Tribune Editorial: San Juan County shouldn’t bet its future on a copper mine

(Zak Podmore | Tribune file photo) Heap leach pads at the Lisbon Valley Mining Company's copper mine facility in eastern San Juan County in October 2019. The company, which owed $1.4 million in back taxes, has shut down, can't pay workers and has raised state concerns about environmental damage.

A person who is poor often is placed in situations where they make what seem to them to be reasonable decisions, decisions that to others are clearly mistakes.

They may take out high-interest loans to stay temporarily afloat. They may skip college, or even high school, so they can start bringing in full-time — if minimum-wage — paychecks right away. They may engage in criminal or other self-destructive activities seeking immediate gratification, economic and otherwise.

A community that is poor can also be moved to make bad decisions because, like an individual of limited means and few obvious prospects, they may think they have no other choice.

Such cities, counties and states may, in order to provide needed jobs and increase a minimal tax base, decide to welcome — even subsidize — business operations that clearly damage, degrade and pollute both the natural environment and the human landscape, perhaps for generations to come, in return for a sometimes sketchy promise of short-term financial gain. Because they see no alternative.

Such is the question facing local and state officials in Utah’s San Juan County.

The giant jurisdiction at the southeast corner of the state is both the poorest in Utah, figured by per-capita income, and the highest taxed, in terms of property tax burden carried by a small populace. So it is no surprise that many people there, in and out of public office, would take as good news word that the new owners of what would be Utah’s second largest copper mine are floating plans to start producing the commodity again.

The downside of the plan is that the would-be new operators of the Lisbon Valley Mine plan to use methods that involve sulfuric acid. The result will be a diluted acid effluvium that will be pumped into the area’s already scarce underground water supply.

And, if that’s not scary enough, area residents are asked to accept the operators’ promise that after an estimated 25 years of productive operations, the mine will be reclaimed and the area left as good as new.

This coming from the current owners of a mine that is already five years behind on property taxes totaling $1.4 million, and in the process of seeking the county’s forgiveness of $125,000 in interest and penalties it already owes.

Such an operation may well create decent-paying jobs and help fill the depleted county coffers. For awhile.

But in a county that lacks the means, in a state that lacks the will, to inspect and enforce environmental and remedial regulations, there are serious risks. Risks that, like other extractive industry operations before them, the current owners of the mine, or the ones who come after them, or the ones who buy it out of bankruptcy after the next crash in commodity prices, may not be willing, or even able, to keep their promises.

Leaving a community that already has little in the way of prospects to clean up the mess.

San Juan County should think more of itself than to settle for such a future.