Mining report stirs industry buzz
Researchers blame water pollution at mines on faulty modeling, regulatory failures; regulators, trade groups react to findings
Last updated 1/28/2007 at Noon
Research prepared for mining industry critic Earthworks claims that faulty water quality predictions, and mitigation and regulatory failures are responsible for hard rock mining-related water pollution, primarily in the West.
The purpose of the studies, by consultant Jim Kuipers of Butte, Mont., and Boulder, Colo.-based geochemist Ann Maest, was to review the history and accuracy of water quality predictions in environmental impact statements for major U.S. hardrock mines, according to Earthworks.
Kuipers and Maest found that water quality predictions fail for two general reasons: the science of mine water quality prediction is imperfect; and, the science of mine water quality prediction is imperfectly applied at mine sites.
Earthworks concluded that a mine quality prediction model can only realize its potential at an individual mine site if that site is correctly characterized in its hydrology and geochemistry. But models now being used by regulators and mining consultants may be incorrect, Maest and Kuipers warned.
In the research for Earthworks, Kuipers and Maest said the mines failed to compare predictions made before they were permitted with their actual results.
They suggested that forming credible models "requires that the prediction be tested, and then the models adjusted based on the results. The process appears broken when it comes to predicting the impact of mines on water quality for mine permits."
Kuipers and Maest also determined "that adverse impacts to water quality are common at mine sites, and they are most often caused by failed mitigation." They recommended that a more in-depth study of the effectiveness of common water quality mitigation measures be undertaken.
Problems could get worse
If this situation is not improved, the environmental and financial impacts of inadequate mitigation measures based on faulty modeling will continue to grow, Earthworks predicted.
The research also identified what Kuipers and Maest referred to as "inherent risk factors that may lead to water quality impacts." They suggested that "mines close to water resources with high acid drainage or contaminant leaching potential need special attention in terms of mitigation and characterization."
For the purpose of the study, "major mines" were defined as having a disturbed area exceeding 100 acres and a financial assurance amount exceeding $250,000; or having a financial assurance of $1 million regardless of acreage; or having a production history of greater than 100,000 ounces of gold, 100 million pounds of copper or the monetary value equivalent in another metal. The researchers found 183 U.S. mines met the criteria over a 30-year timeframe. Of those, 45 percent are still in operation. Only one of the major mines, Pogo, in Alaska, is a new mine.
Kuipers and Maest initially reviewed 104 environmental impact statements and environmental assessments for 71 major hardrock mines including gold, silver, copper, platinum group metals, or PGMs, molybdenum, lead and zinc in 10 mining states. All of Alaska's hardrock mines, except for the Red Dog zinc/lead mine, were included in the review. It showed that no predictive models were used in environmental impact statement process for the AJ Mine Project nor for the Fort Knox, Kensington, Red Dog and True North mines.
Greens Creek in case study
A representative subset of 25 case study mines, including Alaska's Greens Creek silver/gold/zinc/lead mine, was selected to evaluate water quality predictions.
Of the 25 mines, Kuipers and Maest claimed that 76 percent polluted groundwater or surface water severely enough to exceed federal water quality standards. At least 13 of those mines exceeded groundwater quality standards. Of the 19 mines that exceed water quality standards, the pollutants that violated standards included heavy metals, arsenic, sulfates and cyanide. Nine of the study mines developed acid drainage on site to date.
Among their recommendations to improve future water quality predictions, Kuipers and Maest suggested that regulators be required to review past predictions at other mines when permitting new mines. They also recommended regulators "require better information about the mine site - before, during and after operations."
Earthworks recommended that procedures for selecting consultants should be changed to avoid potential conflicts of interest. Agencies should independently select and pay consultants to conduct the studies. This should limit the ability of a mining proponent to influence the outcome of the predictions, the group said.
Earthworks and the researchers also suggested that "many state and federal agencies are not sufficiently funded to employ staff with the technical expertise to provide appropriate analysis and oversight of the mine permitting process. They said increased funding should be incorporated into agency budgets to ensure that technical expertise is available for permit review."
