Mineral exploration and mining operators have taken big steps to reclaim part of their footprints as they work under state and federal regulations, and these days they may even use drones to improve reclamation of disturbed land.
“Overall, my impression is that mines are doing a really good job. They are doing better all the time,” said Brian Amme, deputy state U.S. Bureau of Land Management director for minerals, who recalled that 30 years ago companies were eager to get to the gold and reclaim later.
“Now, mines want to be good neighbors with their communities. They realize reclamation is a win-win for everyone,” he said. “They build the reclamation ethos into their business model. In my view, that’s great.”
Nevada Division of Minerals Administrator Richard Perry said times have changed.
Companies now track the number of acres disturbed versus the acres reclaimed and put more focus on concurrent reclamation,” he said.
Perry said planning for mines now is more “cradle-to-grave” for open pits, stockpiles and waste dumps than it was 20 years ago, which helps minimize surface disturbance and is more economic and environmentally sound.
More underground mining in Nevada also is reducing disturbance and makes reclamation simpler for companies, which must seal the portals and shafts and reclaim the surface work area but don’t have large waste-rock facilities, open pits or leach pads.
Perry said that in 1992, all gold mined in Nevada was from open-pit operations, with the first underground mine in modern day opening in 1993. Now, more than 30 percent of gold produced in Nevada comes from underground operations.
Todd Process, reclamation supervisor for the Nevada Division of Environmental Protection’s Bureau of Mining Regulation and Reclamation, said one of the biggest changes he has seen in his 17 years with the bureau is “that all parties consider in advance on the effectiveness of the reclamation methods and the cost of the mine’s closure before the new mine is even approved with a reclamation permit.”
He said there are “great models” for reclaiming heap leach sites, and drones are helping companies with the contouring of old leach pads and waste dumps by taking photographs to show the best shaping for a natural landscape.
There also are software applications so a bulldozer operator can following GPS instructions to contour a site being reclaimed to match the topography of the land.
“The dozer operator knows when to drop the blade,” Process said.
If mine operators design their reclamation efforts up front, they can save money down the road, said Joe Sawyer, chief of the Bureau of Mining Regulation and Reclamation.
There are 261 active permits for reclamation in Nevada on federal and private land, he said.
Susan Summer Elliott, manager of the minerals and geology program for the Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest, has seen an improvement in reclamation over the years “as we learn through on-the-ground experience what methods and seed mixes work best,” she said. “Our operators are also committed to a successful reclamation outcome.”
Nevada’s regulatory agencies work well with the BLM and Forest Service on reclamation and permitting under a memorandum of understanding to avoid duplicating efforts, Sawyer said.
Even if a project is all on federal land, all Nevada waters are under control of the state, so Nevada agencies are involved, Process said. NDEP looks at water quality, while the state Division of Water Resources looks at quantity.
He said the three goals of the MOU are to protect the state’s water, provide for public safety and provide productive post-mining multiple land use for the future.
The state’s mining regulation and reclamation programs have drawn the interest of other states and other countries in many parts of the world, and the Bureau of Mining Regulation and Reclamation caught more attention after creating a 300-plus page response to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s proposed hard-rock mining regulations, which were dropped on Dec. 1.
One of the NDEP’s policies is to involve the public in the permitting and reclamation process for exploration and mining projects.
“It’s very important that everything we do has to be publicly defendable so everything we do is open for public review,” Sawyer said.
Sawyer also said his bureau’s work is covered by fees charged to companies so there is no money taken from the state’s general fund.
John Hadder, director of Great Basin Resource Watch, said he has “seen some good reclamation around Nevada,” but he would still like to see more reclamation around open pits, and he continues to have concerns about pit lakes.
He said the state’s regulation covering mining-affected waters is a help because the state can require bonding for potential long-term impacts. Nevada enacted the regulation a few years ago.
Hadder said another concern is that there are a few older sites, including at active operations, that could have acid drainage from waste-rock dumps for years and years and require “treatment into perpetuity. We feel that needs to be addressed. They can’t be completely closed.”
Along with obtaining permits, companies must post bonds to cover reclamation of their proposed exploration projects and mines in case the companies fail, and the state or federal government must take over closure of a mine.
The bonds also provide the incentive for mining companies to do the reclamation work and receive a refund, Amme said.
All the bonds held by the BLM, Forest Service and the state combined total a little more than $2.7 billion for Nevada operations, said Sawyer.
