EARTHWORKS

Water Treatment in Perpetuity: Who is really to blame?

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By Pete Dronkers

August 25, 2014

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Water Treatment operations are often needed at mine sites forever to prevent water pollution, and can cost millions of dollars per year. Reforming ancient mining laws will change this, so that companies must prove they can close a mine for good before being allowed to build one, in order to avoid taxpayer bailouts when the company files for bankruptcy. Earthworks photo by Pete Dronkers

Last week I travelled to Albuquerque to attend an EPA-hosted national technical conference on “Mining Influenced Waters” – a toned-down phrase that describes water pollution caused by mining.  The cases laid out were all severe enough to warrant multi-million dollar remedial actions and treatment operations, and at most of these sites, someone will be footing the bill forever.

That’s right.  A growing number of mine sites discharge such severely polluted water that they will require water treatment for hundreds to thousands of years, or “in perpetuity” to meet water quality standards that protect human health and aquatic life.  Earthworks released a report in 2013 that documents this escalating national dilemma.

Dozens of speakers in both the public and private sectors gave fascinating presentations, relaying new techniques, new science and studies, and new approaches to dealing with mines that leach acid, heavy metals, and other pollutants into our rivers and groundwater.  Fortunately, through this research, governments, mining companies, and technical consultants are finding some success in reducing the impacts at certain sites and in slightly lowering perpetual water treatment costs.  It’s not nearly enough to end long-term liabilities, but it helps, and I applaud their dedication to make a positive impact that certainly beats the alternative of not trying.

One would think that at a conference dedicated to this topic, in addition to discussing challenges at problem mine sites and limited successes at others, experts would want to engage in at least one discussion on the bigger picture: how to stop mines like these from ever being built and forcing the same set of problems onto the next generation.  My cynical side began wondering how much thought the room of 150 mining professionals actually lend the subject; has the industry – and more importantly – our government, fallen into a mindset where three-thousand year, extremely expensive water treatment obligations are considered acceptable?

This discussion didn’t happen organically, so myself and a few colleagues made sure the conference wouldn’t end without EPA commenting candidly about this.  Susan Gordon with the Multi-cultural Alliance for a Safe Environment, who was chosen to be a member of the closing panel discussion, began by exclaiming that her seat would be better occupied by southwestern Native Americans greatly affected by perpetual mining contamination. She also stated that the conference should have been at least partially focused on policy discussions that would lead to a mine permitting system that – as one EPA employee later described it – embodies the “pathway to walk-away.” In other words, mines that don’t require perpetual care.

Despite the current mining industry rhetoric about the wonders of modern technology and how newer mines are clean and environmentally friendly, many modern mines do not even come close to a pathway to walk-away.  With this in mind I expressed concern to the group that agencies are still permitting mines that we know will cost more to maintain over the long term than the amount of money held in financial assurances and bonds for that long term treatment. I asked EPA employees to comment to the larger audience about this concept, and that is when things became far more meaningful in my mind than any of the technical discussions that occupied the previous three days. 

EPA administrators and others suggested that those who work on mining-related legacy issues are not at all blind to these realities moving ahead, not simply looking behind.  After all, federal funding for long term clean up and treatment projects are growing scarcer, more projects are being neglected than improved upon, and the future is unclear regarding long term environmental liabilities – even at newly-built operating mines.  The message was simple: they have no statutory or even administrative power to consistently deny permits to mines that carry such immense long term liabilities, and until they do, they only have a few limited tools in the box.

I’m fairly confident that mining companies will not voluntarily implement corporate policies that favor a “pathway to walk-away” approach.  There is far more money to be made by nominating a yet-to-be-born generation to bear these liabilities than it is to build mines that can actually close without them.   And without perpetual economic growth (which is by definition impossible on a finite planet) to maintain adequate yields on invested accounts supposed to cover perpetual water treatment for thousands of years, these funds will disappear and leave the burden on governments and local communities who will be unlikely to take on such an immense financial burden. 

Without a doubt, we can justifiably ask more of EPA with the powers it already has.  It can close the Clean Water Act loopholes that allow mine waste to be dumped into our rivers, streams, lakes and wetlands, contributing to these problems.  But we should understand that ultimately, the power is within the hands of Congress to enact legislation that will end this fiscal and environmental insolvency once and for all – not only for the high-profile controversies like Pebble Mine in Alaska, but also for the smaller mine proposals that can make or break an obscure town’s drinking water supply and force its people and government to deal with it.

New Mexico and Michigan have enacted state legislation that could effectively preclude mine’s that will require perpetual management. Unless every state passes laws to the same result (48 to go), with a few exceptions that are rarely used and always challenged legally, agencies remain ill-equipped to refuse permits for proposed mines on the basis of perpetual water treatment.  All the brilliant scientists and regulators in the nation – many of whom told the crowd that they understand the severity of the problem -- can attend conferences to discuss how to make these legacy mines slightly less problematic for the next few thousand years, but until they are mandated by statute on a comprehensive level to act against perpetual liabilities, they will continue to issue permits to build ever-larger mines from which the same problems will emerge. 

Federal Legislation to reform the antiquated 1872 Mining Law has been introduced by Representatives Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.) and Raul Grijalva (D- Ariz), and aims to require mining companies to engineer their mines so they can walk away within 10 years after the mine closes.  In our minds, this is one of the most important pieces of environmental legislation needed to protect communities and the environment from the impacts of mining.  And we get the sense that many within EPA feel the same way.

Tagged with: water pollution, tailings, perpetual pollution, mining, epa

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