Pipeline's Dirty Little Secrets:
Placer Dome's New Mine in Crescent Valley experiencing problems

By Christopher Sewall

"This is a fabulous project," exclaimed Placer Dome CEO John Wilson at the July 8th celebration of Cortez Gold’s (Placer Dome/Kennecott) new Pipeline gold mine. The celebration was typical of the uncritical boosterism surrounding the opening of new mines in Western Shoshone country. Governor Bob Miller, and former U.S. Rep Barbara Vucanovich, were on hand to sing the praises of Nevada’s responsible mining industry. Yet behind the scenes the Pipeline project was facing significant problems with its dewatering operation. This system of pumps and ponds is supposed to lower the groundwater table at the mine, and then return the water to the aquifer, resulting in no loss or deterioration of groundwater. Unfortunately the system isn’t working as well as the mine predicted; all the water isn’t getting back into the ground and the water that is returning to the aquifer is contaminated.

The potential for degrading groundwater quality or quantity in arid Crescent Valley was one of the significant impacts the BLM identified during the Pipeline planning stages. The dewatering system, including ‘reinfiltration ponds, ’ was Placer Dome’s answer to the voluminous criticism of the project from local Western Shoshone, ranchers and environmentalists. Water would be pumped near the pit and then piped to shallow ponds several miles away where it would seep back under the ground. This, the mine claimed, would result in no groundwater loss and would help prevent the drying of springs due to the lowered water table around the pit. The BLM permitted 126 acres for all the ponds necessary to dispose of the water for the life of the mine.

Press coverage of the permitting and construction of the mine was extensive, yet little to no mention was made of dewatering operations when they commenced in August 1996. Soon after dewatering began Cortez realized that their ponds were not infiltrating water at the rate predicted. Rather than informing the State or the BLM of this rather significant problem, Cortez moved forward with expanding mining and dewatering at the Pipeline Pit. Finally on June 3rd, 1997 Cortez approached the BLM with an emergency proposal to remedy their inadequate reinfiltration. The solution: construct an additional 236 acres of ponds, above and beyond, those originally permitted. Cortez claimed it was absolutely necessary to build these ponds because the water they couldn’t reinfiltrate was creating unsafe working conditions in the pit.

As usual the State and the BLM deferred to the needs of the mining company and approved the plan in mid-June. This approval was appealed by two organizations: Great Basin Minewatch(GBMW), a coalition of environmental and Native American organizations; and Western Shoshone Resources Inc. (WSRI), an organization which works closely with the WSDP and the Danns. The appeal before the Interior Board of Land Appeals (IBLA) was not the first aimed at Cortez. GBMW appealed the original Pipeline approval in March 1996, one of the points being that the BLM had inadequately analyzed the impacts of dewatering. While the IBLA has yet to rule on this initial appeal, the current dewatering problems lend credence to the arguments presented last year.

Since the appeal, problems with the dewatering facilities have become more apparent, even after the two additional sets of ponds were constructed to remedy the situation. In June, August, September, October and November 1997 dewatering facilities overflowed. One set of ponds, the ‘Highway Infiltration’ site, has developed springs downhill from it. This results from the water in the ponds hitting a relatively impermeable layer, and then flowing downhill to emerge on the surface. The quality of this water is quite bad, containing potentially harmful levels of manganese and antimony.

The groundwater underneath many of these ponds is little better. Groundwater monitoring conducted in late September indicated that 13 of 33 monitoring wells had constituents exceeding drinking water standards. Five more monitoring wells indicated high levels of boron, a mineral detrimental to crops if the water is used for irrigation. Cortez has responded that these levels are only temporary as the soils get ‘flushed.’ We can only hope they are correct.

In addition to the water quality problems, the reinfilitration ponds are contributing to other environmental impacts. Evaporation will be nearly tripled by the new ponds, creating permanent groundwater loss. Water saturating the ground around some of the facilities is drowning native vegetation in some locations and causing a salt crust to build up on the surface in others.

State and BLM documents suggest that the mine is to blame for many of these problems. Some documents make references to poor monitoring and a lack of internal communication while others express the feeling that Cortez is unable to deal adequately with the dewatering. The State denied several requests by Cortez to increase their pumping rate because the Nevada Division of Environmental Protection (NDEP) felt they could not manage any more water. Other documents suggest that accelerated mining may have caused the dewatering problems, as Cortez integrated the development of the South Pipeline mine expansion. This evidence supports the contentions of the 1996 and 1997 appeals of GBMW and WSRI that Placer Dome has intended to expand the Pipeline mine since the beginning of its permitting process.

