The fractured states of mining reclamation

  • HISTORIC SITE: Kennecott Copper's Bingham Canyon pit mine attracts 200,000 visitors a year

    Jon Christensen

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

When Jim Kuipers started accumulating information for his guide to Hardrock Reclamation Bonding Practices in the Western United States, he found a regulatory landscape as diverse as the region itself.

Though every state in the West requires mining companies to plan ahead for reclamation after they shut down, the specifics vary wildly.

The good

Montana and South Dakota are two states that have gotten tough on reclamation and bonding. Once an open door for any extractive industry, Montana has been repeatedly burned when mines shut down and slip back out the door. But today many people agree that Placer Dome's showcase Golden Sunlight mine reclamation program in western Montana is one of the best in the West. And the "good neighbor" agreement between Montana's Stillwater Mining Company and the Northern Plains Resource Council is a great example of a collaborative, community-based approach that will result in top-notch reclamation, says Kuipers, a mining engineer with the Center for Science in Public Participation (HCN, 7/31/00: Mining out the middleman). In both cases, it took litigation from activists to bring people to the table.

Still, hundreds of millions of dollars in cleanup and maintenance costs in the two states remain unfunded. Last year, South Dakota spent about $100,000 a month on water treatment at the Gilt Edge Mine in the Black Hills. Ten out of 13 major mines in Montana need similar water treatment or other long-term maintenance that isn't funded. Aimee Boulanger of the Mineral Policy Center says that acid mine drainage at Montana's Zortman-Landusky mine, just south of the Fort Belknap Indian Reservation, won't even peak for another 300 years, leaving that bond alone between $100 million and $300 million short.

The bad

On the other end of the spectrum, activists say Nevada and Arizona have lousy reclamation standards. "Bonding, for all intents and purposes, is nonexistent," Kuipers says.

Nevada requires only 25 percent of its low-ball bonds to be secured, and accepts a we-promise-to-clean-up corporate letter of guarantee for the rest. Arizona will take a corporate guarantee for the entire bond. Even if those letters of guarantee are good, and often they are not, Kuipers estimates Nevada's unbonded liability at nearly $500 million and Arizona's at $300 million, including several big Phelps Dodge copper mines.

Mine-friendly Nevada, with about 75 active mines, is a case study in how not to do it, according to Tom Myers, director of the Reno-based Great Basin Mine Watch. The state requires bonds only for mines built since 1989. Since early 1999, 10 companies owning 35 mines in Nevada have gone bankrupt, leaving almost 100 percent of the cleanup costs to the state, says Myers.

"The Yerington Mine (just east of Carson City) is an example of things that can go wrong without good bonding," says Myers. With an estimated reclamation cost of $60 million to $80 million, the mine recently folded with a $5,000 bond in place. That money was quickly spent on the pumpback system to keep toxic chemicals out of the water table, says Myers. Already, a plume of contaminated groundwater, with arsenic levels 7.5 times the current lax standard, is moving toward the town of Weed Heights and the Yerington Paiute Reservation.

The semi-ugly

Colorado's reclamation and bonding standards are much improved in the wake of the Summitville Mine disaster, but they still lag behind states like Montana. When Summitville's Canadian owners closed shop and went home in 1992, they left local taxpayers and the federal Superfund with a cleanup bill then approaching $170 million. The state accepts almost any kind of unsecured bond, and its general closure requirements usually don't protect water quality. The huge Climax molybdenum mine (another Phelps Dodge property) near Leadville has a water treatment plant, for instance, but no bond to cover the cost of running it. Unbonded cleanup costs at that mine might be as high as $450 million, says Kuipers.

Climax is producing almost no ore, but a skeleton crew remains on site because it's cheaper than starting the cleanup; Colorado allows mines to avoid reclamation if they operate for as little as a few months every five years.

Utah essentially has one mine - Kennecott Copper - but it's a big one. The Bingham Canyon mine is the largest in the country, with a pit so immense astronauts can see it from space with the naked eye. Kennecott is undertaking some progressive reclamation, closing out and reclaiming inactive parts of the mine as it goes, but it's off the hook for the lion's share. Utah's governor designated the pit a historic site, exempted from all reclamation requirements. Meanwhile, says Kuipers, "underneath is the world's largest plume of groundwater contamination - 20 miles in extent * which is not being addressed."

Where are the feds?

State laws are leading the way, but it's the federal government that should be setting the bar higher for reclamation and bonding standards, says the Mineral Policy Center's Boulanger.

The Clinton administration's Section 3809 regulations, approved shortly before George W. Bush took office, offered a glimmer of hope from the federal government. The regs were on a par with Nevada's standards and applied only to BLM lands, says Dan Randolph of the Mineral Policy Center. But they went further than any other federal program in setting minimum guidelines for hardrock mine reclamation. They also gave land managers the right to veto mines that would cause "substantial and irreparable harm" on Bureau of Land Management lands.

But the Bush administration announced this fall that it will replace the Clinton regulations with its own weaker rules on Dec. 31 (HCN, 11/19/01: Mining reform gets the shaft). The new rules keep a requirement for mining companies to post reclamation bonds, but activists say it is a hollow gesture. On Nov. 16, they sued the Interior Department to overturn the regulations, saying the most important environmental standards have been withdrawn.

"Are we absolutely determined to repeat the mistakes of the past?" asks Boulanger. "And if so, for who? It's no favor to local communities to allow mining without better accountability."

But until the federal government is willing to get serious about mining reform, states will continue to do the heavy lifting. Kuipers says that means activists need to keep their focus at the state level, pushing for stronger laws in places like Nevada and Arizona, and working with regulators to maximize the effect of existing regulations.

"I wish these changes could be made through collaboration," he says. "But I'm afraid in places like Nevada it's going to take lawsuits to bring everyone to the table."

Copyright © 2001 HCN and Ernest Atencio

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