Ranchers, landowners worry copper mine’s plan will taint groundwater in San Juan County

(Zak Podmore | The Salt Lake Tribune) Rancher Mike Wilcox surveys the debris left at the site of the Keystone-Wallace Copper Mill, where he worked briefly as a young man in the 1970s. Nov. 12, 2020.

Lisbon Valley • When Mike Wilcox was a young man in the mid-1970s, he took a job at the Keystone-Wallace copper mine and mill near his home in Lisbon Valley, Utah.

Some days, Wilcox went down in the open pit and dug a series of deep holes that were each loaded with 100 pounds of explosives. “We’d wire them all together and get way back on the road,” he recalled. “Then somebody would touch that puppy off. It was a wild deal … that whole mountain changed every time you done a shot. You couldn’t believe you was in the same place. Boy, it was scary.”

The mine operated for five or six years, Wilcox said, but he only lasted two weeks on the job. Instead, he returned to the profession that has sustained six generations of the Wilcox family since Ephraim Wilcox, Mike’s grandfather, homesteaded in La Sal in 1917: ranching.

He owns a 1,000-plus acre private ranch in Lisbon Valley and has permits to graze on state and federal land in the area.

“Some people are just made to be cowboys,” Wilcox, 67, explained, adding that he hopes his 4-year-old great grandson, who is already learning to ride a horse, develops the same love of “punching cows” as he grows up.

The mine shut down over 40 years ago, but Wilcox still deals with the mine’s mess.

“Keystone-Wallace had a bond up, and they used to tell us, ‘When we’re done mining copper, you’re not going to be able to tell there was a copper mine here,” Wilcox said, standing in the old mill site on a sunny November day among piles of twisted metal and rebar. “I can still see it just like it was yesterday. They’ve done hardly anything to clean this thing up.”

Tailings remain uncapped nearby, and few plants grow on the disturbed ground. Retention ponds were built to catch the erosion from the site, and Wilcox remembers when someone set fire to what looked like an oil slick on the surface of one of the ponds in the late ’70s. “It burned for three or four days,” he said. “There was lots of big old black smoke coming out of that thing.”

(Zak Podmore | The Salt Lake Tribune) A sign warns of radioactivity at the Rio Algom Uranium Mill near La Sal, Utah, on Nov. 12, 2020.

But the fences around the ponds that were put up decades ago have since fallen into disrepair, and it’s not uncommon for Wilcox to have to ride into the ponds, which are often dry, to push out wayward cattle.

“When there’s a little green grass along them ditch banks, cows will go in and get it,” Wilcox said. “When they kick that dust up, it makes your eyes water. It gets in your nose. You can feel it. You can taste it.”

Repeatedly throughout Wilcox’s life of ranching in the mineral rich valleys near the Utah-Colorado border about 40 miles south of Moab, he has heard similar promises as those made by Keystone-Wallace half a century ago. Each time a mining executive has proposed a new project, they point to their millions of dollars in bond money and say that reclamation will be so comprehensive the landscape will be restored to its original state as soon as the mining is complete.

But those rosy projections rarely bear out. Just over the hill from the Keystone-Wallace mine, the Rio Algom Uranium Mill, which operated from 1972 to 1988, has leached contaminates into the groundwater, including uranium, molybdenum, selenium and arsenic. The plume is being actively monitored, and it’s less than 100 feet away from reaching Wilcox’s friends’ property.

(Zak Podmore | The Salt Lake Tribune) The scar from a limestone quarry marks a hillside in Lisbon Valley, Utah, more than a decade after being closed. Nov. 12, 2020.

A scar from an abandoned limestone quarry slashes across a nearby hillside. Another uranium mine near La Sal known as the Rattlesnake Pit doesn’t look much different than it did in the 1960s when Wilcox and his school buddies held a raucous Halloween party in the abandoned shafts.

Well wars

Having seen so many mining companies sweep into the area, create a boom of jobs and brief prosperity only to leave behind denuded land and environmental contamination, Wilcox was skeptical when the Lisbon Valley Mining Company took over the largest active mine in the area in 2009, which is adjacent to the Wilcox Ranch.

At first, however, Wilcox found a positive arrangement with the mine’s owners as they began expanding its footprint. “We leased them some ground and we sold them some ground,” he said, “and it helped us pay our bills. It hasn’t been all bad.”

But that working relationship began to fizzle last year when the company filed a permit application to begin a new, experimental form of in-situ mining in the valley, which involves injecting diluted sulfuric acid into the ground to dissolve copper deposits with up to 2,700 wells.

In-situ mining has been used in various forms for over a century, but the process that is being proposed in Lisbon Valley, which involves mining in sandstone as opposed to harder rock layers, would be a first globally. At a public meeting last year, a representative said Lisbon Valley Mining has been “putting in ... millions and millions of dollars to prove up a technology that eliminates the need for open-pit mining ... and [that] could benefit the overall industry on a global scale.”

