Can the Pit Withstand an Earthquake?


PitWatch Issue Volume 10, Number 1

Tsunamis, volcanoes and earthquakes in recent months have created an increased interest in seismic activity. Many readers have written, called, or stopped by questioning what will happen to the Berkeley Pit if an earthquake occurs in Butte, Montana. To help answer these questions, local experts were asked to explain the likelihood of an earthquake and what effect it would have on the Berkeley Pit.

Probability of an Earthquake in Butte

This aerial photo taken in 2001 shows the location of the Continental fault east of Butte, Montana. It has been monitored closely for 25 years and has not shown enough activity to prompt earthquake concerns.

This aerial photo taken in 2001 shows the location of the Continental fault east of Butte, Montana. It has been monitored closely for 25 years and has not shown enough activity to prompt earthquake concerns.

Mike Stickney, Director of the Earthquake Studies Office at the Montana Bureau of Mines and Geology says that Butte is not likely to suffer a severe earthquake anytime soon. Large earthquakes are certainly possible in western Montana as demonstrated by the 1959 Hebgen Lake earthquake (magnitude 7.3), but are most likely to occur in the more seismically active regions located to the north, east, or southeast of Butte. The state of Montana is unlikely to experience earthquakes larger than the 1959 earthquake because the faults are not large enough to produce earthquakes greater than magnitude 7.5.

Stickney also explained that Butte has been monitored closely for seismic activity over the past 25 years. There has never been any significant seismic activity recorded that suggests the nearby faults to be active enough to cause a large earthquake. Most seismic activity that registers in the Butte area is caused by blasting at the open mine site, and very minor underground subsidence, especially near the old block caving zones under the Kelley Mine.

Effects of an Earthquake

Even assuming a worst-case earthquake scenario, the Berkeley Pit would not overflow. Experts suggest that there would be far more damage to buildings and other structures in Uptown Butte than would be caused by adverse impacts from the waters in the Berkeley Pit.

Studies show that the Yankee Doodle Tailings Pond dam would withstand at least a 6.5 magnitude quake. It can also be assumed from similar studies that such a quake could cause some sloughing on the pit walls, but the resulting movements would not discharge enough rock and materials to cause the water in the pit to overflow.

Sloughing and Landslides

Although earthquakes are not likely to be a problem, landslides and sloughing of the Pit could occur. The majority of the Berkeley Pit walls are made of “solid” bedrock. However, the southeast wall is composed of “loose”silts, sands and gravels, and this is the area where sloughing is most likely to occur, with or without a major earthquake.

In September 1998, about 1.3 million cubic yards of “loose” alluvium on the southeast wall sloughed into the Pit. This event caused a 3-foot rise in the water level and surface waves greater than 20 feet.

The water rise associated with any pit wall sloughing would ultimately depend on the volume of material that breaks free and displaces the water. But it should be noted there is enough space for more significant events. For example, there is more than 150 feet between the current Pit water level (5,252′ above sea level) and the Critical Water Level (5,410′), and there is another 100′ feet up to the rim of the Pit.

Summary

If an earthquake were to occur, the effects of seismic activity at the Berkeley Pit would be the least of Butte’s worries. Since a large earthquake is not likely anytime soon, and because landslides are relatively manageable, the public should not be overly concerned. There will probably continue to be some sloughing on the benches and old roads, but not enough to cause the Pit water to rise more than a few feet.

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