Residents of this southern Utah community fear copper mining proposal’s effects on water

The company needs approval for an aquifer exemption from the Environmental Protection Agency to proceed.

Tucked away in San Juan County, on a swath of land south of the La Sal Mountains that meets the Colorado border, lie a bed and breakfast, a sixth-generation ranching family and a copper mine.

For years, the three have coexisted within four miles of one another. But now, the Lisbon Valley Copper Mine, which operates in the upper valley, aims to expand their operations to the lower valley, into the vicinity of 3 Step Hideaway and the Wilcox family ranch. The company plans to use in situ recovery – a mining method commonly used for uranium extraction but not copper – in the area.

Residents fear that this could threaten drinking water supplies and destroy the unadulterated beauty of the lower valley.

“We’re a bed and breakfast, a lot of people come out here for peace and solitude,” said Scott Stevenson, co-owner of 3 Step Hideaway. “That’s pretty much a thing of the past if they go forward with this project … we’ll be living in an industrial zone.”

In situ leaching is performed by injecting an acidic solution into the ground to dissolve minerals deposits before pumping the resulting solution to the surface for mineral recovery. The method causes far less surface disturbance than heap leach open-pit mining, the technique the Lisbon Valley Mining Company has employed in the upper valley since 2008.

It is a “very innovative” mining technique for copper, said Lisbon Valley Mining Company Environmental Manager Alysen Tarrant.

So far, the method has been used to mine for copper at Arizona-based Florence Copper’s test facility, and other companies are exploring the technology.

The company is currently awaiting approval of an aquifer exemption from the Environmental Protection Agency, which allows fluids that might endanger a drinking water source to be injected into a portion of the aquifer.

3 Step Hideaway and the Wilcox family both use wells on their property to source drinking water.

When the original aquifer exemption boundaries were drawn, the Wilcox family well was located inside its confines. The boundary was redrawn during the exemption proposal process to exclude the well, which now lies just hundreds of feet outside it. The well utilizes the Burro Canyon aquifer, which the mining company hopes to exempt.

3 Step Hideaway co-owner Scott Stevenson worries that contaminated water could spread beyond the proposed boundaries. “Water takes the path of least resistance … That’s kind of fourth grade science,” he said.

The Burro Canyon aquifer sits above the Navajo aquifer. Should the families drill any further wells, they will need to ensure that the water is being drawn from the latter. Federal regulations state that aquifers that have been exempt for in situ mining purposes cannot be used for drinking water.

In a Jan. 6 letter to the Environmental Protection Agency Region Eight, chair of the University of Utah Geology and Geophysics department William Johnson wrote that he was concerned that the Lisbon Valley Mining Company’s plan did not properly address the potential impacts to the family’s water sources. “The hydrology is not sufficiently documented/understood to rule out impacts of the proposed [in situ leaching]” to nearby wells, he wrote.

Tarrant, who is a certified water professional, said she does not have concerns about contamination.

She also said that after inspecting the Burro Canyon aquifer, she concluded that she “wouldn’t want my children drinking that water.

“…I’m extremely attuned to water quality and the Burro Canyon aquifer is … not drinkable.”

She noted that when mining operations are complete, the Burro Canyon aquifer will be rinsed.

Michelle Fein, an attorney representing the residents of the lower Lisbon Valley, said she has concerns about the company’s monitoring and remediation plans. “[They weren’t] very comforting,” she said.

Fein noted that in situ mining has led to contamination of drinking water sources in several instances. She pointed to the Crow Butte in situ leaching uranium mine in Nebraska, where groundwater was contaminated with uranium in nearby wells beyond the boundaries of the exempted aquifer boundary. The mine is no longer in operation.

“Even in places where you have sophisticated companies doing this work, you have contamination,” she said.

Residents are also concerned by the size of the aquifer exemption boundary, which reaches far beyond the proposed in situ leaching sites.

Fein noted that most similar projects have proposed more narrowly confined aquifer exemption boundaries.

Tarrant said that the geology of the lower Lisbon Valley sets the operation apart from other projects. “Because we have such beautiful geologic confinements, it’s not clear why you should confine it,” she said.

She noted that while the company is aware that there is mineralization throughout the area, their level of understanding needs to be further refined.

“We don’t like jumping in to things head first,” she said. “…We’re very methodical in what we do.”

In September, the U.S. Department of Energy added copper to its list of critical materials, reflecting the country’s growing prioritization of clean energy sources like solar and wind.

“[Copper] is extremely integral into the advancement of renewable energy and autonomy away from fossil fuels,” said Tarrant.

She said she is also optimistic about the impact that in situ mining processes could have on the mining industry. She said that if it “could be proven beyond proof of concept,” it could eliminate “mega mines” and be an important step towards reducing surface impacts.

The company will soon undergo a Bureau of Land Management environmental impact statement public comment period as it awaits an EPA decision on the aquifer exemption.

Fein noted that the EPA grants 98% of aquifer exemption requests. She said she is concerned that federal regulations favor mining interests over protecting drinking water sources in the West, a region that struggles with drought and dwindling water supplies.

The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) has argued that the EPA’s aquifer exemption program is outdated and fails to protect valuable drinking water sources. In a 2016 report, the NRDC noted that most aquifer exemptions have been granted in areas experiencing moderate to severe water stress, including Utah.

“It’s shocking for the West to have what little they have left of their water sources be exempted for mining uses. It’s the place that can least bear it,” said Fein.