Acid mine drainage ‘enormous public liability’ in perpetuity

A new report by the environmental NGO, Earthworks, proclaims acid mine drainage could generate between $57 billion - $67 billion

Mineweb | Dorothy Kosich

May 6, 2013
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A new study recently released by the Washington, D.C.-based environmental NGO Earthworks asserts an estimated 17 billion to 27 billion gallons of contaminated water will be generated by 40 U.S. hardrock mines annually in perpetuity. Forty-two percent of these mines are located on public lands.

“Another 13 mines are likely to generate water pollution in perpetuity, accounting for an additional 3.4 billion to 4 billion gallons of polluted water per year,” said report authors, Earthworks chief Bonnie Gestring and environmental research and science consultant, Lisa Sumi.

The proposed Pebble Mine Project—opposition of which has become a cause célèbre for environmentalists and sportsmen’s group-- is among new mining projects Earthworks suggests will generate substantial water pollution.

“The primary cause of this lasting pollution—acid mine drainage—is well understood,” said the report. Acid rock drainage is mostly associated with sulfide ore deposits.

“Yet, no hard rock open pit mines exist today that can demonstrate that acid mine drainage can be stopped once it occurs on a large scale,” according to Earthworks’ research.

“The long-term public liability is enormous;” the report contends, “taxpayers are expected to pay for centuries of water treatment—long beyond expected life of any mining corporation.”

“Equally alarming is the growing number of mine pits containing large volumes of water, which will persist forever,” Earthworks suggests, declaring that pit lake water “persists as a permanent hazard to health and wildlife.”

“The problem is at its worst in Nevada, where a University of Nevada scientist [Dr. Glenn Miller] has determined that mine pits from gold mines will contain more water than all of the fresh water reservoirs in the state, excluding Lake Mead,” the report advises.

Earthworks called on Congress to reform federal law to “require hard rock mines to demonstrate, up front, that the mine can meet water quality standards without perpetual treatment.”

“It is fundamentally bad public policy to permit mines that will require water treatment forever,” says the report. “New regulations are needed in federal and many state laws that make it clear that the risks of such long-term water treatment are an unacceptable risk”

Earthworks urges Congress to “restore regulations to prohibit mine waste disposal in water of the U.S.” The NGO claims “there are two loopholes in the [Clean Water Act] regulations, approved in 2002, which allow the industry to dispose of mine waste directly in our nation’s waters.”

“New regulations should be initiated to give the EPA authority to require financial assurance to better ensure that funds are in place for long term water treatment,” says the report. “Apply Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act  (CERCLA) at high risk active mines instead of waiting for closure has the advantages that an operating facility generally has a positive cash flow and can obtain financial assurance required under a CERCLA order.”

Although mining companies are currently mandated to provide financial assurances to state agencies, Earthworks would add federal financial assurance requirements for hardrock mining.

The report names a number of U.S. mines that Earthworks suggests will generate water pollution in perpetuity including the Freeport-McMoRan’s Climax molybdenum mine in Colorado, Newmont’s Phoenix operation in Nevada, Veris Gold’s Jerritt Canyon gold mine in Nevada, and Rio Tinto’s Bingham Canyon mine in Utah.

Among the proposed mines Earthworks claims will generate perpetual pollution, or are at high risk of perpetual pollution are NovaGold’s Donlin Creek project and the Pebble Project, both in Alaska; Polymet Mining’s Northmet Project in Minnesota; and Revett Silver’s Rock Creek Project in Montana.

Tagged with: water pollution, perpetual pollution, mining

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