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Mine reclamation heals past, preserves future
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ENVIRONMENT

Mine reclamation heals past, preserves future

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Waste rock piled high from historical mining just off of Highway 50 used to be an eyesore and potential source of contamination to the community of Ely.

Yet through the initiative of the mine’s current operator that went beyond state requirements, the site has been reclaimed.

As metal prices remain high, Nevada is seeing an uptick in mine and exploration projects for minerals including gold, silver, copper and lithium. The state issued 261 reclamation permits in the first quarter of 2021, up 10 from the previous quarter.

State law requires every one of those projects to reclaim any disturbed land when operations cease. Reclamation means returning the land to conditions as good or better than before operations began. Some companies save reclamation until closure, and others restore the land as they go. Some take on environmental issues from the past.

In the case of the Robinson Mine in White Pine County, various operators over a more than 100-year mining history left behind features that would not pass under modern-day regulations. The Lane City Waste Rock Facility was one such legacy feature, and it had the potential to contaminate groundwater while disrupting the view.

Today, Poland-based company KGHM International mines Robinson for copper and other metals. When KGHM bought the mine in 2012, it took on responsibility for environmental reclamation at closure in accordance with the state’s regulations. The company’s current plan of operation extends through 2028.

But Frederick Partey, environmental projects manager at KGHM Robinson, encouraged the company to take remedial action right away.

“They had the right to postpone the reclamation — kick it down the road,” he said. “[KGHM] didn’t want to wait until it becomes worse.”

So the operator re-graded slopes then covered the surfaces with new soil and seed. The limestone cap helped reduce the rock’s acid-generating potential, and the seeds re-established vegetation. Workers also constructed ponds and rip-raps to drain sediment away from a creek.

“I think KGHM has done a great job with their waste rock dump reclamation,” said Ely Mayor Nathan Robertson. “The one I pass the most is along Highway 50 there in Robinson Canyon right around Lane City. They did a nice job with contouring and drainage, and the vegetation is starting to come back.”

Robertson grew up in the Ely area and remembers “a lot of very old and unsightly waste dumps,” he said. “Over the years, the improvement has been very noticeable.”

Reclamation awards

The state of Nevada noticed the waste rock facility reclamation, too.

KGHM Robinson won a 2020 Excellence in Mine Reclamation Award for Legacy Rock Reclamation for the project. The previous year, KGHM was recognized for reclamation of about a dozen old heap-leach sites.

“The reason it is an exemplary example was that it was a new operator going onto a historic mine site that had a lot of historic issues,” said Todd Process, reclamation branch supervisor for the Nevada Department of Environmental Protection’s Mining Regulation and Reclamation Bureau. “[KGHM Robinson] has gone above and beyond and exceeded in addressing these historic areas at the mine site and reclaiming areas that they were not even responsible to reclaim.”

The state of Nevada recognizes mine operators and explorers for exemplary reclamation projects through the Excellence in Mine Reclamation Awards. The goal of the awards program is “to encourage operators and explorers to submit reclamation projects which raise industry standards, increase public awareness of the positive aspects of mining and encourage innovation in reclamation techniques,” according to the Nevada Division of Minerals.

This year marks the 30th year of the Nevada Excellence in Mine Reclamation Awards with 99 projects recognized since 1991. Companies recognized over time include Nevada Gold Mines, Barrick Gold Corp. Newmont Corp., Coeur Rochester Inc., and Lithium Nevada Corp., among others.

This year's winners will be recognized during the Nevada Mining Association’s annual convention in September.

Another winner in 2020 was Hudbay Minerals’ Mason Exploration Project in Lyon County. Subsidiary Mason Resources is permitted to disturb up to 50 acres of public land protected by phased bonding, but state inspectors allowed 10.2 acres to be released from obligation after an inspection showed completed reclamation.

Reclamation at the copper exploration site included earthwork on exploration roads and pads, and revegetation with native seed mix. Before that bond release, the project reported a total disturbance of 24.5 acres, and the release represented a 42 percent reduction in surface disturbance through concurrent reclamation.

“For Hudbay, modern mining begins with the end in mind, which is one of the reasons we chose to concurrently reclaim land during the exploration phase for Mason. Through concurrent reclamation we can yield quicker revegetation, and reduce the disturbed land present during each phase of the project,” said Andre Lauzon, vice president of Hudbay Minerals. “We are committed to being good stewards of the land. By working with our neighbors, local tribes and the community we can ensure our operations provide the mineral resources our society needs in a manner that protects the environment and mitigates environmental risks through utilizing the latest technology and best practices to rehabilitate the land we impact.”

