By Teri Walker–
With the permitting process for the region’s first potash mine set to begin in March 2012, American West Potash is hoping to gain strong community support in the region.
In a presentation to regional economic development leaders from Navajo and Apache counties and their respective communities last week, American West CEO Pat Avery said the most valuable thing communities can do to help make the mine a reality is lend vocal, consistent support, especially as the project goes through the public scoping process related to environmental permitting.
“Decision makers need to hear that local communities are behind the mine; that you’ve learned the potential risks, and that the benefits to your communities outweigh the risks,” said Avery, addressing the Dec. 8 REAL AZ Corridor meeting in Taylor.
The permitting process for potash mine development involves agencies such as the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality (ADEQ), the Arizona State Mine Inspector, the Arizona State Land Department and the Arizona Department of Water Resources.
Avery anticipates there will be opposition to the mining project from environmental groups, because the proposed potash mining would take place surrounding Petrified Forest National Park.
The Sierra Club made an initial run at the prospect of potash mining near the Petrified Forest when it opposed legislation presented during Arizona’s 2011 legislative session that would allow the State Land Commissioner to offer mineral exploration permits on state lands on which the permits had been cancelled, terminated or not renewed. The bill would also allow the commissioner to offer mineral exploration permits at public auction for state trust lands which have been closed by the commissioner’s order.
The Sierra Club claimed the bill was “clearly aimed at allowing potash mining to go forward on these lands, which are slated to become part of one of Arizona’s three national parks,” referring to lands approved by Congress for expansion of the Petrified Forest.
The group’s effort to stop the bill was unsuccessful, and the state senate passed the legislation in March.
Avery told the REAL AZ Corridor group that it’s likely environmental organizations will take a stance against any proposed mining near the Petrified Forest, although he believes the environmental impacts to the region can be mitigated.
“There are no hazardous chemicals used in making potash. It’s actually a very clean, very quiet process,” said Avery.
He said that the typical underground potash mining operation would have one, 60-foot flotation building, where the potash is separated from other elements such as salt and clay, and one 60-foot drier stack (or smoke stack.)
“We’ll put a condenser on that stack so it probably won’t even have a plume,” said Avery.
Avery has been keeping in close contact with Petrified Forest National Park Superintendent Brad Traver to locate the above-ground mining facilities out of sight of park visitors.
“We have no intention of mining under the national park,” said Avery.
Answering questions about the tremendous amount of salt that will be mined along with the potash, Avery said some of the salt will be reused in the mining process, but most of it will be given to highway departments in Arizona and surrounding states.
“Salt is a break-even business. We’ll probably give most of it away,” said Avery.
He said some salt will be stored on the surface until it’s given away or recycled through the mining process.
Woodruff resident Jerald Scorse asked Avery about the potential for the stored salt to leach into area water sources.
Avery responded that there is the potential for rain to cause some runoff of salt piles, which is why he would double-line any areas where salt is stored to prevent leaching. He also said in potash mining today, miners use a “dry stacking” process, which greatly reduces leaching into the ground.
In addition to the dry stacking and double-lining, channeling would be developed to funnel any runoff back into the processing plant to provide briny water needed to separate the potash from other elements.
Nolan Larson, owner of Larson Waste, asked if the residual salt could be used as daily cover at landfills.
“I’ll give away salt to anyone who wants it,” replied Avery.
Aside from salt, Avery addressed other environmental questions.
Snowflake Town Councilman Tom Poscharsky said ranchers have expressed concerns to him that if mines draw heavily on brackish water wells, it could cause the brackish water to travel into nearby freshwater wells.
“The way to combat that is to not have one or two huge wells causing a major draw, but to have five or six smaller ones across an area, which is what I would do,” said Avery.
David Newlin of the Little Colorado River Plateau RC&D (Resource Conservation and Development Area) said his organization would be hosting a discussion in early February, bringing in the U.S. Geological Survey and the Ecological Restoration Institute of Northern Arizona University to discuss environmental considerations of potash mining.
“It’s not an advocacy role, it’s strictly public information,” said Newlin.
Newlin also said he and local conservationist Dr. Kathy Hemenway have evaluated the water usage information Avery has provided related to potash mining water needs, and found it “checks out.”
Avery has said to extract two million tons of potash each year, 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.
In terms of draw down on local wells, Avery has 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.
Avery does not anticipate that potash operations in the Holbrook Basin will have adverse water impacts. He has 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.
Addressing safety issues, Avery said, “To my knowledge, there’s never been a death in potash mining due to collapse.”
He said there have been mining accident deaths involving vehicles or heavy equipment, but not from mine collapse as happens in other underground mining.
Avery told REAL AZ members his biggest concern is making sure people in the region understand the realities of potash mining, and that they aren’t swayed by misinformation.
“Where we’re going to be mining, we don’t have endangered species, rivers and streams; it’s such a nonintrusive process,” said Avery. “We don’t use hazardous materials, but it’s all called ‘mining.’”
Because just the term “mining” can elicit strong opposition, Avery said, it can be hard to be heard over the loud voices of environmental groups.
“The only way to combat that is with good information,” he said. “If there are impacts, I’ll tell you, but if we’re going to get stopped, it’ll be by misinformation.”
Meeting attendees asked Avery what they could do specifically to help make a potash mine move forward. He answered that attending public meetings during the scoping process next year and voicing support, as well as helping to get out accurate information about the mining projects to combat misinformation, would do the most good.
“This group turns out really well. We’ll show up, we’ll write letters,” said Eric Duthie, Real AZ Corridor coordinator and town manager of Taylor.
Hank Rogers, director of economic development for Apache County, said he has heard concerns expressed from members of the Hopi Tribe about water issues, and asked if Avery has met with them.
Avery responded he had not met with tribal representatives yet, but would in the future.
Referring to contending with any potential environmental impacts of mining, Avery said, “There are ways to do it right. Of course we’re going to do the right thing.”
Avery told the group American West expects to release its preliminary economic assessment this week, and it’s possible his company could complete mine development in time to begin mining in early 2014.