The Berkeley Pit in Butte, Montana

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The Berkeley Pit was an open pit for copper mining located in Butte, Montana. It has a length of 1,600 meters and width of 800 meters with an estimated depth of 540 meters. The water in Berkeley Pit has an approximate depth of 270 meters and is highly acidic with a pH level of 2.5, about the same acid strength as lemon juice. The pit is contaminated with heavy metals and toxic chemicals including copper, arsenic, cadmium, zinc, and sulfuric acid.

The Berkeley Pit seen from a viewing platform.

The Anaconda Copper Mining Company opened the mine in 1955 until it was closed in 1982 on Earth Day. When the pit was closed, the adjacent water pumps in the Kelley Mine were turned off, and the Berkeley Pit was slowly getting filled with groundwater from the surrounding aquifers with a rate of about 1 feet per month. The water level in the pit has risen to about 46 meters of the natural water table since its closure.

The Berkeley Pit seen from a viewing platform.

The Berkeley Pit present a significant environmental problem because the water has dissolved oxygen allowing pyrite and sulfide minerals in the ore and wall rocks to decay making the water in the pit more acidic. If the pit water level reaches the natural water table, it will reverse flow back into surrounding groundwater and will pollute the nearby Silver Bow Creek which has a connection to the Columbia River. The Berkeley Pit’s water contains so much heavy metal that at one point, it is possible to mine copper directly from the water.

The Berkeley Pit seen from a viewing platform.

Around the 1990s, the first solution for the groundwater problem was planned. The Horseshoe Bend Water Treatment Plant diverted the water flowing into the pit to decrease the rate of rising water level. Water treatment facility was constructed in September 2018 to avoid contaminating the groundwater of Butte when the pit’s water level rises. The Berkeley Pit is considered to be one of the expensive project site.

Despite the environmental issue, the Berkeley Pit is currently a tourist spot with a nearby gift shop, and it charges a small fee to see the pit on a viewing platform.

The Berkeley Pit seen from a viewing platform.
The Berkeley Pit seen from a viewing platform.


Images property of Chromoscience.

Edwin Dobb. “New Life in a Death Trap”. Discover, 2000.


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