daily usage of Silver Lake water for the mine workings, how exactly Silver Lake water could be used for a creek, given MR’s agreements with the county to use the lake water, is at this stage still unclear.
Restore Our Creek Coalition spokesperson Northey Tretheway called MR's planned 11 cfs of treated water to begin flowing within about a year "a huge solution" to the local group's vision.
"This is a huge breakthrough. I think that until you cross the finish line, you shouldn’t be joyous about too much, but this is something that keeps our vision and hope for Butte alive," he said.
MR supports the idea.
“MR is supportive of the idea that (the mine's water) gets discharged at Texas Avenue (where Restore Our Creek wants the built creek to start). We hope at some point in the future that is possible. It’s important that that be made possible,” MR vice president for environmental affairs Mark Thompson told the Standard earlier this week.
Vranka said simply putting the mine’s cleaned up waste water into the current channel, which was built to be a drainage ditch, at Texas Avenue might not meet Restore Our Creek’s desired concept for a meandering creek.
“I wouldn’t think that would be the channel Restore Our Creek would want. That’s a straight stormwater ditch, not a meandering stream,” Vranka said by phone Wednesday.
Silver Bow Creek was cut off from its headwaters when the former mining operation, the Anaconda Company, dug the Berkeley Pit in 1955. The channel that currently runs from Texas Avenue to George Street is generally referred to as upper Silver Bow Creek, but only stormwater runs through it. It is also laden with contamination and was constructed to be a straight ditch.
Vranka said the EPA still has to keep in mind managing the contaminated stormwater that runs off the Richest Hill on Earth. He also said MR’s plan is, for now, “just a pilot project” that is scheduled to run for 2 to 4 years. But if this becomes the new normal, Vranka sounded hopeful that this newly available water can be the focal point to see Restore Our Creek's plan through.
“Right now, this (MR's plan) is just a pilot project. We’ve got cleanup work to do yet (on the Butte Hill). But I’m pretty optimistic it can all come together here at the end of the process,” Vranka said.
MR’s plan calls for a complex process, wherein the water will begin at the Berkeley Pit, get treated, run through the mine’s milling process, then be pumped up to Yankee Doodle Tailings Pond, where much of the muck settles out into a “beach.” Relatively clear water pools in the northern portion of the pond. It’s from that area that 7 million gallons will be sent to a polishing facility where the water will be put through a filtration system to ensure it meets water quality standards and doesn’t scale.
Scaling can occur due to calcium that's put into the water as part of the cleaning process. Too much calcium can create gypsum, which clogs things up.
Thompson previously told the Standard that MR has already been testing samples of treated water on Blacktail Creek, and the tests showed that the water wouldn’t scale.
Vranka said the EPA would ensure that the water does not scale before MR is ever allowed to begin discharging it.