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The cost of reclamation

A major contention hard rock mining opponents have these days with the development of mines in Montana, including the Rock Creek Project near Noxon, is that the cost of reclamation is often left in the lap of taxpayers. It has not been unusual in the past that the reclamation bond required by the permitting agencies has been inadequate to ensure cleanup after a project closes or the company declares bankruptcy and leaves a mess that may very well be both toxic and an eyesore for surrounding communities.

    Reclamation is the process of returning the landscape disturbed by mining activity to its pre-mining condition. It can be costly, but should simply be a part of doing this kind of business, mining critics say.

    Bonnie Gestring, the Northwest Circuit Rider for the Mineral Policy Center, a Washington, D.C.-based organization that keeps an eye on mining issues across the country, says about the bonding issue, “The concept is good, so why is it so problematic?”

    She explained in a recent interview in Missoula, where her office is located, that a reclamation bond is calculated by a mining engineer who estimates what it would cost the state, if it was the responsible party, for reclamation. Because the state would have to let a contract for such a project, she asserts that it would cost more than if a mining company took care of it themselves. So the amount at which a bond is calculated may not necessarily be the actual cost of reclamation, unless it is left up to taxpayers to fund.

    Where a problem comes into play, Gestring noted, is that “the state has consistently been unable to predict mining impacts accurately. We’ve seen that over and over again,” she said. “DEQ has worn rose tinted glasses” in estimating the costs of cleanup, which have oftentimes been too low. And there is no choice but to clean up after a mine closes. “State law requires reclamation to be done. If the company doesn’t do it, the state has to. The Montana Constitution requires it,” Gestring added.

    The issue of reclamation became such an important one during the permitting process for the Rock Creek Project that the final reclamation calculation found in the Record of Decision (ROD) has resulted in the largest reclamation bond ever in Montana, and perhaps nationwide, for a hard rock mine. The maximum amount DEQ and the Forest Service revealed it may cost to reclaim the Rock Creek Project is $77,369,297.

    The bond calculation is actually broken down into several components and includes a sum for reclaiming the evaluation adit ($2,576,000); a preliminary estimate for full mine build out ($30,019,669); treatment of wastewater associated with the construction of the evaluation adit ($350,000); and post-mining wastewater treatment ranging between $14,381,518 and $44,423,628. “The difference in water treatment cost,” the ROD says, “is associated with the length of time required for water treatment post-closure.”

    However, Sterling Mining Company will not be required to put up that kind of bond all at once. “The reclamation bond may be incrementally posted or released to reflect stages of mine development and performance of concurrent reclamation requirements, but shall always remain at an amount adequate to pay for the reclamation of any disturbances that may exist,” wrote the decision-makers, Bob Castaneda and Jan Sensibaugh.

    It’s worth noting, Gestring said, that a mining company seldom puts up the bond itself. Just like a driver purchasing automotive insurance or a homeowner purchasing property insurance, a mining company will usually arrange with a surety company for the bond amount and then pay a premium, just as with insurance. This works okay, she explained, so long as the bond calculated by the agencies is adequate and the surety company doesn’t go out of business, which has happened.

    One thing that bothers Gestring about the Rock Creek Project and its record bond amount is that no bonding was put into place, she said, for the possibility of subsidence, a very real issue for opponents of this mine. Sterling plans to tunnel beneath the Cabinet Mountains Wilderness, and some people wonder what happens if Cliff Lake or Copper Lake are drained into the underground cavern created by the excavation of the ore; or what if surface areas within the wilderness simply cave in because of the fractured nature of the underlying rock and the cavity created by mining activity?

    “Mitigation is in place to alleviate the possibility of subsidence,” Gestring acknowledged, “but no other mine in the country has mitigated subsidence effectively.” She points out as well that surface disturbance within the wilderness is being allowed for this activity, probably, she believes, in violation of federal law. The Cabinet Mountains Wilderness was one of the original ten wilderness areas created by the Wilderness Act of 1964 and Gestring, among others, contends surface disturbance within its boundaries is prohibited.

    Gestring said, “Slumping, draining of wilderness lakes and contamination of surface water (within the wilderness) – all three were identified as significant issues of concern by the state, but there is no bond to cover any of that” should something go wrong during mining.

    The most significant element of the bond imposed by the agencies for Rock Creek is for water treatment. In the past, Gestring said, “The state has been good about calculating surface disturbance reclamation, but not water treatment, which is the biggest cost.”

    Apparently state personnel took that matter to heart in calculating what it will cost to treat wastewater generated by the Rock Creek Mine. The problem, Gestring continued, is that treatment of water escaping from the mine may have to be treated “in perpetuity,” as is stated in the Record of Decision.

    “That is extremely difficult to calculate, if not impossible. They’ve been wrong every time. They just don’t know, so they use 100 years to calculate the bond,” even when they say it is in perpetuity. “It’s a very flawed approach.” She added, “Water treatment in perpetuity is a violation of the Montana Constitution, which requires water quality be reclaimed; that is, put back to its pre-mine condition.”

    For this reason, and other problems opponents of this mine have raised, Gestring believes this project will never be developed. “The legal challenges to this mine are overwhelming,” she stated. “I don’t think it will get to the point of the mining company having to post bonding for reclamation.”

    She shook her head, though, and sighed, “Citizens are consistently put into the position of defending state laws. It should be the job of state and federal agencies, not citizen watchdog groups. They (the agencies) like to permit things and let citizen groups do the hard work of enforcing the laws.”

    What does the future hold in store for Rock Creek? “I foresee the mine will not be developed,” Gestring said, “because the courts will determine that developing the mine in that location with the kind of impacts we’re looking at will violate state and federal laws: the state water quality act, metal mine reclamation act, and the state Constitution, to name a few.

    “It’s an enormous mine and the implications for impacts to taxpayers, fish, wildlife, the wilderness and communities is astounding.”

    For more information about the Mineral Policy Center, visit online or contact Bonnie Gestring at 406-549-7361.


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Dennis Nicholls Dennis Nicholls was the founder, publisher, janitor and paperboy of the River Journal from 1993 to 2001. He passed away in 2009.

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