Sep 072011

By Teri Walker–

The prospect of two, if not three, major mining operations setting up shop against the borders of Petrified Forest National Park has Park Superintendent Brad Traver on the alert.

While he isn’t sitting on the front porch with a shotgun like a father keeping boys away from his teenage daughter, he is certainly watchful and wants to understand what the potash operators, who collectively hold some form of rights to more than 200,000 acres of land surrounding his park, have planned.

Three companies are on record with the Arizona Oil and Gas Conservation Commission as holding permits to conduct potash exploration in the Holbrook basin, which a report from the Arizona Geological Survey estimates holds 0.7 billion to 2.5 billion tons of potash. Potash is a substance containing potassium carbonate, and is used in fertilizers, ceramics, glass and soap making.

The three companies, which are in the exploration stage, have been drilling wells around the basin, searching the depth and grade of the potash deposits, among other things.

HNZ Potash of Dallas, Texas, American West Potash of Denver, Colo., and Passport Potash of Apache Junction are the companies of record exploring near the Park boundary. HNZ Potash didn’t respond before press time to inquiries about its operations in the area, but officials of Passport Potash and American West Potash have indicated there are potash deposits that could keep mining operations running at a good clip for 50 to 100 years.

Geological surveys show the thickest deposits of the mineral are found under the park and the lands immediately surrounding it. Many of the same lands are part of the expanded park boundary, which was approved by Congress in 2004.

The new boundaries authorized by Congress seven years ago added 125,000 acres to the Petrified Forest. Since the expansion authorization, the National Park Service has acquired only 15,000 of the outlined acres, and those were secured with the transfer of Bureau of Land Management lands to the park.

Competition at the federal level for funding has held up the rest of the land purchases, and Traver is watching as acre after acre of the land identified for park expansion comes under the control of potash operators.

Still, Traver isn’t panicking. It’s more appropriate to describe his demeanor as vigilant.

He explains that for the most part, the potash companies are acquiring some form of mineralization rights to their land holdings. And, with Passport and American West’s expressed intention to use conventional underground mining methods, even on the lands the companies are acquiring outright there doesn’t have to be significant disruption to the surface, where the park’s valued archeological and paleontological resources lie or are buried.

Traver and members of his staff have met with representatives from American West Potash and learned their plans for mining primarily along the eastern edge of the park. He said American West President and CEO Pat Avery discussed his company’s desire to be good neighbors, and to minimize the impacts of the mining operations on the park, going so far as to invite park personnel to help determine the location of the above-ground mine facilities.

“He (Avery) invited us to participate in the design process for the mine’s facilities on the surface, which was pretty extraordinary, I thought,” said Traver.

Traver said park employees brought up some concerns Avery hadn’t yet considered, such as night lighting, and Avery said he would fold the concerns into the company’s planning process.

Traver expressed concern that he hasn’t yet had conversations with Passport Potash, which will bring its land holdings in the area to more than 121,000 acres if its pending purchase of the Fitzgerald Ranch west of the park goes through as planned.

Passport Potash owns the Twin Buttes Ranch, which was originally included in the park expansion boundary, and Traver is disappointed the company acquired the ranch before the National Park Service was able to do so.

“Maybe Passport’s surface operations will go to the west on the Fitzgerald Trust lands, rather than being sited on the Twin Buttes property,” Traver said.

In a recent interview, Ken Bond of Passport’s corporate development division said the company has been busy with its geological exploration and financing operations, but that the company planned to reach out to the park again soon.

Bond said park personnel attended on-site meetings held in early spring, but Traver had not yet come on board as superintendent.

The conventional mining method used for potash operations has a relatively small surface footprint, compared to other mining operations. Bond said it’s too early to say how big Passport’s surface facility will be, as engineering for the project won’t be complete until resource and pre-feasibility reports are finished. Considering potash operations that handle approximately the same level of extraction that Passport expects to undertake near Holbrook–one million to two million tons per year–he wouldn’t anticipate the plant to cover much more than one-quarter mile.

“We wouldn’t have the same surface impact as, say, open pit or copper mining like you already have in Arizona,” said Bond, “because most of our operations are underground and we won’t need big evaporative ponds if we undertake conventional mining, as we expect to do.”

Traver said his concerns would be greater if any of the operators decided to undertake solution mining, which would require large evaporative ponds on the surface and large amounts of water.

While he understands it’s said that potash mining doesn’t pose much risk for subsidence, or cave-ins, he said that even with the best practices, mistakes can be made and it’s a concern.

Other questions Traver has relate to whether the underground mining activity could be felt underfoot, and what happens to the salt that is extracted along with the potash. Will the operators be able to sell it all and take it off property; if not, what will become of it?

Even if the National Park Service had been able to acquire all of the lands identified for expansion prior to potash operations getting underway, Traver said the park wouldn’t have had the mineral rights to much of that land, so the potential for potash mining to occur was already inherent.

His hope is that all of the mining operators will be willing to consider how the park’s mission of protecting the resources and environment of the national park can still be met with mining operations next door, and in the case of the expansion lands, under foot.

Traver said there has been no exploration within the existing park boundary and without an Act of Congress, there won’t be.

“I seriously doubt the American people would see the value of making mineral rights available to anyone else,” he said.

“These mineral rights are owned by all Americans. To allow someone to mine here would be like selling off a piece of the park,” said Traver.

Passport’s Bond said he looks forward to discussing with park officials their concerns about protecting the surface of the expansion lands, and sees opportunities to find ways for Passport and other mine operators to help care for the resources in the Park.

Asked whether Passport would consider locating its surface plant on the Fitzgerald Trust land, outside of the park’s expansion boundary, Bond said the company is awaiting its resource and pre-feasibility study results, which will include recommendations for site location alternatives. He noted that part of the reason the Fitzgerald Ranch was a desirable property was because it is situated near rail and highway access. He said it’s typically desirable to locate surface plants near transport sites, but site selection also considers proximity to the underground resource as well. Bond said it’s possible the surface plant would be sited on the western property, but it’s too early to say.

With all his concerns on the table, Traver said he’s feeling fairly comfortable with American West, and hopes to be able to learn what the other operators have in mind to see if he can have the same level of comfort with them.

“Having industrial neighbors can be tough for any national park,” said Traver. But if the potash mining operations turn out to be underground conventional mining, and if operators are willing to consider the park’s concerns and minimize impacts to the park’s resources and the visitor experience, his concerns could be lessened.

Passport Potash anticipates receiving its final resource report and prefeasibility study in September. American West expects to receive its final resource report this month, as well. After that time, both companies will begin securing permits from various agencies in advance of design and construction.