Environment Deep Dive: Injecting Actionable Science into Mine Approval Decisions

By: Arti Garg
September 14, 2020
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Est. Reading Time: 9 minutes
Highland Valley Copper Mine Tailings Lake
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For the inaugural installment of our “Deep Dive” series, ESAL Chair Arti Garg spoke to Kendra Zamzow. Zamzow is an environmental chemist at the Center for Science in Public Participation. Based out of Chickaloon, Alaska, she provides scientific input to mining approval decisions on behalf of community groups and tribes throughout the country. Our conversation covered the scientific and engineering issues associated with mining and how regulators learn about and use that information. Zamzow holds a Ph.D. in environmental chemistry from the University of Nevada, Reno. She is also a member of ESAL’s Steering Committee.

AG: For those of us who don’t live near mines or who aren’t involved in mining activity, when we hear about mines it’s often about their negative environmental impacts or safety issues. But their products are critical to applications like renewable energy, aren’t they?

Kenda Zamzow

Kendra Zamzow

Zamzow: If we want to shift off of fossil fuels, we have to increase our mining to get more copper and what are called rare earth elements [that are used by many renewable energy technologies]. We need a lot if we're going to keep our same lifestyle without fossil fuels. I do also think that not enough scientists and economists are looking at whether we can reuse these metals. At things like how we can recycle components from wind turbines, from solar panels, from electric cars over and over. But if we really want to shift to renewable energy, we need to increase mining and also balance our tolerance of its impacts against our willingness to reduce our consumption.

AG: Until I started learning about what you do, I did not appreciate the breadth of scientific and engineering input that goes into mining projects. What are a few of the considerations?

Zamzow: Hydrology is important, because there are water quality and fishery issues, or issues of whether there's water at all since mines can divert or dry up water sources. Geochemistry is important because you're digging up material from below the ground, and it changes the chemistry once it’s on the surface. How large mammals react to roads and noise can be important.

But how you deal with the waste is usually the most important issue. The good veins of minerals are now gone, so most mines have low grade rock where there's very little metal. You have to move a lot of material to get to it, and you end up with vast amounts of waste. How do you store 300 million tons of rock so that it doesn’t leach metals and also doesn’t slide onto a road? How are you going to store a similar amount of tailings, which is like silt? Because if the wall that's holding that material slips, it's devastating. It can kill rivers and communities.

AG: You tend to get involved during the approval process. What government entities are involved in approving a mining project?

Zamzow: If there's a federal permit needed, like a Clean Water Act permit, at least one federal agency will be involved. It could be the Army Corps of Engineers, the US Forest Service, or the Bureau of Land Management. Some other reasons for a federal agency to get involved are the presence of an endangered species or the use of federal lands.

State entities get involved with permits for water quality, air quality, and fisheries. Because of a federal law called Section 106 [of the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966], state agencies also provide cultural and historical input. In Alaska, that might be for old gold mining sheds or tools and older structures that indigenous people used.

County government involvement can include roads and access to lands. A county may also have what's called a mitigation bank, where a mining project that tears up a wetland has to pay the county so they can reclaim land in a different area.

AG: What are some avenues by which decision-makers receive scientific information about mining projects?

Zamzow: The Environmental Impact Statement is foundational for the large projects I work on. 95% or more of the mines I've worked on have required one. If a mine requires an Environmental Impact Statement, all the entities that issue permits, whether state or federal, draw on that one document.

I pay attention to how they define what's called the “purpose and need.” An Environmental Impact Statement’s purpose and need can be defined so narrowly that the only thing that fits is what the mining company wants to do. This is supposed to be a process for developing alternatives. The statement needs to provide enough information to balance between, say, less impact on water but more impact on uplands or culture.

AG: The Environmental Impact Statement sounds really important. How do you get involved in them?

Zamzow: There will be an initial public notice of a scoping period. That's when you can first see the project plan and provide input. For example, you can point out if there are cultural or water quality risks. The second place you can have input is on the draft Environmental Impact Statement. That's where you see how well they addressed the concerns you raised in scoping. You can comment during both of those.

If you're lucky enough to represent a cooperating agency -- federal and state entities that have a hand in permitting as well as local tribal governments -- you have a chance to follow the impact statement as it is being developed. You can get to know the scientists working for the agencies and for the mining company on the project. You can point out data gaps. It can be pretty powerful.

If you're outside of that process, the staff and leadership of the permitting agencies may set up town hall type public meetings to present what they know. Over time, you can get one-on-one meetings with these people. But it requires developing a trust relationship. You both want to know that the other person isn’t going to take the information you give them and offer it to people that will hype it.

AG: So, there can be tension between what the science says and the outcomes people want.

