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Permitting process moving ahead for controversial copper mine expansion in San Juan County

The proposal, which would involve pumping diluted sulfuric acid into a southeast Utah aquifer, has raised fears of groundwater contamination.

(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. The Lisbon Valley Mining Company wants to expand mining operations using a method called in-situ recovery.

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Utah environmental regulators are accepting public comments related to a copper mine expansion in San Juan County that has drawn opposition from nearby business owners, ranchers, government officials and conservation groups.

The Lisbon Valley Mining Company produces copper from open-pit mines in southeast Utah, and for the last several years, it has been working through a permitting process to expand the mine using in situ leaching. The method would involve pumping diluted sulfuric acid and other chemicals into an underground aquifer to dissolve copper deposits.

Some landowners in Lisbon Valley — where nearby aquifers have already been contaminated by decades of uranium mining — are opposed to the company’s plan, arguing it could irreversibly taint water wells used currently for household use and livestock.

[Related: Ranchers, landowners worry copper mine’s plan will contaminate groundwater in San Juan County]

In its permit application filed with the Utah Division of Water Quality, the mining company has said the acidified solution will be contained in an area that does not supply drinking water and that aquifers will be cleaned after mining is complete.

But numerous comments submitted with the state agency are critical of the company’s assurances. Ivan Weber, a retired environmental consultant who worked at the Kennecott copper mine west of Salt Lake City for close to a decade, said it requires an enormous “leap of faith” to accept that the cleanup plan presented in the Lisbon Valley permit application will be successful.

Underground injections of sulfuric acid, Weber said in a written public comment last year, are difficult to control and the company’s plan “dooms wells, water supplies, seeps and habitat areas in the immediate vicinity and for many miles distant, for inestimable time frames.”

The Utah Chapter of the Sierra Club, Uranium Watch, the San Juan County Commission and others also submitted comments opposing the expansion plan early last year.

In response, Erica Brown Gaddis, director of the Utah Division of Water Quality, released a revised draft letter to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in December. She recommended the federal agency approve the Lisbon Valley Mining Company’s request that the aquifer where the proposed mining will take place be exempt from standards set by the Safe Drinking Water Act.

That letter — and an updated, third-party $6.2 million bond estimate that could be used in reclamation efforts — are currently open to public comment through Feb. 8. The mining company had previously submitted a $4.5 million bond proposal, which the state asked it to revise using a state-approved consulting firm.

The new bond amount covers a six-year time frame for in situ mining, and Sara Fields of Uranium Watch asked regulators at a public meeting hosted by the Division of Water Quality on Wednesday night why that number was chosen. The first phase of the project, according to the permit application, is projected to extend for 14 years, and extracting copper through in situ recovery could extend the mine’s life for 26 years.

“The bond estimate is prepared to cover the beginning of the project,” said George Shaw, chairman of the Lisbon Valley Mining Company. The bond will be retired, extended or increased at a later date, he added, “based on operating, monitoring and reclamation activity.”

Representatives of the mining company have previously stated that the underground recovery of copper will be less disruptive to the environment than open-pit mining, and they’ve pointed to the widespread use of copper in electronics and renewable energy technology.

RL Wilcox, a local rancher whose family has operated in Lisbon Valley for five generations, said in a public comment Wednesday that the proposed mining area boundary is adjacent to his family’s well. The well is roughly 600 feet from the nearest planned operations and 1,500 feet from the proposed in situ injection wells, according to the company.

“The Burro Canyon Aquifer currently supplies drinking water for human consumption,” Wilcox said, calling the company’s proposal “reckless and irresponsible.”

“The employees and the investors of the Lisbon Valley Mining Company,” he continued, “only want to get as much as they can as cheap as they can out of the natural resources that God has put into this wonderful part of the world. As soon as the copper is gone, they will be gone, and we will be left with the disaster that they created.”

The Division of Water Quality, however, accepted the mining company’s analysis that the Burro Canyon aquifer, where the project is being proposed, does not interact with larger, deeper aquifers used by nearby towns like Monticello and Egnar, Colo., for drinking water.

Federal regulations that determine which aquifers are eligible for exemption do not allow for in situ mining in water sources used for human consumption or could provide a public source of drinking in the future. The Natural Resources Defense Council has argued that aquifer exemption rules are outdated and have repeatedly failed to protect underground sources of drinking water in the past.

The state said the Burro Canyon aquifer where the mining is proposed meets federal criteria for an exemption to safeguard drinking water.

Julie and Scott Stevenson, who run a bed-and-breakfast near the project site, both made similar comments to Wilcox at Wednesday’s meeting, referencing an ongoing drought in San Juan County and calling the aquifer exemption request irresponsible.

Scott Stevenson said their well, like the Wilcox’s, is near the boundary of the proposed aquifer exemption. “I honestly feel it’s a matter of time before our well either goes dry or becomes unusable,” he said.

In a presentation at the meeting, Drummond Earley, who works for Utah’s groundwater protection program and runs a consulting company, said that the Stevenson well was separated by a fault from the proposed aquifer exemption.

A spokesperson for the Division of Water Quality said the Wilcox well draws water from a shallow part of the Burro Canyon aquifer, about 150 feet below the surface. The company is seeking an aquifer exemption for mining that will primarily take place at a depth of 200 to 900 feet, according to Earley.

Critics of Lisbon Valley Mining Company have pointed to its financial troubles in 2020, which led the state to temporarily revoke the company’s permits and the fact that it owes San Juan County around $2 million in unpaid property taxes dating back to 2014 as reasons not to trust the plan. The company agreed to a payment plan with the county in 2019, and Shaw, the company’s chairman, said it is fully compliant with that agreement and up to date on payment of its annual taxes.

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.

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