State regulators require reclamation of San Juan County copper mine by September 2021

(Zak Podmore | Tribune file photo) Heap leach pads at the Lisbon Valley Mining Company's copper mine in eastern San Juan County in October 2019. The state has ordered full reclamation of the facility by September 2021.

The Lisbon Valley Copper Mine in San Juan County, which closed abruptly in mid-March amid the coronavirus-related economic downturn, is being required to complete reclamation by September 2021 under a new order from the state of Utah.

On Wednesday, the Utah Division of Oil, Gas and Mining (DOGM) held its first board meeting since the mine’s closure, and division members provided a briefing on the mine, which is located 35 miles southeast of Moab.

Director John Baza reported that the environmental situation has stabilized in the month since he issued an unusual emergency order on March 20 that required the operators “take immediate action to address the imminent environmental hazards,” including the potential spill of sulfuric acid from the mine’s leaching facility.

The order came one week after a loan to the Lisbon Valley Mining Company (LVMC) was withdrawn and the company laid off most of its 65 employees. Baza explained several workers stayed on without pay to keep the leaching operations from breaking down. On March 20, however, LVMC director George Shaw asked the state for help, citing the fatigue of the unpaid workers and unfavorable weather conditions.

The request triggered the emergency order from Baza, and Sompo International Insurance — the company which underwrote the LVMC’s surety bond — stepped in to fund reclamation efforts.

The DOGM Board Chairman Ruland Gill thanked the division for its “heroic work” responding to the crisis, and other board members commended the former workers who volunteered their time to prevent environmental contamination. (Shaw did not immediately return a request for comment for this article.)

Eight employees of the mining company have since been rehired to monitor the facility and begin evaporating the 380 million gallons of acidic solution in the mine’s leaching system, which a division member described to the board as being highly saline and containing dissolved metals.

Other mine employees have already moved on. Klint York, who was until recently LVMC’s controller of finance and accounting, was hired by the Moab City Council on April 10 as the city’s new finance director.

Sprinklers and a new pond have been installed to accelerate evaporation of the solution. Weekly reports are being provided to the state, updating regulators on the reclamation process.

The emergency order was replaced on Tuesday by an official division order, which says “full reclamation is necessary to adequately address the situation” at the mine.

It goes on to require the mine be reclaimed “to a stable ecological condition compatible with past, present and probable future land uses,” as is required under state code, and it sets a deadline of September 30, 2021, after which fines may be issued.

Although LVMC was planning a major expansion at the mine as recently as December, the company struggled in recent years to turn a profit with low global copper prices. It was delinquent on property taxes owed to San Juan County when it folded.

Brian Somers, president of the Utah Mining Association, described the closure of the Lisbon Valley Mine as “incredibly unfortunate,” adding that LVMC was one of the top employers in rural San Juan County.

“They've fallen victim to the global pandemic that's causing all kinds of problems throughout the economy,” he said.

Copper has been mined from Lisbon Valley since the late 1800s, Somers noted, and LVMC has estimated there are over 500 million pounds of high-grade copper still in the deposit, making it one of the largest copper reserves in Utah.

“We’re very hopeful, as the Utah Mining Association, that either Lisbon Valley can find financing to allow them to get repermitted and resume operations," Somers said, "or that they can find a suitable buyer that could come in and resume operations because it’s a proven asset.”

Baza made it clear in a letter to the mining company that all operating permits from the state were forfeited under the emergency order, and new permit applications and surety bonds would be required before any mining could resume. The Bureau of Land Management issued its own suspension order on April 10.

Somers said that a larger investment would be required to resume operations after the facility is fully reclaimed. “There is a bit of a time crunch to make sure Lisbon Valley can refinance or find a buyer before the reclamation gets to a point that it would become uneconomical to get it back to an operational state,” he said.

Zak Podmore is a Report for America corps member and writes about conflict and change in San Juan County for The Salt Lake Tribune. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep him writing stories like this one; please consider making a tax-deductible gift of any amount today by clicking here.