MINING FOR STRATEGIC MINERALS
Planning before It's Too Late
by Roger Featherstone
Although conservationists have long known the dangers of climate change, many others have taken far too long to join the bandwagon. And, many, including some decision makers and members of Congress, have not and probably never will recognize the threat. It is a sure sign that climate change has hit the big time when corporate America is jockeying to figure out a way to make big money from the crisis.
The international mining industry is now talking non-stop about the world needing more mining to produce copper, lithium, and other minerals which, they say, will be needed to build renewable energy to replace fossil fuels. Mining companies have crafted a public message that roughly says: “We need to mine our way into a climate neutral future, and you cannot stand in the way of our efforts to save you.” It is important to note that most mining companies are foreign based, and it is highly suspicious when a foreign corporation talks freely about providing a large percentage of US minerals and solving the economic and climate woes of a country other than their own.
In the United States, mining companies are heavily subsidized. Not only do they get tax breaks and other direct subsidies, but the U.S. is the only country in the world that gives hard rock minerals (copper, gold, silver, lithium, etc.) away without charging royalties. This is one of the many out of date provisions of the 1872 General Mining Law (signed into law by President Ulysses S. Grant) that is still the law of the land. State laws, especially in Arizona – owner of the worst state mining laws in the union – also give tremendous financial incentives to mines in the U.S. While state laws are somewhat better in Nevada and even more so in California, nearly all state laws are too weak and out of date in today’s brave new world.
While the demand for wind turbines, electric cars, solar panels, batteries, and many other components will require more minerals than we use now, the projections made for new mines by the mining industry and their supporters are wildly inflated. The commodity prices of most minerals have risen sharply in the last couple of years, and mining companies are actively looking for the next big “strike” to take advantage of this new “boom.”
In the United States, anyone (including foreign corporations) can claim public land for mining simply by “staking” a mining claim and paying a small annual fee. This gives the claim holder exclusive rights to the minerals under the surface. Almost all the public land open for claiming in southern California, Nevada, and Arizona is already claimed. Even some claims within out-of-bounds land such as Wilderness Areas are still susceptible to mining. Land disrupting activities can happen on these claims long before actual mining takes place. Existing deposits and mines in the Death Valley area show the presence of iron, lithium, tungsten, bismuth, copper, gold, manganese, zinc, silver, lead, uranium, and fluorine (fluorite). Most, if not all, are used for the production of renewable energy infrastructure components.
Mines use an enormous amount of water. A study of seven working copper mines in Arizona, operating from 2004 – 2008, showed an average water consumption of 28.3 gallons per pound of copper. For the proposed Resolution Copper mine which would destroy Oak Flat in Arizona, experts have calculated that the mine would use enough water for a city of 180,000 people.
The largest use of water in open pit and block cave mines involves transport and storage of tailings (discarded remains of the mined ore after processing). Tailings usually include toxic mineral such as arsenic, selenium, lead, etc., and many also contain sulfur components which when mixed with water and air reacts with the toxic minerals to release them into the air and water. Usually, tailings leave the processing operations mixed with water in a slurry. These tailings are moved via pipelines to the tailings dump where some of the water is drained and then returned for further use. However, huge amounts (in excess of 47%) of the tailings dump will be water. Not only do tailings dumps sequester huge amounts of water, but this water is normally highly toxic and often migrates from the tailings dump to create long term water pollution.
Deep mines (either open pit or underground) need to be kept dry as mining takes place. This requires dewatering an often large area around the mine. Once mining ceases, water flows back into the mined area. It often takes many hundreds of years for water equilibrium to get back to pre-mining conditions. This flow into the mine after mining ends can permanently deplete water from large areas around the project.
Pit lake is the glory hole at the Questa mine in New Mexico. Photo by Roger Featherstone
We are experiencing the worst drought the southwest has seen in 1,200 years. In Arizona, this is the 23rd year of continuous drought. In desert climates, water pollution is a problem, but the bigger problem occurs when mines usurp water from communities and the environment. We are already having trouble providing water for existing users (and wildlife and wildlands are certainly feeling it the worst), and we certainly won’t have enough in the future with the added burden of new mines.
Mining also uses a huge amount of energy. Studies show that mining worldwide uses 10% of the world’s usable energy supply. Again, looking at the proposed Resolution Copper mine in Arizona, the project could use as much as 22% of the peak power capacity of the Salt River Project (the utility that would provide electricity for the project). This proposed mine could use as much electricity as 1.6 million households. With the power generating capacity of Lake Mead and Lake Powell in serious jeopardy due to our ongoing drought, additional mining activity could seriously impact residential users.
Roads, along with the powerline and water pipeline corridors that accompany mining operations, all create serious impacts to desert ecosystems and are magnets for unfettered development around these “improvements.”
