Nevada: A pioneer in modern environmental standards
Mining activities in the US have changed dramatically in the past 30 years. In the western part of the nation, mining started in the mid-1800s and was completely unregulated for over a century. Congress did not enact the country’s first environmental laws until the 1970s, and most states did not start to pass environmental laws until the 1970s and 1980s.
During this era of unregulated mining, environmental protection simply was not under anyone’s radar and little attention was paid to the long-term consequences of mining activities. Miners typically deposited mine wastes, including mill tailings, waste rocks, and smelter slags, directly on the ground in the nearest valley or low area. Once the ore was exhausted or falling metal prices made mining unprofitable, miners commonly moved on to the next prospect and abandoned the old one, giving no thought to reclaiming the land.
The mining landscape in the US – and particularly in Nevada – looks radically different today. In 1989, the Nevada legislature approved laws that established a comprehensive regulatory process governing the reclamation of mined and explored lands. This process included the development of a reclamation plan and the posting of financial assurance that the work would be completed.
“Many people still believe that mining involves pickaxes and drilling holes in the ground, but this could not be further from the truth. The mining industry in Nevada is very technologically advanced with strict environmental laws. In fact, mine operators must reclaim the land they have mined to a state that is safe, stable and suitable for productive post-mining use, according to the state’s reclamation law.” Richard D. Perkins, Founder and CEO, Business Council of Canada and Nevada
“Before any mining or exploration company can initiate any surface disturbance on public lands in the state, they must put forth a financial instrument to cover the total cost needed by a federal or state regulating agency to perform all the required reclamation that would result from their proposed project,” explained Mike Visher, administrator at the Nevada Division of Minerals (NDOM).
Through a formal agreement with federal land management agencies, the NDOM holds these assurances, which are intended to reclaim mining disturbance if the mining company, for whatever reason, cannot or does not do it.
However, not all reclamation activities must wait until a mine has closed. Many companies include concurrent reclamation efforts within their plans of operation or expansion. For example, a company will reclaim a waste rock facility or a portion of the mine that is no longer productive. With careful contouring of the land and nurturing of native plants, the reclaimed area soon blends with nearby undisturbed acreage, so that often, the casual observer cannot tell the difference between a place that has been reclaimed and a place that has never been mined.
Excellence in mine reclamation
Since the reclamation laws were introduced in Nevada, the mining industry has worked hard to meet – and often exceed – these requirements. In recognition of the good work being done throughout the state, the NDOM began presenting its Excellence in Mine Reclamation Awards in 1991. According to NDOM, the purpose of the program is to recognize and share examples of successes in the areas of reclamation, closure, planning and wild-life protection and enhancement in Nevada.
In 2020, KGHM’s Robinson copper mine received the Nevada Excellence in Mine Reclamation Award in the category of Legacy Waste Rock Remediation for reclamation of its Lane City Waste Rock Facility. “As a legacy site, I am proud to say our company has invested significant funds on reclamation activities and remediating historical issues that predate modern mining laws,” commented Amanda Hilton, general manager of the Robinson mine.
Mining at the Robinson mine, which is located in White Pine County, dates back to the mid-1860s. Numerous former operators had employed various methods of extracting copper and other metals, generating Waste Rock Facilities (WRF), such as the Lane City WRF, with the potential to negatively impact the environment.
Reclamation of the Lane City WRF involved the regrading of slopes and the addition of limestone as a buffering agent, followed by covering the crown and other surfaces with growth media and seed. A new storm water drainage system was constructed that prevents contact with natural water at the site. According to KGHM, this method of reclamation not only secures the facility in terms of its stability, but also protects the state’s water, which is one of the primary goals of environmental protection in Nevada. The changes are clearly evident to the naked eye, as re-seeding has enabled the terrain to return to its natural state.
Abandoned mine lands
As a result of the pre-regulated mining era, Nevada, like many other states in western US, has been left with numerous abandoned mines and shafts scattered throughout is territory. While these mines played a fundamental role in the development of the west, many of them left behind serious environmental problems and today constitute considerable safety hazards.
To tackle this issue, the NDOM set up the Abandoned Mine Lands (AML) program to address the physical hazards represented by historical legacy mines across the state. “We estimate 250,000-350,000 historic mine features in Nevada, and believe that approximately 50,000 of them are hazardous,” stated Visher of NDOM.
The program involves taking inventory of inactive mining features, ranking their degree of hazard, and securing them. If there is an owner or claimant, that entity is responsible for safeguarding it from the public. Otherwise, the feature is considered an orphan and the NDOM carries out activities to secure the site. The agency has made great progress in addressing the historic legacy mine issue, as today, 80% of them have been tracked as secured.
“The AML program is setting the standard for our country. Part of its success derives from the fact that the funding comes from mining claimants themselves, unlike in many other states,” Visher explained.
Indeed, Nevada’s strong legislation for mine reclamation and robust AML program are two key aspects that have made Nevada a pioneer and a model that other jurisdictions seek to replicate in terms of environmental protection and reclamation standards. Not only is Nevada making great efforts to minimize the adverse environmental effects of surface mining and ensuring that mined lands are returned to a beneficial end use, but it is also striving to fix past “mistakes” from the unregulated mining era.
Image courtesy of Susana Isotupa