Current Water Level:5,301.13 ft
Updated: 4.2.12

New PITWATCH website launches September 25, 2013!

2010 Berkeley Pit Posters
This educational poster series covers Berkeley Pit history and ongoing environmental management at the site. Posters are available free-of-charge for Clark Fork Basin educators and public organizations. Berkeley Pit PITWATCH poster sets (four, 18"x 24" individual glossy posters) for $25/set, plus $7 s&h. Interested parties should contact the Butte-Silver Bow Planning Department, where they can also be purchased, at 155 West Granite Street, phone 406-497-6251.To request posters, email info@pitwatch.org, or call (406) 496-4832.

A satellite view of the Berkeley Pit and surrounding area. 1955: The year it all began

For more stories from the current issue of PITWATCH, visit Berkeley Pit News & Notes. For answers to common questions visit the FAQ. For water level updates and monitoring information, visit Watching the Pit Water.

Over the active lifespan of the Berkeley, approximately 320 million tons of ore and over 700 million tons of waste rock were mined from the Pit. Put another way, "The Richest Hill on Earth" produced enough copper to pave a four-lane highway four inches thick from Butte to Salt Lake City and 30 miles beyond.

In 1955, mining in Butte saw the light, literally. Excavation on what would become the Berkeley Pit, named from one of several nearby historic underground mines that the Pit would later engulf, began that year in a transition from underground to open pit mining.

The Pit would, in the next decade, swallow Butte neighborhoods like Meaderville, Dublin Gulch, and McQueen. The transition to open pit mining, a highly industrialized form of mining, also meant fewer jobs for the city’s miners. But mining had always been the lifeblood of Butte, and so the community embraced the new mine, and there was little objection to the sacrifice of some of the city’s neighborhoods.

The Anaconda Company’s decision to begin open pit mining in Butte was not without its reasons. In 1955, copper prices were the highest they had been since the end of World War I in 1918. And the following year, 1956, would mark the highest copper price seen until 2006 (with the exception of the lone year 1974, when copper briefly spiked due to an end to price controls and the ongoing demands of the Vietnam War).

Those high prices gave the Company a big incentive to rethink its Butte operations. The most accessible parts of the Butte hill had already been mined out. Legend has it that Marcus Daly’s original ore vein was 30% copper. That is extraordinarily rich ore, and the veins of that quality could not last- as a point of comparison, when it opened, the ore mined at the Berkeley was about 0.75% copper, and the ore being mined at Montana Resources nearby Continental Pit operation today is approximately 0.25% copper. In order to economically extract copper from lower grade ore, the Pit was born.

Open pit mining is also much less hazardous for the miners themselves. Best guesses put the number of deaths in Butte’s underground mines, which operated for about a century from the 1860’s through 1976, at around 2,500, an average of about 25 deaths per year. Only six fatalities occurred over the life of the Berkeley, which was operated for 27 years from 1955 through 1982. The Continental Pit, which has been mined intermittently since 1980, has seen only one death. But steep, continuous declines in copper prices following the 1974 spike led to the eventual shut down of Berkeley operations in 1982.

Throughout the history of mining in Butte, pumps were used to dewater the underground mines and, later, the Berkeley Pit. On April 23, 1982, the Atlantic Richfield Corporation (ARCO, today owned by British Petroleum), the owners of the former Anaconda Company holdings, announced that they were suspending their Butte operations. Along with the announcement, the underground pumps in the Kelley Mine were shut down. The result: the underground mines and the Berkeley Pit began to fill with acidic water.

The great advantage of the Berkeley is that it acts as a terminal sink: all contaminated ground and surface waters from Butte’s East Camp flow to it and are captured in it. Since 1982, ARCO, Montana Resources, the EPA, the Montana Department of Environmental Quality and the local community have risen to the unique challenges of managing the Pit.

Historically, Butte’s resourcefulness made it a successful mining town that has far outlived the boom-and-bust cycle of many similar communities. That resourcefulness is today being applied in new ways in the many environmental restoration projects underway in the area, and in the management of the Berkeley Pit, all while mining continues successfully, and in ways that alleviate the impacts on the environment, just next door to the Berkeley at the Continental Pit. In fact, it can be said that mining continues today in the Berkeley Pit as Montana Resources is recovering the dissolved copper that exists in the water contained within the walls of the Pit.

Just as Butte transitioned from underground to open pit mining in 1955, today the community is in the midst of an exciting transition from a landscape scarred by mining to a landscape that is restored where possible and managed responsibly.

For more stories from the current issue of PITWATCH, go here.