There are generally three types of mining in the southwest:
Open pit mining is used most often. Here, you remove non-mineral bearing rock from above the deposit to get to the ore body. The excavation leaves a large hole in the ground (although the state of California requires that this pit be backfilled). Since such a large quantity of material needs to be moved, open pits generally have large piles of waste rock (which may or may not be polluting) as well as the tailings dumps we have talked about earlier.
Subsidence at San Manuel Mine. Photo by Bruce Gordon, Ecoflights.
Underground mining is also sometimes used. As most new mines are very large, a procedure called block caving is now more prevalent than the “old fashioned” cut and fill type of mines. Block cave mines are essentially an upside-down open pit. These mines leave a crater due to the ground subsiding where the orebody has been removed and also have the same large tailings dumps and water usage that open pit mines do.
The third type is in-situ mining or a variety of mining brines. These mines pump water containing dissolved minerals from the ground. For traditional in-situ mines, you drill a well and inject acid into the orebody to leach minerals from the rock. You then drill more wells around the injection well which are supposed to pump at a slightly higher rate than the injection well to recovered the mineral laced water. This “pregnant” water is then processed creating toxic waste while also permanently polluting the water table. In a slightly different procedure (one which is used with some lithium deposits), underground brines are pumped to the surface to settle and evaporate in large ponds which may, or may not be lined. Sometimes the waste is injected back underground.
All three types of mining use large amounts of water and create toxic waste. They all use large amount of energy be it electricity or fossil fuels directly.
Pinto Valley Mine. Photo: Bruce Gordon, Ecoflight
Any way you look at it, modern mines pose serious risks in the desert southwest. While the mining industry talk about large amounts of money being injected into the economy, the risk to outdoor recreation and other sustainable uses is significant. An economic study done for the proposed Rosemont mine that would be south of Tucson, Arizona, shows that if the proposed mine disrupts only 10% of outdoor recreation, it would offset any economic benefits from the mine.
Instead of creating new mines, the mining industry must responsibly finish mining existing mines. In Arizona, existing mines are not operating even close to full capacity. BHP, the world’s largest mining company, abandoned and dismantled the San Manuel mine, a perfectly good working mine with one of the cleanest burning smelters in the US, and with 30 years’ worth of copper still underground. In what world is it OK to abandon a mine like that and instead opt to mine a sacred recreational and ecological haven?
Secondly, we should utilize our landfills and recycle our minerals much more aggressively.
Thirdly, as long as it is done right, re-mining of old mines using new technology would recover substantial minerals. There is a large caveat with re-mining – most schemes posed now ask that existing laws be relaxed as an incentive for companies to re-mine. This is not acceptable, and so far, all federal legislation encouraging re-mining falls far short of the mark.
Thankfully the Biden administration is beginning the process of updating both Interior Department and US Forest Service mining regulations. The Interior Department has begun listening to stakeholders (including you) on how to update of mining regulations. The updating of US Forest Service regulations is on a slower track.
On the other hand, the Biden Administration has issued an executive order that could fast-track mining for materials needed for batteries and other renewal energy needs. It remains to be seen what this could mean for permitting new mines, but you can bet that the mining industry is looking at how to take advantage of this executive order.
Finally, there is a move afoot to reform the 1872 mining law on its 150th anniversary. Bills have been introduced in the House of Representatives by Arizona Representative Raul Grijalva and in the Senate by New Mexico Senator Martin Heinrich. Both are called the Clean Energy Minerals Reform Act. In a press release issued by the House Natural Resources Committee, Rep. Grijalva said, “Minerals like copper and lithium are essential for our clean energy future, but that doesn’t mean we should sacrifice our environment, health, and sacred or special places just to get them. Our current mining law was put in place before we even knew what a car was, much less an electric one. By keeping this outdated system going, we’re telling mining companies it’s okay to wreak total havoc on our environment and then leave American taxpayers to foot the cleanup bill. Modernizing this relic of a law isn’t extreme or anti-industry—it’s just common sense.”
These mining law reform bills would go a long way to correct problems we face on the ground, at least on federal land.
What you can do:
Support 1872 mining law reform, upgrading federal hard rock mining regulations, and state laws and regulations (in Arizona and Nevada, a rather tall order!)
The sooner opposition can be mounted for these inappropriate proposals, the better. As most, if not all, of the mining pressure in the desert southwest is perpetrated by foreign mining companies that often have low tolerance for controversy, generating opposition early makes life easier down the line.
There are many non-profit organizations that can help with new mining pressure. However, be aware that organizations that work on mining issues are uniformly understaffed and underfunded!
Roger Featherstone is Director of the Arizona Mining Reform Coalition and an avid hiker and boater in the desert southwest. To learn more, go to www.azminingreform.org