These terms are often carelessly bandied about in the mining industry: long term; on-going; foreseeable future; several centuries; perpetuity; forever; sustained. What really do they mean?

I ask this question prompted by two articles in that authoritative magazine Mine Water and the Environment.

In the first, Water management aspects of the Britannia Mine remediation project, Gerry O’Hara writes of water treatment at the mine in British Columbia, Canada: “An ongoing program of operations and maintenance of the remedial components, and in particular the water treatment plant and groundwater management system, together with an element of environmental monitoring, will continue for the foreseeable future.”

In the second paper, Giant Mine: Identification of inflow water types and preliminary geochemical monitoring during remediation, Michael Royle writes of the mine in Yellowknife, Canada: “This system is recognized to be a perpetual care option for the material, but was determined to be the best alternative considering the risks of re-extracting the material and stabilizing/storing it in an alternate location.” He is writing of the proposal to freeze the 237,000 tonnes of soluble arsenic trioxide stored underground at the mine.

I recently came across a PowerPoint presentation made by University of British Columbia professor Dirk Van Zyl. My name is on the presentation, but all I did was e-mail a list of ideas that he incorporated into Designing for Long-Term Conditions. Many of the ideas in the presentation are derived from my work on the Uranium Mill Tailings Remedial Action (UMTRA) Project. There at least we were told by legislation that long-term means 1,000 years to the extent reasonably achievable, and at any rate for 200 years. Pretty specific by comparison with the vagueness of “foreseeable future” or the finality of “perpetual care.”

Then there is the Natural Resources Canada report on recommendations re decommissioning plans for uranium mines in the Elliot Lake region. These are two of the recommendation applicable to the issue we are discussing here:

  • arrangements, including financial assurances from the mining companies, be provided for perpetual monitoring and maintenance; and
  • the mining companies establish a curiosity-driven research endowment fund that could be managed by the proposed not-for-profit Serpent River Conservation Council.

Robertson and Shaw coined this utterly memorable sentence: “The potential for sustainable land use, including sustained revenue generation and sustained custodial care, becomes particularly important when reclaimed mining lands require sustained or perpetual care and maintenance (active or passive).” But they do hit on a significant issue: namely sustained (perpetual) care as part of sustainable development.

I liked the extraordinary vagueness, but serious sounding “several centuries” and “hundreds of years or more” that is used in the Faro Mine reports. Now that could be 200 years or 1,000 years. Personally I opine, having read the report, that they mean forever, but do they have the political will power to say so. I suppose, in their defense, that they do say “long term treatment of seepage, groundwater, and open pit waters will be required, possibly as long as 500 to 1,000 years, a situation amounting to ‘perpetual care’.”

I recall serious discussion on the UMTRA project about establishing a hereditary priesthood to perpetually care for the closed piles. Instead I wrote a report recommending a system that is now in place: the Grand Junction project office. Ultimately they will look after both government and private sector closed uranium mill sites.

Saskatchewan is planning to do much the same thing. They have something called the Institutional Control Management Framework (ICMF) that “sets out the terms under which the province will accept custodial responsibility and upon which the site will be monitored and maintained in perpetuity.”

In a paper called Sustainable development and risk assessment in mine closure - a case study of Elliot Lake uranium mines, M. Wiber and D. Berthelot of Rio Algom write:

Long-term water treatment will be required for acid neutralization at the dry vegetated site and possibly for radium removal at the water covered sites. Rio Algom has contracted the management, care and maintenance of the sites to Denison Environmental Services. Elliot Lake is a somewhat unique situation in that there are two companies with eight tailings facilities that all discharge treated effluent into the upper Serpent River Watershed. A common environmental monitoring program and data management system has proven to be and effective approach to best serve both the mining companies and the regulators.

On the UMTRA Project, we relocated the uranium mill tailings from the center of Salt Lake City to a site forty miles west. I recall gasping in wonder at the beauty of the sight when first I saw the selected location: a flat plain stretching to distant snow-covered peaks. The Utah state engineer with me assured me not to worry for “this is the armpit of Utah.” So we built the cell way out in the desert. Some enterprising fellows came to Albuquerque where they copied the design report and the EIS for our cell, went away and repeated them word for word, thereby permitting and building the Envirocare facility. Now I see there is a scrap in the Utah state legislature over funding for perpetual care of the facility. In my opinion, the Envirocare cell is next door to the UMTRA cell and is in most respect identical, that you might as well include it in the UMTRA program run out of Grand Junction. After all why have more than one organization per country devoted to perpetual care of mining and other similar wastes?

One good argument would be the question of why should the taxpayer pay for perpetual care? In the case of UMTRA, I think that a valid taxpayers cost; it was and remains a necessary cost to end World War II and save the lives of the many young men who were waiting to be shipped to the Pacific theater of war. In the case of acid mine drainage for gold to fill teeth, turn into Indian jewelry, or stash in Swiss vaults, I can make no such case. I propose there the user should pay as part of the mining and purchase price - not defer costs to taxpayers innocent of bad teeth and stash under the bed and in the bank.

Michigan has it right. Their mine closure law demands “The mine site and surrounding area must be reclaimed to establish a self-sustaining ecosystem that does not need perpetual care.” That is pretty simple. Why is this absent from laws in other places?