The geological analysis presented at the meeting suggested that the in-situ mining would only impact the shallow Burro Canyon Aquifer, between 200 and 900 feet below ground, which currently supplies Wilcox Ranch with its water. According to the company, the aquifer is already contaminated with oil and radioactive elements at levels beyond federal drinking water standards.

(Zak Podmore | The Salt Lake Tribune) Rancher Mike Wilcox stands beside the pump for the well that supplies drinking water and livestock water on his ranch in Lisbon Valley, Utah. Wilcox fears a copper mine's plans to pump diluted sulfuric acid into the shallow aquifer that supplies his well will lead to permanent contamination of the water source. Nov. 12, 2020.

The company offered to dig a new well for the Wilcox Ranch into a deeper Navajo Aquifer that has better water quality. But the deal came with a catch, Wilcox said. They would only dig the new well — which could cost hundreds of thousands of dollars — if Wilcox signed over rights to his current well, which he uses for drinking water at the ranch house where he lives with his wife Joan. They also use the well to fill a series of guzzlers for wildlife and livestock on the ranch.

“What happens if I sign off [on] that other well and they don’t hit water?” Wilcox asked. “I ain’t got no other water. We can’t exist here without these wells.”

George Shaw, Lisbon Valley Mining Company’s president, said Wilcox’s concerns would be addressed in detail at an upcoming public hearing with the Utah Division of Water Quality, which will be held virtually on Tuesday at 7 p.m. A public comment period is open through Dec. 4.

(Zak Podmore | The Salt Lake Tribune) Mike Wilcox and Scott Stevenson look over the Lisbon Valley Copper Mine in San Juan County on Nov. 12, 2020.

“We believe that our permit application process will show the company’s project will not have a long-term adverse impact on groundwater resources outside the exemption boundary,” Shaw said.

But for Wilcox, such promises sound like those he has heard time and again from mining companies using more conventional methods, and he fears the damage from the in-situ mining will be more permanent than a scar on the land, even if it means far less surface disturbance.

The in-situ mining requires the company to obtain an aquifer exemption permit through the Utah Division of Water Quality and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Part of the criteria the EPA typically uses to grant an aquifer exemption is that the aquifer not serve as a source of drinking water, and documents filed with the DEQ state that the nearest public water drinking well is 14 miles from the project site, not on the Wilcox Ranch.

Shaw said questions about why the Wilcox well wasn’t listed as a source of drinking water on the permit application would be answered at the public hearing. If the request is granted, Lisbon Valley would become the first aquifer in Utah to be exempted to allow for the in-situ extraction of minerals.

Back taxes and promises of jobs

Wilcox’s neighbors, Scott and Julie Stevenson, are the only other residents of Lisbon Valley, and although they draw their water from a deeper aquifer that won’t be exempted, they’re also concerned about contamination. The Stevensons rent historic cabins and serve food at the 3 Step Hideaway, a rustic 80-acre retreat utilized primarily by cross-country motorcycle riders completing one of two long-distance routes that pass through the area.

(Zak Podmore | The Salt Lake Tribune) Business owner Scott Stevenson stands outside the "cantina" at the 3 Step Hideaway in San Juan County on Nov. 12, 2020.

The 3 Step water well is less than a hundred feet from the aquifer exemption boundary, Scott Stevenson said, but the well location was misplaced on maps used by the state, making it appear farther away.

The company plans to conduct extensive surveys of hydrological connectivity between the shallow and deeper aquifers in the region as part of the project’s planning process, but Stevenson and Wilcox are worried that the sulfuric acid and other contaminants could work their way into deeper aquifers widely used for drinking water or into the Dolores River, a tributary of the Colorado River. And Stevenson noted that past in-situ copper mining has led to elevated levels of radioactive elements such as uranium and thorium in groundwater.

“This valley has been perforated,” Stevenson said. “It’s like Swiss cheese out here with wells.”

“They’ve drilled for uranium; they’ve drilled for everything,” Wilcox added. “It’s a wonder it don’t fall off the face of the earth.”

For both Wilcox and Stevenson, the Lisbon Valley Mining Company’s series of financial troubles dating back at least five years, are another reason to mistrust the project. The company owes over $2.1 million in property taxes to San Juan County, according to the treasurer’s office, with missed payments dating back to the 2014 tax year when there was a drop in global copper prices.

“When copper was up in price [in the early 2010s], they were knocking some serious money,” Stevenson said. “The part that really frosts my cookies is then they can’t pay their taxes the next year. Where did all that money go?”

