Oct 122011

By Teri Walker–

Editor’s note: This is the third article in a series about water in the state and the region. The previous articles were published on Sept. 28 and Oct. 5.

Mining explorers came looking for oil in northeastern Arizona in the 1960s on the flatlands east of Holbrook.

After drilling 105 wells, those explorers didn’t find the rich oil field they were hoping for; what they found was potash, a mineral most commonly used in fertilizer. Since at that time potash wasn’t commercially viable for American miners, given the Canadian government’s subsidy of potash mining operations north of the border, those mid-century explorers reported their findings, capped their wells and moved on.

Now, with potash prices hovering at about $500 a ton worldwide, and a growing demand for fertilizer in China and India, where agriculture is booming, along with the U.S.’s consistent demand, potash is a viable commodity for American explorers, and potash companies have renewed interest in the rich deposits east of Holbrook in an area known as the Holbrook Basin.

After more than two years of exploration, two mining companies are near to announcing their results, with the CEOs of both companies saying they are pleased with what they are finding.

Denver-based American West Potash expects to announce the results of its exploration this week. Passport Potash, based in Apache Junction is further out on its reporting, but representatives have indicated they expect to move forward with mining in the basin.

A third mining company, HNZ Potash, a venture partnering Hunt Oil and NZ Legacy, headed by Robert Worsley of SkyMall fame, has been exploring in the area, as well, but has kept mum on its operations and findings.

Even if only one of these companies moves forward with mining, at the rate of extraction they anticipate (one to two million tons per year), that company would effectively double the United States’ yearly potash production all on its own. If two or all three of the companies decide to pull the trigger, the country’s potash production could be tripled or quadrupled within less than a decade. Currently, the country’s three existing potash operations produce a total of about 1.5 million tons per year.

Undoubtedly, the potash mining operations would be a huge economic boon to this rural corner of Navajo and Apache counties, with hundreds of millions of dollars anticipated in salaries and supply expenditures, and billions in revenues, translating to a huge infusion of taxes for the state, counties and municipalities.

Potash has become the buzz on the street in northeastern Arizona, with residents, community and political leaders daring to hope the mining, and its attendant jobs and spinoff economies, will become a reality.

While this is a region hungry for jobs, it is also, like the rest of Arizona, a place thirsty for water, as forecasters predict the drought the Southwest has been experiencing over the past several years will likely deepen. With ranchers reducing the numbers of their herds because there isn’t enough vegetation to support previous stocking levels, and Governor Jan Brewer announcing multi-county states of emergency caused by drought and wildfires, water continues to be a topic of concern in the state.

So, what of water use and potash mining? How will starting up one, two or three major mining operations affect the high desert water supplies?

The truth is, no one can say definitively just yet. Until the mining companies formally decide to move forward and finalize myriad plans for their respective mining operations, the scale and pace of potash production can’t be accurately assessed. But there are plenty of individuals and groups who are eager to learn the answers to water questions, and there is some information available about water usage in potash operations in general that may lend some perspective.

Among those watching the potash developments, or who will soon be drawn into conversation with potash operators, are the mining and environmental regulatory agencies with stewardship in Arizona, along with a newly formed conservation group and a small group of landowners living on the fringe of the mining activity.

If the companies elect to move forward, then extensive permitting processes will be triggered, with operators having to pass muster with the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality (ADEQ), the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Arizona State Mine Inspector, the Arizona Department of Water Resources (ADWR) and more.

Mark Shaffer, communications director for ADEQ, said because the mining companies have not yet filed applications with ADEQ, he couldn’t speak to specifics regarding environmental requirements; in general, though, there are some basics related to both solution and underground mining.

With underground mining, Shaffer said where storage and sediment impoundments, stockpiles and waste rock piles might be employed, it is likely an aquifer protection permit and an Arizona Pollutant Discharge Elimination System storm water permit will be required. Storm water and storm water runoff controls would be needed, Shaffer said, to prevent releases of potassium to surface waters and groundwater. If potash operators elect to process any of the ore onsite, say to convert it to fertilizer, additional permits would be required.

If operators use solution mining operations, which require the use of large surface evaporation ponds and injection and extraction wells, then operators would need to comply with EPA underground injection control measures, in addition to the aquifer protection and storm water permits.

Permits related to air quality would also be required by ADEQ, Shaffer said, noting that reviewing operators’ plans will reveal whether additional environmental permits are required.

Tom Whitmer, manager of regional strategic planning and tribal liaison for ADWR, says well “draw down” is a realistic concern for those with wells in the vicinity of a major water withdrawing operation, and depending on the amount of water to be used in potash mining operations, may come into play in the Holbrook Basin.

A group of landowners from River Meadows, located about nine miles east of Petrified Forest National Park south of Highway 180, is concerned about the potential effects of nearby mining operations on their community well.

Community association president Chris Pearson says he will be meeting this week with representatives from HNZ Potash, which has holdings closest to River Meadows, to learn what he can about the company’s plans, and to begin to evaluate the potential impacts on the community of about 250 landowners. Pearson said about 15 families live full-time in the remote community, with many other owners, such as he and his wife, living there part time.

Pearson is eager to learn where mining operations will be taking place, and hopes to hear the community won’t experience constant traffic and trains, or see a drastic impact on its water supply. He said he is aware of HNZ Potash owning at least two adjacent parcels, totaling about 60 acres, within the community.

