The Nevada State Environmental Commission Wednesday raised serious concerns about long-term threats to water quality from a proposed mine in Eureka County. But commissioners said state law and regulations ultimately pushed them to allow the project to go forward as planned.
The proposed open-pit operation on Mount Hope—owned by Eureka Moly LLC a subsidiary of General Moly Inc. — is about 24 miles northwest of Eureka, Nevada and would disturb about 8,300 acres within the 22,886-acre project area, most of it on public lands.
The Great Basin Resource Watch (GBRW) and other environmental groups have been fighting in federal court since 2012 to block the mine, and urged the three-member State Environmental Commission to rescind a state water pollution control permit granted last year.
Mining experts for the environmental group contend the permit was based on a systematic underestimation of the amount of acid drainage that will fill the mile-wide pit lake after the mine is closed, requiring a reevaluation of whether the mining pit lake will be a hazard to wildlife and the community.
Glenn Miller, a board member of GBRW and faculty member at the University of Nevada, Reno’s Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Science, testified that the mining company has “grossly” underestimated the potential toxicity of the pit lake.
“Their prediction is hopelessly unrealistic,” Miller said during the hearing. “It’s just not even in the realm of possibility.”
Based on his analysis, Miller claims contamination of the pit lake could last for up to 500 years which he says the current mine plan does not address.
Scientists for the Nevada Division of Environmental Protection (NDEP) argued that after careful evaluation of scientific data, they’ve concluded the mine would not result in the degradation of water near the mining site.
Commissioners were also swayed by NDEP attorneys, who said the water permit was consistent with current Nevada environmental statutes and regulations.
“Here we’re applying the regulations and law as they exist now,” said Dan Nubel, a state attorney for NDEP.
While the commissioners upheld the permit on a 3-0 vote, they issued a special directive for NDEP to work with the environmental group to address issues raised during the hearing, and workshop possible legislation and regulations to better protect water quality in pit lakes after mines close.
Approval for the permit weighed on commissioners who said they must follow current regulations while acknowledging that those regulations were insufficient when dealing with the complications of mining’s environmental impact on water quality.
“All the division can do is the best of our ability with the tools we are given to make these calls,” said Commissioner Tom Porta. “There are aspects of this permitting process way above our pay grade that need to be discussed later. I would certainly encourage those discussions to take place at the legislative level.”
“A lot of these pit lakes have been a disaster,” added Commission Chairman Jim Gans.
“These gigantic pit lakes scare me,” Gans said. “It’s a mile across. This really is a lake. It’s not a pond. And that bothers me when you have that size.”
Commissioner Kathryn Landreth likewise said she was “deeply concerned.”
“We’re going to be gone when the impact of this would be felt,” Landreth said. “In Nevada for too long we’ve probably ignored some of the consequences.”
Julie Cavanaugh-Bill, a lawyer for the GBRW, commended the state agency for directing further discussions between the agency and environmental groups.
“The agency is aware this isn’t a good model and yet we keep approving these mines and we keep approving these pits,” Cavanaugh said. “It’s time to have this conversation.”
‘An unlevel playing field’
The mine is estimated to have a life span of 44 years of mining and ore processing molybdenum, a metal with a high melting point and resistance to corrosion that is used to strengthen steel alloys.
The mine is straddled between three water basins: Kobeh Valley, Diamond Valley and Pine Valley. Much of the surface water in the project area drains into the Diamond Valley, from which surface water and groundwater has been used extensively for agricultural irrigation, leaving some rural residents concerned about possible contamination of their water.
“The Bailey Family has been ranching and farming in Diamond Valley since 1863,” Carolyn Bailey, a resident of Diamond Valley nearest to the proposed mine said in a statement. “Our ranch and farms are located close enough to the Mount Hope mine site to be adversely affected by mine-caused impairment of air and water, increased truck traffic, and the very real damage to our environment from the massive pumping … resulting in further drawdown of the groundwater. The costs will be irretrievable and irreparable and will be paid by our family and community.”
Most of the ore mined in Nevada is microscopic, requiring a complex chemical process to extract. Much of the mined ore is below the water table so massive pumping is required to keep the mine pit dry.
When mining stops, so does pumping, and pits become lakes.
These lakes are often contaminated by sulfuric acid runoff, created when rock which hasn’t been exposed for thousands of years is pulled up and, once exposed, reacts with water and air to create sulfuric acid that dissolves heavy metals such as copper, lead, and mercury.
The acid then erodes more rock, creating more sulfuric acid in a chain reaction that can go on for decades, contaminating groundwater and surface water in the process.
Nevada currently allows new mines to open with full disclosure that they will pollute the water indefinitely, requiring “perpetual treatment.” The Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada (PLAN) and GBRW tried to push legislation to ban perpetual treatment with a component to create a pool of money for independent technical analysis funded by permit fees, but failed to get a bill sponsor during the last legislative session.
“I do think that we need to address the legal codes regarding mining and we do need legislative action,” said Ian Bigley, a mining justice organizer for PLAN who attended the hearing. “That being said, I think we’re on an unlevel playing field lobbying the Legislature compared to the mining industry.”
During the hearing, commissioners advocated for legislation related to protecting water quality in pit lakes, but Bigley said an urban-rural divide keeps environmental issues related to mining away from the majority of constituents’ minds.
“There’s a lot more influence from the urban areas on what legislators will do,” Bigley said. “That’s where organizations like PLAN come in and that’s where we need to do our work education on this issue.”