It’s early December, and I’m siting in a mega-church packed with more than 500 people. They’re here to listen to an update on the efforts to contain an enormous natural gas blowout that occurred more than a month before. Gas from the leak is being blown by prevailing winds right into their community of Porter Ranch, in Los Angeles County, CA.
People are mad.
Last Wednesday, the US experienced one of its worst mining-related disasters in decades, and it’s received a lot of attention both here in Colorado and nationally. There’s been no shortage of name calling and blaming, but few seem to be speaking of the bigger picture: how can we learn from this and write policies and regulations that stop this from happening again?
Last week I travelled to Albuquerque to attend an EPA-hosted national technical conference on “Mining Influenced Waters” – a toned-down phrase that describes water pollution caused by mining. The cases laid out were all severe enough to warrant multi-million dollar remedial actions and treatment operations, and at most of these sites, someone will be footing the bill forever.
That’s right. A growing number of mine sites discharge such severely polluted water that they will require water treatment for hundreds to thousands of years, or “in perpetuity” to meet water quality standards that protect human health and aquatic life. Earthworks released a report in 2013 that documents this escalating national dilemma.
Most people think that National Parks and UNESCO World Heritage sites would be buffered from industrial extraction like fracking for oil. But during the last two weeks of May, we all began to think again.
The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) is writing a new management plan for a multi-million acre swatch of public lands in northwestern New Mexico. Contained within this area is the treasured Chaco Canyon National Historic Park. One of less than a dozen UNESCO sites in the western states, it includes the ruins of what were the largest buildings in North America 1,000 years ago.
The recent news about Exxon-Mobil CEO Rex Tillerson’s participation in a lawsuit against the construction of a large water tower near his home and ranch in Texas was extraordinarily symbolic, and could help combat the rhetoric being thrown at opponents of fracking, who are often cast away by industry as being unreasonable “NIMBY’s”: Not In My Back Yard.
The 16-story tower would – among other uses – provide water for fracking operations in the area. It would be a large, unsightly industrial installation, similar in some respects to the thousands of 16 story high Exxon-commissioned drill rigs and heavy machinery towering above neighborhoods and ranches throughout the country. The difference is that the proposed water tank would sit quietly nearby in years to come – a stark contrast to noisy fracking sites that emit hazardous air pollution and sometimes contaminate drinking water.
In October, Energy Corporation of America's CEO, John Mork, made a huge mistake. In a press conference, he declared that he would like to "bring something like the Bakken" to areas surrounding Red Lodge, on the flanks of Beartooth-Absaroka Wilderness, and then added salt to the wound and announced that it would "fundamentally change these areas the way it has changed other areas of the United States."
Mr. Mork is exactly right -- it would fundamentally change these areas. If his plans succeed, folks can expect to see changes in the scenic landscape, and in crime rates, road conditions, the affordability of rent and food, and perhaps most importantly, changes in the clean water and air currently enjoyed in the area.
On Thursday, August Resources -- the backer of the widely opposed Rosemont Mine in southern Arizona -- announced it has received a key permit from the Coronado National Forest. They need this permit to mine the mile wide, half mile deep open pit copper deposit southeast of Tucson.
“We’re going underground now,” Mark said as the truck neared a landmark on a hillside. It marked the beginning of what might eventually be a waste rock dump at least 600 feet tall from the proposed Rosemont open pit copper mine in southeastern Arizona’s Santa Rita Mountains. The visual was striking; I could imagine the expanse of this behemoth mine, with its dump stretching miles from one side to the other, covering the mountainside and its foothills, and the habitat of everything that had ever lived there. Included in the fallout zone was a once-productive ranch house, with corrals, water tanks, and trees – the ingredients for a sustainable, renewable economy. I was told that Augusta Resources – the Canadian junior mining company behind the idea – had already bought out the ranch, and now it was broken, lifeless.