Though some members of Alaska's mining community say the report contains useful and interesting information, others question its credibility. They say the studies were sponsored by a group that focuses exclusively on opposing mining development and the researchers, Kuipers and Maest, have credibility problems.
Mixed reaction from regulators
"Earthworks is an advocacy group that has been around for long time and generally is at odds with the mining industry," said Tom Crafford, acting director of the large mines team at the Alaska Department of Natural Resources.
Crafford said Alaska's mining regulators believe they have a good track record. "There's an approved monitoring program and the state does review the monitoring reports," he said. "We also require environmental audits every five years or less, depending on the mine. In doing that at the company's expense, the state picks an independent consultant to do the work."
While the monitoring is not based on comparisons of results with early predictions, they are based on results from samples collected and reports written in the ongoing monitoring process, he said.
Crafford said the report's charge that regulators do not compare actual results with predictions is misleading because the regulators modify terms of mining permits on an ongoing basis in response to problems detected and violations of water quality standards.
Moreover, "we definitely pay attention to predictions. We look at them very critically," he said.
Following the report's recommendations could make the process more expensive without necessarily improving it, he said.
Though the State of Alaska has problems attracting and retaining highly qualified people, Crafford said DNR's large mines team and the water-quality section of the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation have benefited from uncommon longevity among the professionals on staff.
Patty McGrath, mining coordinator for the Environmental Protection Agency Region 10, said the Kuipers and Maest research is an "important study" that her agency is reviewing for "what we can learn."
"The study is based on older environmental impact statements, and we feel our current EISs are doing a better job," McGrath said. "We do believe we have problems in this area, especially in Alaska where it is difficult to make predictions because of climate variables" and other factors.
McGrath said EPA's concerns were so great that the agency published its own guidelines in 2003 for the kind of work that companies need to do to get mining permits and for the agency to do to prepare an EIS.
"When I read Kuipers and Maest, I nod my head," McGrath said. "And we're going to look at our (guidelines) to see if there is anything we need to add."
Study outdated, possibly biased
Mining industry officials question motivations behind the report as well as its content.
Formerly known as the Mineral Policy Center, Earthworks is reputedly the leading anti-mining group in the world, according to Laura Skaer, executive director of the Northwest Mining Association in Spokane, Wash.
"My answer to what I think of this report is 'consider the source.' For every mine being litigated in the United States, the plaintiffs include Earthworks," she said. "As for Kuipers and Maest, a good part of their livelihood comes from testifying as expert witnesses for environmental groups that oppose mining."
Skaer said some of the Northwest Mining Association's 1,500 members have reported to her that material included in the Earthworks study is outdated and other parts have been taken out of context.
"When you first read it, it looks like water quality is not being protected, but the study has no analysis of permits or enforcement actions," she said.
Skaer said the study also loses considerable credibility because the authors say they take sole responsibility for it without providing the balance of a peer review.
Borell has problems with report
"We have a lot of problems with this report," said Steve Borell, executive director of the Alaska Mining Association. "Jim Kuipers has been on the fringes of the mining industry for a long time. He's the environmental industry's technical guy for mining."
Borell said Maest's involvement is also troubling because she researched the regulations under which mining activities occur on Bureau of Land Management land in 1999 as part of an independent panel of the National Academy of Sciences and found no significant problems.
"It's interesting that now that she's getting paid to do a report, she's finding all these problems," he said.
Skaer agreed. She said Maest's only concerns back then were financial assurances for BLM's management of the process and the need for competent consultants.
"We're still looking through the report, Skaer added, but the timing of it coincides with the Democrats taking control in Congress, and we think it may be supposed to help (U.S. Rep.) Ray Hall, D-W. Va., push for mining reform."
Reports based on Kuipers and Maest's research have been presented at five major mining conferences during the past two years, Earthworks said.
For copies of the full reports and additional background, go to http://www.mine-aid.org.