If you conduct a quick Google search of the word “reclamation,” the result will say, “The process of claiming something back or of reasserting a right,” with this example: “The reclamation of our shared history.”
It’s a more than a befitting definition and paradigm to illustrate the Arizona mining industry’s commitment to the environment — a dedication that stretches back more than a century. In fact, Arizona’s robust mining history includes some of the most progressive, dedicated and ardent environmental proponents in the practice of reclamation, promotion of biodiversity and exemplification of one of the most innovative water management systems within the nation’s mining industry.
The evolution of Arizona mining reclamation
“Mining practices have evolved over time and now include the objective of a post-mine-life land use,” says Bill Cobb, vice president of environmental services and sustainable development for Freeport-McMoRan. “At Freeport-McMoRan, we work to create land use that coincides with community sustainability objectives – especially with community partnership panels whenever possible.”
Gallagher & Kennedy Shareholder Dave Kimball, who has long advocated for the mining industry, agrees.
“Those working in the Arizona mining industry are considered to be some of the most responsible stewards of the environment,” he says.
In fact, Kimball’s explanation of the phrase and method of “operate to close,” practiced throughout the Arizona mining industry, is positive proof of environmental integrity – but more than that, it’s evidence of forward thinking.
“Before even opening, mining companies have a game plan of how to ‘mine out’ the ore body, including plans for reclamation land use after the mine closes,” Kimball says.
“Since 2006,” Cobb adds, “Freeport-McMoRan has undertaken major reclamation projects to mitigate areas impacted by mining disturbances.”
The mitigation that Cobb refers to includes everything from protecting wildlife habitats, building a renewable energy facility, creating an outdoor science lab for K-12 educational purposes – or building recreational space intended for hiking or bird watching.
“The rigorous state and federal permitting requirements for new mining operations create numerous safeguards that ensure mining in Arizona is done in an environmentally responsible way,” explains Dan Johnson, Florence Copper Inc. vice president and general manager. “Arizona’s residents demand that companies and regulatory agencies, enforce environmental protections and ensure that mining in Arizona is done in a responsible manner.”
The commitment, for which Johnson speaks, manifests through the mining industry’s practices of grading, capping and replanting vegetation, which in turn improves visual aesthetics, eliminates acid drainage (otherwise requiring collection and management) and allows local wildlife to thrive in a sustainable habitat.
In addition to preserving the environment, smart reclamation eliminates “double handling.”
“Operating to close ensures that a design is implemented to designate where material, other than ore is to be placed,” Kimball says. “It makes economic sense to not have to set aside material, only to displace it again.”
Nowhere is the Arizona mining industry’s commitment to the environment more apparent than with Rio Tinto’s proposed Resolution Copper Mine, which has the potential to produce 9 billion tons of copper, enough to supply 25 percent of North America’s needs.
Rio Tinto has already spent more than 16 years and $1.3 billion on the project and the mine probably won’t begin operating for another decade.
“At Resolution Copper, we are working to deliver world-class safety and environmental standards, practices and performance,” says Kyle Bennett, principal advisor for media and communications at Rio Tinto Kennecott. “Through 2016, we have invested $37 million through local suppliers to restore the environment and clean up the existing 130-acre legacy site. We will invest an additional $23 million in reclamation work by 2020. All of this investment will precede any actual mining.”
Rio Tinto and executives from the Resolution Copper Mine have developed a partnership with farmers in the New Magma irrigation and Drainage District (NMID) to efficiently utilize water. Mine water is first treated to remove metals and bring the pH to an acceptable range. It is then sent to NMID, where it is blended with Central Arizona Project (CAP) water and sent to growers for irrigation through a 27-mile pipeline. The treated mine water is suitable for soils and crops and made available to farmers within NMID.
“We always want to have a legacy of world-class environmental standards, practices and performance,” Bennett says. “To achieve that at Resolution Copper, we are developing detailed plans to protect air, water, biodiversity and cultural resources for current and future generations before we are permitted to operate. These plans will include technologies that will help us minimize impacts and improve environmental performance.”
Counting sheep (and bats) in an effort to honor biodiversity conservation
Rio Tinto isn’t alone in environmental stewardship. According to Freeport-McMoRan, 15 operating sites and facilities received gold tier certification for their biodiversity efforts in December of 2016. This highest level of acknowledgment imparted by the Wildlife Habitat Council (WHC) Conservation Certification program was attributed as the result of the Arizona mining industry’s tireless commitment to biodiversity conservation, environmental education and community outreach programs.
“In Morenci,” explains officials from Freeport-McMoRan, “we have collaborated with Bat Conservation International and other stakeholder groups to design and implement a bat-compatible gate to accommodate an area heavily populated with Mexican free-tailed bats.”
It’s an important biodiversity-related modification considering this particular species of bat provides economic enrichment and security to farmers in the area, as the bats consume significant quantities of agricultural crop pests.
Nearby Morenci, at Eagle Creek, Freeport-McMoRan coordinated a successful relocation of big horn sheep alongside the Arizona Game and Fish Department. The result: both reduced potential human-wildlife conflict and the augmentation of smaller big horn sheep populations in other areas of Arizona.
Collective biodiversity efforts within Arizona’s mining industry have also introduced educational opportunities, as in the case of Freeport-McMoRan’s Safford operations, which earned the Avian Project Award for its Burrowing Owl conservation program.
Water: A driving force in Arizona mining
Leonardo da Vinci once said, “Water is the driving force of all nature.” It’s also a driving source of sustainability for local farming, conservation for stakeholders and “the lifeblood of success in mining,” according to Kimball.
“Every drop of water is seven-times recyclable in mining,” Kimball explains.
For this, we can thank the innovative mining method of pyromettallurgical mining hydromet, a process that involves metal processing technology that utilizes a chemical procedure that combines water and other elements to dissolve metal from its ore. As a result, any environmental impact is minimal (if any) because liquid streams are easily contained.
In addition to environmentally responsible processes of mining, tremendous efforts to store renewable surface water supplies are practiced.
“These water supplies that are being held in underground recharge facilities will not only support existing mine operations,” says Francis McAllister, vice president of land and water for Freeport-McMoRan Americas and chairman of the Arizona Mining Association, “they can also serve as drought backup and support future mine expansions.”
Freeport-McMoRan has additional water management partnerships and programs that include construction of a water pipeline in partnership with southern Arizona farmers to bring renewable Colorado River water to farm fields and a project involving rotation for farming fields designated for being plowed, but not planted. The latter initiative will conserve water for stakeholders in the Gila Valley, while adding value by benefiting several endangered native fish and birds that call the Gila River home.