Despite the program’s tenure, awards have not been bestowed every year. No awards were given in 1998 or 2013.

That’s partly because to receive the award, the deciding members of a committee must unanimously agree that a project exhibits excellent mitigation of the environmental impacts of the minerals industry and demonstrates work efforts that go beyond what is mandated.

The committee is made up of representatives from the Nevada Department of Environmental Protection, Nevada Department of Wildlife, U.S. Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Forest Service and the Nevada Division of Minerals.

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Permits required

Mandates for reclamation of mine operation and exploration projects fall under the NDEP’s Regulation and Reclamation Bureau. On the regulation side, the bureau focuses on protecting state waters from degradation; on the reclamation side, the bureau focuses on obtaining financial assurances for minerals industry activities that affect land.

The lineup of 261 projects permitted in Q1, split evenly between operation and exploration, reflects the favorable financial conditions for metals, with gold prices up more than 44 percent compared to five years ago. Each project will be monitored and held accountable by the state.

Nevada requires reclamation permits to make sure that land affected by mining is restored to its original state or better, and that the state is not left with the bill for environmental cleanup.

Any entity wanting to disturb the land must first obtain a reclamation permit, backed by a financial bond. Getting a reclamation permit requires that every project present a feasible and achievable closure plan.

“Today there are a lot of regulations that are in place to make sure that the environment is protected,” Partey said. “Once a mining company wants to operate, they look at how they operate and how they are going to close it. Regulators are going to review that and they are going to hold you by the standards.”

The bureau analyzes proposals and site conditions using “the best environmental science in the region,” Process said. After approval, the state conducts regular inspections and monitoring to ensure all operators are adhering to the agreed-upon plans.

One tool the state team uses is the Nevada Reclamation Cost Estimator, which helps determine how much a mine or exploration site would cost to reclaim at closure.

“It is one of a kind, developed in Nevada in Reno and recognized around the world,” Process said. “[It was developed] to make sure the public never has to pay to clean up a mine site.”

Messes of the past

Before the state’s modern reclamation laws took effect, minerals industry projects sometimes created environmental problems and left others to deal with messes of the past.

“People frown on that, and they see mining as ‘Get the resource and walk away,’ ” Partey said.

The Anaconda Mine Site in Lyon County is a legacy copper mining site with water contamination issues, among other problems. A previous operator went bankrupt before all the bonding was in place for that facility. Anaconda’s open pit and processing facility operated mostly between 1953 and 1978, and more milling and processing occurred through 2000.

The site would have qualified as a Superfund site, but lack of federal funding led to a deferral agreement. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency allowed the NDEP to take the lead in overseeing reclamation with the site’s current owner, Atlantic Richfield Company, part of BP America. Proponents say that the agreement ensures funding exists for the site’s cleanup, and that the partnership will expedite the cleanup process, but skeptics say that the state does not have the expertise to manage cleanup. ARCO is paying $32 million toward the effort, and the state is contributing $2.7 million from hazardous waste disposal fees.

At the time of Anaconda’s failure, the NDEP did not have the regulatory authority to bond for water management. The tough lesson led to legislative changes.

“We’ll be damned if anything like that [what happened at Anaconda] ever happens again,” Process said.

Now, Nevada “bonds for closure,” meaning that a mine operator must commit funds for what reclamation would cost all the way through the project’s life cycle. Bonding for closure helps assure that Nevada taxpayers won’t pick up the bill for mine reclamation.

To date, Nevada has $3.3 billion in financial assurances from mine operators and explorers.

“That’s pretty outstanding,” Process said.

The representative for the Nevada division of the Center for Biological Diversity, which often takes a stance on mining issues, did not respond to a request for comment for this article.

For the future

Yet mine reclamation is about more than just the cost of fixing mistakes. It’s about restoring the ecosystem for the future.

“I am very passionate about the environment, and I believe that all environmental specialists, managers [and] everyone who is working it should be passionate,” Partey said. “Because if we don’t take care of it, then our generation to come will not have places to stay or water to drink.”

The public benefits from having land restored because it is safer, healthier and allows land to be used again — such as for economic or recreational purposes.

“Valuing the dignity of people, showing respect and care, being open and earning trust of the communities in which we operate are very important to Hudbay,” Lauzon said. “This means we must develop the mineral resources our society needs in a manner that protects the environment, by responsibly managing and mitigating environmental risks.”

Mine operators and explorers also can realize benefits from environmental reclamation. Operating in a responsible way gains “license to operate,” Partey said, as it shows the public and environmental groups that “mining can be done, and can be done in an environmentally friendly manner.” 

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