Bill seeking to avoid mining pit lakes advances in Legislature
Legislation sought by environmentalists to address the impacts hardrock mines have on water — particularly with the creation of large-scale, artificial lakes that form when mine pits are abandoned — advanced out of a legislative committee last week on a party-line vote.
The vote came after 48 hours of full-court lobbying and a nearly two-hour hearing on April 10. Several Democrats expressed some reservations about the proposal but voted April 12 to move the legislation forward, saying they wanted to see continued negotiations over the bill.
The proposed bill, which would place new restrictions on an industry that has significant political influence in the Legislature, was met with major opposition from mining operators and questions from state environmental regulators who would be tasked with implementing the new rules.
AB313, sponsored by Assemblywoman Sarah Peters (D-Reno), would require new mining operations to prevent the creation of a pit lake by refilling — or backfilling — an open pit after mining ceases. Peters, an environmental consultant, said doing so would help prevent toxic pit lakes from forming and restore water systems to something closer to their natural state.
Pit lakes are a reflection of the complex ways mining companies use and move water. If mines are extracting ore from below the groundwater table, underground water must be pumped away from an open pit — known as dewatering. When mining stops, groundwater flows into the pit. Where once sat earthen rock, an artificial lake starts to form, unless the pit is refilled with rock.
Mining watchdog groups, including Great Basin Resource Watch, noted in testimony last week that some pit lakes, notably at the Lone Tree and Sleeper mines, have developed toxic water quality concerns over time. Other pit lakes have also developed contaminated water.
But supporters said the issue is not only about water quality. It’s about water quantity too. The water ultimately stored in mining pits is diverted away from groundwater aquifers that support ecosystems, streams and downstream irrigators. The legislation, supporters argued, would tighten rules for how mines are reclaimed, explicitly recognizing the role of water.
“This bill is really about the responsibility to water,” Peters said last week. “And what is our role as legislators? How do we want to direct the policy in the best interest of the state resources? This is about striking the balance about the cost to our future and the cost to our economy.”
The hearing last week featured supportive testimony from environmentalists, members of tribal nations and residents of rural communities. Mary Gibson, a member of the Elko Band of the Te-Moak Tribe of Western Shoshone and board member of Great Basin Resource Watch, said lawmakers should back the measure as an effort to conserve and protect water for the future.
“Mining industry employees are afforded to relocate at the conclusion of a mining project, but we, as Western Shoshone, don’t have that opportunity as this is our homeland, our mother country, Newe Segobia,” she said, testifying to the Assembly Natural Resources Committee from Elko.
The legislation also received the endorsement of the chair of the state’s Mining Oversight and Accountability Commission, who tweeted in favor of AB313 shortly before the committee vote.
Two days after the April 10 hearing, the bill passed out of the Assembly Natural Resources Committee by an 8-4 vote, with all Republicans on the committee voting against it.
The legislation is still far from becoming law. It now heads to the Assembly floor for a vote of all lawmakers — and then it must be weighed by the Senate.
Even though the legislation moved forward, several Democrats said they had apprehension about language in AB313. Before voting in favor of the bill, Assemblywoman Natha Anderson (D-Reno), said that “there continues to be concerns and continues to be a very different point of view when it comes to the analysis of different scientific areas as well as definitions being used.”
Mining officials have argued that backfilling requirements for new open-pit mines would hinder development of future projects and were duplicative of state and federal rules (bill supporters dispute this, noting there is currently no default requirement to backfill pit lakes). Other mining officials argued that backfilling could be infeasible because many mines would not have enough material to refill — and the use of certain rocks could cause more environmental contamination.
Joel Donalson, head of permitting for Nevada Gold Mines, the state’s largest mining company, testified that the company already backfills its pits when it makes sense. But he noted that filling some of the state’s largest gold mines would take about 3 billion tons of rock and cost $7 billion.
“This bill won’t protect water quality or the public, but it will put Nevada mining companies out of business and irreparably harm the economy of our state and our local communities,” he said.
The legislation, as amended, only applies to new mine plans and outlined two exceptions under which pit lakes would still be allowable during the state mine permitting process: if backfilling the open pit would cause a mine to become unprofitable or if doing so was technically not possible.
Still, the mining industry said both versions of the legislation included vague standards for state regulators, such as one analysis that relied on a “preponderance of evidence” and another to determine the economics of a mine. Mine operators said backfilling would impede the expansion of existing mines or the possibility of “re-mining” operations, blocking off access to exposed ore.
Allison Anderson, who represented i-80 Gold, predicted that the bill “would create an extremely challenging mining climate in Nevada and lead to certain bankruptcies for many companies.”
The Vegas Chamber and the Nevada Petroleum Marketers Association also opposed the bill.
Of 87 mine sites across the state, 38 mines are or are expected to become pit lakes. Although the majority will be smaller than 25 acres, eight pit lakes are expected to be more than 200 acres, according to data provided by the Nevada Division of Environmental Protection.
The division is responsible for regulating water quality in mine permitting. In testimony, division Administrator Jennifer Carr said the agency already considers groundwater quality in permitting. She said the agency is concerned the bill, as written, will be “difficult to interpret and implement.”
“At this time, we don't believe that there is a necessity to create additional policy for reclaiming groundwater because we already protect groundwater,” Carr told lawmakers during the hearing.
The effort to place greater regulations on the industry comes at a time when Nevada officials are positioning the state to be a leader in mining for critical minerals, including copper and lithium, needed to drive the energy transition away from fossil fuels and adoption of electric vehicles.
In a speech to the Legislature on April 11, just a day after the hearing, Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto (D-NV) urged state officials to encourage lithium recovery to spur the energy transition.
“We should be developing Nevada's minerals,” Cortez Masto said during her remarks last week. “We should be developing that lithium in Nevada, whether it's through extraction or recycling.”
In voting against AB313, Assemblyman Rich DeLong (R-Reno), an exploration geologist by trade and an environmental consultant, cited Cortez Masto in saying the state should not be restricting the industry. DeLong joined Republicans on the committee in voting against the bill.
“[Given] the uncertainty that this bill would bring to the regulatory process for permitting mines in Nevada, I find it quite ironic that we are doing this the day after a floor speech by our senior U.S. senator promoting Nevada as the best jurisdiction for mining,” DeLong said before the vote.
Environmentalists have argued that the increased focus on expanding Nevada’s mining footprint means that the state should tighten its regulations around how mine lands are cleaned up. .
John Hadder, executive director of Great Basin Resource Watch, said moving the bill forward was a significant step, noting it has been years since the industry faced major regulatory reform.
“Legislators are recognizing the importance of water and that the people of Nevada want water protected and available,” Hadder said. “They clearly thought that this needed to be addressed.”
Nevada Independent reporter Jacob Solis contributed to this story.