Amme said mining companies and regulatory agencies these days “have really good tools for calculating bonds.”
Major companies handle their own bonding, but the state has a reclamation bond pool for smaller operations. The Nevada Division of Minerals oversees the bond pool, and Perry said the program is working well.
“This bond pool is intended to address reclamation bonds for exploration projects and small operations. There has been a lot of activity in new bonds posted for exploration projects in the state,” he said.
The division holds 84 reclamation bonds for notice-level projects, which are those covering 5 acres or fewer, and five for larger projects requiring a plan of operations.
“These bonds are at 100 percent of the cost of reclamation and can be issued in a day once the paperwork from the BLM or USFS is received,” Perry said.
Mining companies in Nevada are experienced in reclamation after years of operating in the state, and they now build reclamation into their project planning, according to a sampling of companies that are mainly gold producers.
“We’ve been doing this for a long time,” said Jeff White, director of rangelands for Newmont Mining Corp. and vice president of Newmont’s Elko Land and Livestock. “I can relate to the early part of my career when reclamation was administered by the environmental department and one or two guys. Now, it’s grown to an all-encompassing program” involving multiple departments.
He said Newmont is committed to a long-term legacy because the landscape created by reclamation will be there for thousands of years.
Newmont has been reclaiming sites in Nevada since the early 1990s, for a total of more than 9,300 acres reclaimed. Among the projects, Newmont closed, reclaimed and has collected reclamation bond refunds for its Deep Post, Post and Trinity operations.
Newmont has won 32 reclamation and sustainable development awards since 1993 in Nevada and Colorado. The total includes awards to companies or projects Newmont later acquired.
Barrick Gold Corp. has a policy of concurrent reclamation, said Brian Taylor, environmental project manager for Barrick Nevada. He manages the company’s Frenchy Flat Seed Farm on Barrick’s Dean Ranch north of the Cortez Mine at Crescent Valley. The Duckwater Indian Reservation is the contractor at the seed farm, which has been in operation since 2008 but just started producing sagebrush seedlings in the last year or so.
“So far, we’ve grown 75,000 sagebrush seedlings,” Taylor said, reporting 40,000 of the tiny plants were sent to Barrick’s Goldstrike Mine on the Carlin Trend, but all the seedlings are being used this year at Cortez.
Barrick is growing sagebrush in areas that were damaged by range fires in hopes of establishing the plants to replace cheatgrass that is a fire fuel.
Taylor said Barrick began collecting seeds when the Cortez Hills Mine was permitted, and there are seeds from 17 plant species at Frenchy Flat, including the sagebrush, Indian rice grass and mountain mahogany.
“It gives us a jump start on reclamation,” he said.
The seed work is all done outdoors now, but “we’re looking at putting a greenhouse out there for sagebrush seedlings,” Taylor said.
Barrick also manages sage-grouse mitigation projects on its Nevada ranches
Leslie Maple, manager of communications and corporate affairs for Barrick North America, said all of Barrick’s mining sites are in production so there are no stand-alone, finished reclamation sites, but “we’re always planning ahead of any dirt-moving.”
Kinross Gold Corp.’s Round Mountain Mine has been operating since 1977 in Nye County, and the mine is continually contouring its two, huge heap-leach pads so final reclamation will be easier when the leaching for gold ends.
The mine general manager, Dave Hendriks, said the slopes are shaped as they go, “but we won’t be done with the heaps until 2024-2025.” Then, topsoil can be put on the leach pads so they can be seeded.
Round Mountain is still mining at its Gold Hill site to the north that was started four years ago, and Hendriks said that “the waste dumps were constructed so we will be able to claim them very quickly. It’s more efficient to mine and shape as we go then at closure.”
Digital terrain models are used by bulldozer operators for the contouring, as well as for construction, and ramp-building. Hendriks said Round Mountain “always tries to take advantage of the latest technology.”
Round Mountain also has been reclaiming exploration drill pads since drilling began in the mid-1970s. Hendriks said all are reclaimed within a year.
An award-winning project Round Mountain is in the final years of reclaiming is the Manhattan mine near the historic Manhattan mining community. The site won the Hardrock Mineral Environmental Award from state and federal agencies in 2004.
At Kinross’ Bald Mountain Mine in White Pine County, concurrent reclamation has been completed on roughly 1,500 acres out of the about 6,500 acres disturbed by operations in the North Operations Area, where 10,200 acres of disturbance are permitted, according to Josh Roderick, environmental manager.
