Reclamation's mixed bag

  • STILL BLEEDING: Abandoned wastes from gold and silver mining leach acid and iron into Fisher Creek in Montana

    Montana Policy Center photo by Philip M. Hocker

Note: This article is a sidebar to this issue's feature story.

Take a chocolate chip cookie and extract most of the chips and maybe a few nuts, as carefully as you can. Then reassemble the cookie without its "ore" and see what you have. That gives you some idea of the challenge mine owners face when it's time to reclaim the lands they've mined.

Since it is only in the last decade or so that state laws have forced mines to clean up after themselves, mine reclamation hasn't yet produced many long-term successes or failures to learn from. Mines and mining impacts are varied and vastly complicated, and one thing everyone agrees on is that reclamation is not an exact science.

"Geologists like to say 'it's really dark down there,' " says Larry Winter, science advisor to New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson. "The main problem is uncertainty. We have to develop a process that takes into account that uncertainty, to recognize that not one size fits all."

"I have an appreciation for the difficulty of trying to figure out how to reclaim the land," says Aimee Boulanger of the Mineral Policy Center, "but while extraction is a fine science, putting it all back together hasn't had the same investment of time and money."

Even if a mine puts the pieces back together in some semblance of a natural landscape and plants the surface with some hearty vegetation, that won't stop the most insidious toxic consequences. Acid mine drainage and the chemicals used in extracting and processing ore can contaminate groundwater for centuries after a mine closes.

How to deal with groundwater contamination is the biggest area of dispute between activists and mining companies. One approach is to re-slope angle-of-repose waste dumps, backfill pits and cap the hundreds or thousands of acres of exposed toxic wastes. Some cover plans call for up to four feet of clay, non-acid-generating material and topsoil, a method that runs into big money. Mines will try anything to avoid it, and even mining activists say that the most ambitious covers are never entirely successful.

The other approach is water treatment in perpetuity: Capture all the contaminated water with interception wells, run it through a water treatment plant and reinject it into the ground. That's never 100 percent successful, either.

"We need to design and operate for closure, but what does closure mean?" asks Dirk Van Zyl of the University of Nevada School of Mines in Reno. "We are at a very steep learning curve on closure. In four or five years' time it could look completely different." He adds that mining companies are in a tough spot, because they often have to clean up messes made by previous owners or made before reclamation standards were put in place. "They're dealing with decisions made many, many years ago, but looking at them through modern glasses" of environmental sensibilities, he says.

If the focus of reclamation is on narrow criteria for restoring land, Van Zyl says, other economic opportunities can get overlooked. Instead of tearing down power lines on mine waste dumps in the Carlin, Nev., area, for instance, why not build wind farms and put those lines to use, he proposes. "It's strange that you'd build an industrial complex very advanced, then be expected at the end to tear it all down without any long-term benefit to the community. Is this the ultimate in a disposable society?"

Mining activists argue that communities will fare better with a restored landscape. Vigorous reclamation and bigger bonds mean more jobs after the mines close, though usually far fewer than during the extractive life of a mine. Harry Browne of the Gila Resources Information Project estimates that reclamation will translate into only around 100 full-time jobs at the Phelps Dodge Chino Mine, compared to 990 currently, and local governments will no longer reap the mineral taxes they have come to rely on. But the indirect economic benefits of a cleaner environment and diversified economy can make up the difference. A recent report from the Taos, N.M.-based nonprofit Amigos Bravos estimates between $671 million and $932 million in total economic benefits * both market and nonmarket - from $200 million worth of reclamation at the Molycorp mine near Questa.

Though there is little agreement about what reclamation should look like, activists, agency representatives and mine supporters agree on the risks of inadequate bonding. The public eventually pays for any reclamation costs that are not covered by a bond. That public cost usually includes impaired human health and pollution of groundwater, rivers and air that can last for years.

"We have to make sure we bond for everything," says Tom Myers, director of Great Basin Mine Watch in Reno. "Reclamation is more than putting lipstick on the corpse. We need to breathe some life back into the corpse."

Myers and other activists believe that bonds should be amortized over the life of a mine as part of the cost of doing business. Bonding companies charge 1/2 percent to 1 percent per year on the total bond amount, which in some cases could reach $7 million to $8 million per year. At this late stage in the life of many mines, such costs could affect mining companies' ability to stay in business, says Jim Kuipers.

"Do we want to bankrupt (mines)? Absolutely not," says Kuipers, a mining engineer who consults with environmental groups. "But it may be inevitable unless something's done to figure out how to pay for reclamation plans without weakening and compromising them. It's a Catch-22 -- asking the company to pay the full bill."


Copyright © 2001 HCN and Ernest Atencio

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