Water has always been the primary concern expressed by the critics of the Pipeline Project. Cortez and the BLM assured people throughout the permitting process that extensive computer modeling had been conducted and the impacts of the project would be limited. And while they couldn’t be 100% sure, they were quite confident in their calculations. Now we have the actual results of this ‘experiment’ and it seems as though those models weren’t as good as we were lead to believe. The Final Environmental Impact Statement claimed that the reinfiltration ponds would return water to the aquifer at a rate of 4 ft/day. This was a conservative estimate we were told. Cortez now has four sets of reinfiltration ponds operating for the Pipeline project. Only one set of ponds exceeds an infiltration rate of 2 ft/day. The remaining three facilities absorb water at less then 2 ft per day, with one of the original sets of ponds averaging only .96 ft per day. This is a significant miscalculation.

The problems with computer modeling are represented in the cliched phrase "garbage in-garbage out." Models are based on a series of assumptions. If any of the assumptions are wrong or miscalculated they can throw off the entire model. Cortez’s failure to accurately predict the reinfiltration capabilities calls into question their other predictions surrounding dewatering, including what the water quality will be like in the pit after mining and how long it will take the pit to refill. Tom Myers, a hydrologist working with GBMW, has recently pointed out that the model used to estimate the refill of the Pipeline is very sensitive. Varying certain factors in this model will cause the predicted refill times to range from 11 years to over 300 years. Because the time it takes to refill affects the quality of the water in the pit, water quality calculations could be way off.

The continuing difficulties with the dewatering system at the Pipeline project, even after additional ponds had been constructed, finally led the regulatory agencies to take action. On September 2nd the Nevada Bureau of Mining Regulation and Reclamation issued a Finding of Alleged Violation and Order. The BLM issued a similar Notice of Non-Compliance on September 11th. Both required the mine to come up with a more detailed and effective management plan for the dewatering facilities. However, since the notices were issued, several overflows have occurred, leading one to question the effectiveness of these regulatory actions and the agencies implementing them.

Neither the BLM nor the State has been strong in regulating Pipeline’s faulty dewatering schemes. The BLM didn’t know until the end of May 1997 that Cortez would want more ponds to accomplish its dewatering program, 9 months after the mine recognized the lower rates of infiltration. The environmental problems associated with the reinfiltration ponds could probably have been avoided if the BLM had fully evaluated the use of reinjection wells. These are a series of pumps which reinject water into the aquifers it was removed from, eliminating groundwater loss to evaporation and reducing if not eliminating water contamination from the infiltration process. The BLM rejected this as being too expensive and creating too much surface disturbance. The second argument rings hollow after the BLM permitted an additional 236 acres of disturbance for the new ponds. Current predictions of Pipeline’s cost of production for 1998 are $100 an ounce, making it Placer Dome’s most profitable mine, and certainly calling into question why using reinjection wells would be financially unfeasible. Reinfiltration ponds were simply the cheapest way of getting rid of water that was in the way, regardless of the impacts. Rather then requiring a more environmentally resposible option the BLM let the Pipeline project pursue the easiest solution.

The State has let Pipeline off quite easily as well. Despite recent statements that Cortez will be required to provide some sort of restitution, perhaps a fine, but more likely a mandatory public service project. The State has let them off the hook more times then not. On May 29th Cortez was informed by the NDEP that it had violated its permit by constructing infiltration facilities before they were approved. Subsequently the NDEP learned that Cortez had modified the original infiltration ponds in 1996 by drilling boreholes in their bottoms to make the water infiltrate faster. Neither the BLM nor the State knew about this action until September 1997, when it was revealed in documents filed in response to the GBMW and WSRI appeals. Despite this deception, the State seems ready to forget about this incident.

An examination of the evidence leads one to see the unfolding Pipeline Project not as a "fabulous project," but more as a project out of control. Out of the control of the Western Shoshone whose land it is built upon. Out of control of the regulatory agencies whose supposed oversight is protecting the public interest. And out of control of the mine operators themselves, who overestimated their ability to deal with the water they need to pump to get the gold. In this overwhelming desire to grow, Placer Dome has forgotten an important fact. In a valley that receives 7.25 inches of precipitation a year, water is gold, and it’s the only thing that will grow the most important thing, life.

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