Whitmer explained that the Coconino aquifer, which is the major aquifer present in the region, presently has in excess of 508 million acre-feet of groundwater. An estimated 105,000 acre-feet is withdrawn from the aquifer annually for agricultural, industrial and municipal uses, according to ADWR. In an equation that bodes well for sustainable water sources, nearly three times the amount withdrawn each year is recharged into the aquifer, with 300,000 acre feet of water going back into the aquifer from sources such as mountain runoff, effluent recharge and precipitation. Across the board, the Coconino aquifer is achieving a good balance of use versus recharge.

Even so, Whitmer said, it’s important to look at the localized and long-term effects of sustained pumping of large amounts of water over time on local and regional water sources. So, he noted, it will be important to know how much groundwater will be pumped, where, over what period of time and how much will be recharged into the groundwater systems before the impacts of operations such as potash mining can be known.

Whitmer also expressed concerns about contamination of the water table from the act of sinking wells.

“When you pass through the water table, you chance releasing heavy metals that have been bound up in the earth,” said Whitmer, adding he wants to know how mining operators plan to protect the area’s groundwater.

Pat Avery, CEO and president of American West Potash, has a long history with potash mining, having previously served as CEO of Intrepid Potash, which operates mines in Utah and New Mexico.

Avery addressed some of the concerns and questions that have been raised so far related to water, drawing on experiences in other potash mines.

In potash mining, Avery said, the method of mining greatly impacts the amount of water used.

Solution mining, which includes drilling a series of wells, injecting the mine site with millions of gallons of water, and flushing the mineral and water mix to the surface, is a heavy water user. Another mining approach, like that used by Intrepid Potash in Wendover, Utah, uses miles of open ditches on the surface (100 miles at the Wendover site) that are flooded with high-salinity, brackish water, or brine. The brine from the ditch system is then pumped into an 8,000-acre solar evaporation pond. Intrepid reports over five billion gallons of brine are pumped into the solar pond each year.

The mining approach Avery anticipates taking in the Holbrook Basin is conventional underground mining, which uses markedly less water than either of the other two mining methods.

Avery said to extract two million tons of potash each year, which is the upper end of estimates both American West and Passport have discussed for the Holbrook area mine sites, he would anticipate using about 400 gallons per minute of fresh water and about 600 gallons per minute of brine, totaling about 1,500 acre-feet of water each year. That number breaks down to roughly 970 acre-feet of brine and about 615 acre-feet of fresh water.

By comparison, the Arizona Public Service Co. Cholla Power Plant near Joseph City used an average of 15,700 acre-feet of water annually from 2001 to 2005, according to ADWR. Avery’s estimate of 1,500 acre-feet for one potash operation equates to less than one-tenth of that used by the coal-fired power plant.

In terms of draw down on local wells, Avery said the 1,500 acre-feet drawn over a year’s time would be from different areas, with some wells five to 10 miles from each other.

Passport Potash officials have said it is likely they would use conventional mining. HNZ Potash has not made any information available.

Avery does not anticipate that potash operations in the Holbrook Basin will have adverse water impacts. He said the standard of industry calls for care taken in the well drilling process to seal the aquifer to prevent contamination of groundwater, and his practice is to recycle the water that is used in the mining process to the greatest degree possible.

Aside from the positive environmental effect of recycling water, Avery said it makes good economic sense for mine operators. Water is expensive anywhere, but especially in the West, Avery pointed out, so it’s in miners’ interest to be as frugal with it as possible.

He elaborated that sealing the aquifer with concrete around well casings, as is commonly done, not only protects the groundwater, it’s also a safety issue, keeping water from seeping down and flooding mine shafts. In the old days, Avery said, when mine shafts were sunk, miners didn’t always seal around the shaft, which led to flooding and cave ins; now, sealing is standard practice.

Addressing the concern about releasing heavy metals, Avery said there aren’t heavy metal layers in the salt, sandstone and clay that miners will be drilling through to access the potash. Even so, carefully sealing the shaft prevents aquifer contamination.

Avery explained it is also standard in the mining industry today to have a full environmental and safety team, staffed with hydrologists, geologists and other specialists who will evaluate all factors related to the environmental impacts of mining.

Ken Bond of Passport’s corporate development division echoed Avery’s assertions.

“It goes without saying, when we’re conducting our engineering studies we’ll explore the best practices for protecting the aquifer and avoiding groundwater contamination,” said Bond.

Permitting processes for each of the mining companies will require disclosure of well locations, and will have public involvement elements, allowing groups or individuals to review mining plans and provide comments and information during the evaluation process.

Emerging in time for that process to begin is a newly formed group called the Holbrook Basin Conservation League (HBCL).

The group’s founders are David Newlin, watershed projects director at the Little Colorado River Plateau RC&D (Resource Conservation and Development Area), and Dr. Kathy Hemenway of Snowflake.

In a prepared statement, the co-founders explained they are “talking to local stakeholders as well as prospective developers about integrating production and preservation goals in ways that serve the needs of the area.

“Mining companies play a major role in the well-being of their host communities, and these companies rely on communities for functional and productive work environments. Mines can have significant impacts on the ecology as well as the culture and economy, and they often contribute to community development. Local input and processes involving different groups are key in working toward an effective vision for the region.”

Newlin and Hemenway continued, “It’s essential to include ranchers, landowners, rural residents, tribes, community organizations, conservation and development groups, the Petrified Forest National Park, other government land managers and others.”

Newlin and Hemenway expect to hold an organizational meeting soon. The two are meeting with Avery to open dialogue with American West Potash this week.