(Zak Podmore | The Salt Lake Tribune) Rancher Mike Wilcox shows off one of the livestock and wildlife guzzlers that's filled by a well for much of the year on his ranch in Lisbon Valley. Wilcox fears a copper mine's plans to pump diluted sulfuric acid into the shallow aquifer that supplies his well will drive him out of business. Nov.12, 2020.

Since November, the Utah State Tax Commission has filed multiple tax liens against the company, and four contractors have sued the company in district court over the last year for allegedly failing to pay invoices for equipment and machinery used at the mine.

“Everybody has loaned them money,” Stevenson said. “We just had a tax raise [in San Juan County] because these clowns can’t pay their taxes. It just doesn’t sit well with me.”

Shaw estimated the company has generated over $200 million of economic activity since 2009, which includes wages, local and state taxes, and payments to vendors. If the aquifer exemption is approved, Shaw said it could potentially double the life of the mine, prolonging the copper deposit’s economic benefits for the county.

In March, after a bridge loan to the company was withdrawn due to the coronavirus pandemic, the company furloughed all of its workers with little advance notice, and was unable to meet payroll. Some workers stayed on without pay to keep the acidic solution used on the facilities heap leach pads from spilling into the environment before the state stepped in to continue the work using surety bond money.

(Zak Podmore | The Salt Lake Tribune) Heap leach pads and ponds at the Lisbon Valley Copper Mine in San Juan County on Nov. 12, 2020.

Regulators at the Utah Division of Oil, Gas and Mining issued a rare emergency order and revoked the companies permits. They also ordered reclamation of the mine by 2021. But after the company received new financial support, including between $1 million and $2 million in federal CARES Act loans, it reapplied for its former permits and is expected to reopen soon.

Brian Somers, president of the Utah Mining Association, said San Juan County has the highest unemployment rate in the state, and mining is a key industry locally. “The Lisbon Valley Mining Company should be commended for its perseverance in refinancing its operations in order to preserve a major economic resource that provides jobs, tax revenues, royalty payments and many other economic benefits to the county and state,” Somers said.

“Highly-skilled workers in the mining industry in San Juan County earn 95% more than the average county wage,” he added. “Before operations were disrupted earlier this year, Lisbon Valley Mine was one of the largest private employers in San Juan County and will become one of the largest employers in the county again by providing 65 to 95 high-paying jobs as it reopens and expands.”

Copper prices are rebounding, Shaw said, and the mineral, which is a key component to many renewable energy technologies, will likely stay in high demand as the world transitions away from fossil fuels.

For Stevenson and Wilcox, however, the mine’s track record make them question the projections laid out by the company. “Jobs are hard to come by in this county, and I’m all for jobs,” Stevenson said, though he noted the majority of the mine’s employees come from outside of San Juan County.

“But when it gets down to brass tacks,” he continued, “the job is only as good as the employer is honest and has integrity to take care of things and take care of its employees. These guys have shown numerous times that there is no real integrity.”

Looking ahead

The San Juan County Commission, which has generally been supportive of Lisbon Valley Mining Company and has waived hundreds of thousands dollars in fees and penalties on the company’s back taxes over the last two years, signaled concern over the in-situ mining plans at a recent meeting.

Commissioner Willie Grayeyes, a Democrat and member of the Navajo Nation, stated on Tuesday that he would like the Commission to take a formal stand against the in-situ mining proposal at the upcoming hearing. And the commissioners recently wrote a letter to the state supporting a request that more information be made public.

“Residents and livestock users of these existing water wells are understandably concerned with the potential effects on water quality of these wells with the proposed injection of a sulfuric acid solution into the aquifer that supplies these wells,” the letter stated. “Quality water sources are scarce in this area and degradation or decrease of these waters would have devastating effects on culinary and livestock users of these waters.”

Carly Ferro, director of the Sierra Club’s Utah Chapter, said her organization opposes the in-situ mining plans and will be following the company’s permit application process.

“Overall, our region and our people deserve clean water, a healthy future and sustainable jobs,” she said. “This expansion will create environmental and health harms at a time when we’re already facing a significant public health crisis. We see it as unnecessary and reckless to risk public health and groundwater in an area where water is finite and a life-sustaining resource.”

Wilcox said the mining proposal has helped him gain a new perspective on the lifetime he’s spent ranching. “If we got $10 million [to relocate], we’re still never going to find another Lisbon Valley,” he said. “Our whole life has been right here.”

Though he has tangled with environmentalists in the past, Wilcox said he’s willing to ally with any group that will step up to help protect the water in Lisbon Valley over the coming months.

“My dad is probably turning over in his grave just like an alligator in a snare [to hear me talk about working with environmentalists],” Wilcox said. “But the America we live in is different now.”

“I’ve never been somebody that looked that far into the future,” he continued. “But I’ve got two great grandchildren right now today. It’s a whole different way to look at things: What’s it going to be like when they’re my age?”

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.