“If a mine, the only way it can be profitable is by leaving a mess for future generations, then maybe that’s not a viable mine,” said Patrick Donnelly, the Great Basin Director for the Center for Biological Diversity. (Satellite photo of Barrick's Goldstrike mine complex, 2010; NASA/METI/AIST/Japan Space Systems, and U.S./Japan ASTER Science Team)
Hundreds of thousands of abandoned mines litter Nevada, left by their owners decades ago. From those mines, plenty of valuable minerals have been extracted: gold, silver, lead, copper. What’s left behind in many cases, however, is acidic water and heavy metals leaching into the state’s waterways.
Reno Democratic Assemblywoman Sarah Peters and conservation minded Nevadans are determined to prevent future mine abandonment and its accompanying contamination with the introduction of the Nevada Mining Reform Coalition’s bill, Assembly Bill 313.
The bill would require mining companies to backfill open pit mines once extraction is over to avoid the formation of pit lakes.
Pit lakes form when industry stops their operations and a portion of the mine pit fills with groundwater, creating the potential for acidic water and heavy metals from the pit to slowly leach into groundwater, lakes and streams.
Nevada is the driest state in the nation, and much of the water it does have sits below the surface as groundwater, where it’s protected from evaporation. But in arid regions like Nevada, pit lakes often function as an evaporative “sink,” meaning water drawn into the pit perpetually evaporates, drying out nearby seeps and springs.
According to analysis by the Great Basin Resource Watch, an estimated 1.5 million acre-feet or 489 billion gallons of water in Nevada– almost three times the annual water use of Las Vegas – is lost to open pit lakes.
Water quality in pit lakes is also typically lower than surrounding groundwater, say researchers.
The mining reform bill – the first in Nevada in about 10 years – has an uphill battle as it faces opposition from mining companies and business groups. But on Wednesday the bill passed out of committee, meaning it’s not dead yet.
The bill would apply to mining applications submitted after Jan. 1, 2025, but allows mining companies to apply for exemptions if they provide “clear and convincing evidence” the requirement is unfeasible or would make the mining operation unprofitable.
During a three-hour hearing Monday, a broad coalition of Nevadans spoke in favor of the bill, from conservationists to ranchers, hunters to scientists. Native American tribes in Nevada also supported the bill, including the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe in Northern Nevada.
“The formation of a pit lake renders groundwater that once was usable, unusable. We need mining to reclaim Nevada’s public waters,” said James Phoenix, Chairman of the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe.
Mining companies, however, argued the bill would make the cost of operating a mine in Nevada unprofitable and halt the development of new mines in the state, a major economic driver in rural counties.
“This bill won’t protect water quality or the public, but it will put the mining companies out of business and irreparably harm the economy of our state and local communities,” said Joel Donalson, head of permitting for Nevada Gold Mines, the state’s largest gold mining company.
Nevada Department of Environmental Protection Administrator Jennifer Carr told lawmakers the state already protects groundwater and doesn’t need additional requirements.
“At this time, we do not believe it’s necessary to create additional policy for reclaiming groundwater, because we already protect groundwater,” Carr said.
Conservation groups countered by emphasizing the importance of rigorous water conservation standards in the most arid state in the nation, which is experiencing record drought and climbing temperatures.
Conservation groups countered by emphasizing the importance of water conservation in the most arid state in the nation, which is experiencing record drought and climbing temperatures.
“This bill isn’t about stopping mining, it’s about regulating a very specific environmental impact inherent to mining below the water table,” said Patrick Donnelly, the Great Basin Director for the Center for Biological Diversity, during a hearing for the bill. “That applies to a very small fraction of mines, most mines don’t go below the water table. This applies to the small fraction of mines that do go below the water table with an open pit that requires this extra level of environmental attention to ensure permanent damage isn’t done to our aquifers.”
“If a mine, the only way it can be profitable is by leaving a mess for future generations, then maybe that’s not a viable mine,” he continued.
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