Skyrocketing electricity prices in Montana are indirectly raising the level of Butte's Berkeley Pit, a 900-foot-deep, 30 billion-gallon soup of acid-mine runoff that ranks as the nation's largest Superfund site.
In mid-July, copper-mining company Montana Resources suddenly halted its Butte operations, blaming high electrical rates for the shutdown. During normal operations, the mine is obligated to treat and recycle surface water from Butte's network of abandoned mines. The halt in operations allows untreated run-off from the highly acidic mine to flow directly into the pit at a rate of 4 to 5 million gallons per day - a 100 percent increase in overall daily flow.
Russ Forba, project director for the Environmental Protection Agency office in Helena, says this significantly changes the cleanup plan for the Berkeley Pit. If the acidic flow continues, he says, the existing 2021 cleanup deadline would be moved up to 2011.
Forba also says Montana Resources must resume mining or submit new plans for its wastewater to the EPA by Jan. 1. Because treating mine runoff costs more than mining, company spokesman Steve Walsh expects Montana Resources to restart its operations before the deadline. A treatment plant would cost an estimated $15 million to build, and $3 to $4 million to operate each year, he says.
No matter what happens this fall, says Jim Jensen, executive director of the Montana Environmental Information Center in Helena, the EPA and Montana Resources will eventually "have to face the reality of treating the water in the pit. The fact that less water flows when (Montana Resources) is mining only postpones the inevitable."
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