Looking back on the first ten years of the twenty-first century and what has happened in mining, we cannot ignore the emphasize on mine closure. There have been mine closure conferences, many technical papers, and even a few mine closures.
The latest to be announced is the Record of Decision by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) on the Questa Mine in New Mexico. The official EPA site says this:
The Superfund site is owned by Chevron Mining Inc. (CMI). The remedy selected by EPA includes the excavation of contaminated soil and waste rocks, interception of water draining from waste rock piles at the mine site, underground mine dewatering and water treatment, covering contaminated material at the tailings facility, and treating ground water at the tailings facility. EPA estimates the clean-up will cost over $500 and could reach $800 million. Chevron Mining Inc. is expected to carry out the clean-up.
Almost every consultant that I know has been involved in this site and its closure conundrum for more than twenty years. I even wrote a proposal to work on the site cleanup some fifteen years ago. We lost the job to a cheaper consultant and they got nowhere. One of the wisest engineers I know told them what needed to be done ten years ago. They threw him off the job for presumptuousness. Some academics have made a career out of the acid drainage issues and the problem of the seismic stability of the waste piles lining the public roads. Canadian companies have gotten rich modeling the decay of waste rock voer 1,000 years in the mine’s waste piles.
Now it appears Chevron will spend nigh on one billion dollars to clean up the mess. No matter, the oil companies build this into operating expenses and so you will pay via the pump.
- Remove old equipment and buildings.
- Cover mine geowaste facilities such as the tailings, the waste rock, and the heap leach pad, if there is one.
- Route surface water away from places where it will cause undue erosion.
- Install wells and limit, or at least, monitor groundwater.
As the Questa example illustrates, in practice mine closure is neither easy nor cheap. In practice it may take decades to get agreement on closure criteria, the necessary works, and payment mechanisms. In practice, it may involve moving vast quantities of material, perpetual treatment of water, and eternal “sterilization” of the area from any future use.
Here is a link to the full record of Decision–all 1,052 pages of it. I have not read it all, for obvious reasons. Thankfully none of the many commenters on Google have read it either, so you can ignore what they write.
Must have cost a few million dollars to compile this document alone.
Here is a link to a short PowerPoint on the Record of Decision.
The fact is that there is no end to activity and cost at this site: people will be drilling wells forever, people will be sampling water forever, water will be treated forever, fences will need perpetual maintenance, and nobody will ever “enjoy” the site as a productive or useful part of New Mexico. This site proves that if you do not plan and operate carefully for closure, the profits made from mining will be vanishingly small by comparison with closure costs. OK for shareholders if you can get an inattentive government or foolish oil company to pay for closure. As a shareholder take the money and run before closure looms immanent and real.
What regulator would have had the foresight or balls to demand and get a billion dollar closure bond? Just imagine the screams of journalists beholden to the tea party on government interference in private enterprise. Why even John McCain would have come rushing over from Arizona to defend the mining industry shouting: “I defied my captors as a young man, but as an old man I am now beholden to crass interests. Don’t ask, although I will tell. I am grown old and venial and have lost the shining courage and moral purpose of youth. I am now a greedy old men who can turn turtle on a breath of wind from a political contributor, preferably republican or wearing the cheap skirt of a beautiful woman.” (I forgive him for I too have abandoned the principles of my youth for venial and conveninient old-age self-interest. Except that all I do is blog–he still seeks to apply his veniality to the detriment of human hapiness.)
So sad all this, but so real. Maybe it really is time for us old greedy men to give way and let unaffected youth go for is. I am told the Chevron project manager is young, tough, wise, and mandated to bring this sad mining site to closure. We wish him well and will watch with interest.