The reclamation covers waste-rock disposal areas, backfilling pits, haul roads and exploration roads.
“One of the primary motivating factors for Bald Mountain’s concurrent reclamation efforts is to reduce disturbance within, and adjacent to, the designated Area 10 mule deer migration corridor at the mine,” Roderick said.
The work on the corridor earned a 2017 Nevada Excellence in Mine Reclamation Award and Roderick said Bald Mountain plans to continue monitoring mule deer and doing reclamation to enhance migration opportunities for wildlife.
Klondex Mines Ltd. reclaims areas where the company doesn’t expect to go back for more exploration, and concurrent reclamation “is part of our mandate,” said Lucy Hill, environmental director. “It’s part of responsible mining in the modern day.”
There isn’t much reclamation at Klondex’s operating sites, however, because they are active mines and underground. The company operates the Fire Creek Mine in Lander County, and Midas and Hollister mines in Elko County.
Hill said that the company has reclaimed one exploration road and several drill pads at Fire Creek.
At Hollister, Klondex evacuated the mine three times this year as range fires threatened the site, and the company will reseed land with mixtures approved by the BLM and Western Shoshone, she said.
Hill said reclamation also is about weed mitigation within mine boundaries for health and safety reasons, whether they are noxious weeds or fire hazards.
“If we keep weeds down, it is allowing good plants to grow and is helping grow natural Nevada grasses,” Hill said. “We spray several times a year at all the mines.”
SSR Mining’s Marigold Mine at Valmy aims to “conduct reclamation whenever a facility becomes obsolete. Approximately 12 percent of the disturbed acres have been fully reclaimed,” said the mine general manager, Duane Peck. “To date approximately 450 acres of disturbance has been fully reclaimed.”
Rehabilitation of waste rock and tailings facilities provides a sustaining ecosystem using native species for revegetation. Deer, antelope and other wildlife in the area are often seen in the restored environment around the mine, he said.
“Whenever possible, Marigold uses the practice of partially or fully backfilling pits where future resource potential is limited,” Peck said. “Currently the 8 South Pit, the Target 2 Pit, Mackay Phase 3 Pit and the Basalt Pit are partially backfilled. The Antler Pit is fully backfilled.”
He said the decision to backfill and the timing is based on regulatory requirements, economics and resource potential.
The mine also is regrading heap-leach slopes but hasn’t yet reseeded them, and Marigold continues reclamation that includes decommissioning of structures and equipment, such as selling several tanks and processing mills and selling, recycling or donating retired mining equipment, Peck said.
Coeur Mining Inc.’s silver and gold Rochester Mine near Lovelock has reclaimed waste-rock dumps only to mine them again.
“Rochester has been mining since 1986, and with the price of silver up and down, we’ve had projects in full reclamation only to be mined again. When the price is up, waste can become ore,” said Dana Sue Kimbal, environmental manager for Rochester. “We’ll reclaim again.”
Rochester has an advantage over some mining operations because it is at a higher elevation and has plenty of water so revegetation of waste-rock facilities and heap leach pads goes well, Kimbal said.
“We also do concurrent reclamation. When you have the people and equipment, it’s a win-win,” she said. “We do it when we can, but we can’t always,” she said.
Rochester also does annual aerial surveys to look for golden eagle nests and sage grouse, although Kimbal said neither have been found in at least five years.
At the Packard site that is part of the Rochester Mine, the company reclaimed historic tailings in coordination with the NDEP in about 2007-2008. Kimbal said plans in the permitting stage for Rochester could include mining at Packard again.
Comstock Mining Inc. operates in the area of historic Virginia City so the company has a philosophy of providing leadership and working cooperatively with such partners as Storey and Lyon counties, the Nevada Division of Environmental Protection, the Nevada Department of Transportation, the State Historic Preservation Office and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
The mining company has been in the district since 2003, and Comstock’s director of external relations, Zach Spencer, said since then Comstock has reclaimed 18.9 acres within the Lucerne Mine area, planted 200 native shrubs, planted 25 native trees, seeded with five grass species, and contoured and prepared 11.1 acres for hydroseeding.
“The Lucerne Mine has 120 active mining acres permitted. We have mined 42 of the 120 acres,” Spencer said.
The company’s efforts to rebuild a state road in the historic Comstock Mining District was recognized with a 2017 Nevada Excellence in Mine Reclamation Award.