Phoenix Mine – Expected to Require Water Treatment Forever
Phoenix Mine Background
The Phoenix Mine location has a long history of mining activity, dating back to 1864 with copper extraction. It was not until the 1970’s that gold operations began with Battle Mountain Gold operating the site with the first State of Nevada gold mining permit issued in 1992. Newmont Gold acquired Battle Mountain Gold in 2003 and has been the operator since. The geochemistry of the site is very unfavorable in terms of toxic waste, where approximately 80 percent of the waste rock and ore is potentially acid generating. Acid drainage is a common and severe problem at many mine sites world- wide; it occurs when reactive rocks (generally containing sulfides) are exposed to water and air in the presence of catalyzing bacteria. There are Roman mines in Spain still draining acid. It is likely that both owners were aware of the acid generating nature of the rock and ore at the Phoenix site when they began mining there.
Newmont claims that their mine expansion and revised closure plan will improve conditions on the ground. However, Newmont will need to convince GBRW that this assertion is valid for us to not oppose the expansion
Our primary goal with the Phoenix mine is to only support actions which diminish the level of treatment needed in perpetuity. It is entirely possible that long-term treatment may not be avoidable, but there must not be any action that increases the likelihood of treatment in perpetuity. Currently, GBRW is very concerned that the proposed Phoenix expansion does not meet this goal.
The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) defines “treatment (of mine sites) in perpetuity” as 500 years or greater; in other words, no end in sight. This is what Newmont Mining Corporation is effectively proposing for acid mine drainage from the Phoenix Mine, located southwest of Battle Mountain. For Nevadans, a proposal in which waste requires perpetual treatment conjures up the multigenerational nuclear waste dump proposal for Yucca Mountain.
Are Nevada regulations adequate to address mines that will need perpetuity treatment? Nevada law does not specifically mention treat- ment in perpetuity, but does require stabilization so that “Waters of the State” are not degraded. Mining companies need to develop long-term treatment plans but perpetual treatment does not need to be factored in. A recent change in the regulations initiated by the Bureau of Mining Regulation and Reclamation defines “Mining Impacted Waters,” and gives the agency the authority to re- quire bonding for mining impacted waters. Therefore, the state can require bonding to treat toxic drainage for as long as needed, which could be 500+ years. It is not always clear at the outset if a mine will need perpetual treatment. This uncertainty allows some mines to open that may not be permitted otherwise. Years later after operations have been ongoing a reevaluation with new data sometimes reveals that perpetual care will be needed, or conditions arise that makes this conclusion clear.
In addition, pit lakes that are typically of lower water quality than the water entering the pit lakes from the surrounding aquifer are held to a weaker standard. Restoring these bodies of water to the original water quality is not required. Thus, a pit lake can contain degraded water, but is not considered mining impacted waters based on the regulatory definition.
Overall, Nevada does have measures in place to deal with treatment costs once the problem emerges, but more could be done on the preventative side.
Other states have regulatory language about perpetuity treatment. For example, New Mexico requires that for new mines: “the mining operation is designed to meet without perpetual care all applicable environmental requirements imposed by the New Mexico Mining Act and … and other laws following closure.” The New Mexico statute does not define “treatment in perpetuity;” GBRW assumes that the BLM definition (500+ years) is being used.
There is still the open question of new mine proposals, such as the Mt. Hope molybdenum mine. Is there a technical analysis that al- lows us to know if the mine will become a “perpetuity site”? This is the “million dollar question” (or maybe billion dollar). The Mt. Hope mine has yet to be developed and GBRW does have grave concerns that it will become a long-term or possibly perpetual treatment site. It is critical to develop an evaluation process to determine the potential of perpetuity treatment. And if that potential seems likely what regulatory triggers should be activated to protect the environment and human communities?
Neither federal nor state governments will take on responsibility for permitting a mine that proposes perpetuity treatment in its closure plan. Knowing this, virtually no company will submit a new mine plan that calls for perpetuity treatment. We are confronted with an impartiality dilemma, since most and typically all of the technical information about a proposed mine comes from industry paid consultants. Government agencies and to a greater extent public interest organizations like GBRW are hard pressed for the resources to do a parallel technical assessment. In general, all rely on data obtained by these consultants, and often modeling analysis is not done independently. Even if the conditions exist at a site where long-term treatment would be needed, how will the public know?
Advocacy groups in Colorado are currently pursuing perpetuity treatment legislation. Colorado certainly has egregious examples of the need to address this issue. Maybe it’s time for Nevada to follow suit.