Zamzow: I have gotten pretty jaded. There's always good science from the people developing the mine and from those that don't want it developed. Sometimes scientific work products don’t see the light of day. That’s happened to me and to my counterparts at mining companies. Both sides may ignore material that doesn't support their position. It is also inherently a political decision, where the lifestyles and economies of people will be changed, potentially dramatically -- some for the better, some for the worse.

AG: With input coming from many different sources, what kind of scientific expertise does the state government have to adjudicate between all of these inputs?

Zamzow: State agencies can have a really hard time finding people with experience in the many topics that are important. Up here they may have to know science around specific fish and currents in the ocean, stream and wetland hydrology with or without permafrost, migratory bird patterns, geochemistry, geology and oil, and mining. Some of these are changing with climate change. And technology around how to remove air pollutants, treat sewage at remote work camps, and treat high volumes of metal-contaminated water. It’s a lot. And we have cut our state government way, way back. Between turnover, cutbacks, and having to understand a lot of different topics, I think it can be really hard at state agencies. 

I am in touch with people in other states who would like to see an independent science advisory body that agencies could go to when they have permitting problems. That's something that someone like me would love to be a part of.

AG: Your work involves being contracted by community groups and tribes who have a stake in mining decisions. How does that work?

Zamzow: Groups hire scientific experts to provide input that’s independent of the mining companies. Sometimes several groups come together, because experts are expensive for community groups, even relatively affordable NGO experts like me.

It’s great to work with the communities. They have so much knowledge. Talking to them can help you to understand the area, to understand the concerns, to understand the history. You feel you're working for real people that live in a place that they love. Sometimes it's hard because it means everything to the people you're working for. You never feel like you're doing a good enough job.

AG: The knowledge of these communities and indigenous tribes is a form of expertise. But for those of us trained in technical fields, it’s expertise we aren’t taught to contextualize. How do you help to incorporate it into formal processes?

Zamzow: One thing I've learned is that communicating is really difficult. We, as scientists, need to find a way to listen. I'm sure this has been said a lot, but indigenous people look at how everything ties together in a holistic way. It's especially obvious in the permitting process, where everything is very chopped up. You'll have three groups looking at groundwater hydrology, a fourth group looking at surface water hydrology, and three other groups looking at geochemistry.

But nobody is asking, “How does this influence migratory birds? Or grasses that are used by animals or by people?” The indigenous communities do. They look at how changing one thing changes something else. We look at how do you physically make this happen? How do you make the economics work? We don't necessarily think about how it affects the entire area. The impact statement is meant to, but it really doesn't. I don't know how you capture that.

AG: What would change if there were a better way to to account for this holistic understanding in these decisions?

Zamzow: I think you would have to accept that, after hearing the stories of how people use an area, there is potentially no way to design the mine in a way that keeps their way of life whole. 

AG: What is a good outcome you’ve had working on a mining project?

Zamzow: For the Pebble Mine that's proposed in Alaska, there were community members that saw the mining company doing really intensive exploration work. They were worried about how the waste material from that exploration was being handled. They came to us asking, “Should we be concerned about this waste? Can you go take a look at it?” We did, and we realized there were problems. We ended up getting the state of Alaska to decide, for the first time ever, to require a bond for reclamation work at the exploration stage.

While every state requires some kind of financial assurance for clean up after a mine is closed, this was the first time the state of Alaska had done that for the exploration stage. This would never have happened if communities hadn't come to us and expressed concern. This was back in 2016, and they're still having problems with the waste and with trying to close exploration holes. The reclamation bond may become important if the Army Corps finds that Pebble Mine can’t meet their requirements and the mine doesn’t get permitted. Without that $2 million bond, the mine developers could walk away and the state would have to pay for the clean up.

AG: What are things that scientists and engineers can do to ensure these decisions get made using the best scientific input?

Zamzow: We really need younger people to get interested in this area. The people that I know in the U.S. and Canada are getting older and need to retire. It's a little tricky because, at the same time, it's hard to find jobs. Somebody I went to school with in Reno asked if he could join our NGO. I was not able to find a position for him, and he ended up working in industry. I don't know how to make that easier.

The other thing we need is to make more global connections. The science doesn't change whether you're in South America or Mongolia or Africa or Colorado. Connections between people working in different geographic locations could be really useful.

Our group has also talked about developing a professional society. The membership list would be a resource for communities or governments to tap into. We could say here's a group of people that understand mining, hydrology, geochemistry, air quality, whatever. 

AG: This has been a fascinating discussion! Before we end, is there anything else you’d like to share with our readers?

Zamzow: I want to make sure people understand that because the amount of useful material in every deposit is getting smaller, projects are getting bigger. Communities are fighting projects they might not fight if they were smaller. Nowadays, the only people who can afford to build these $7 billion mines are global companies. So they're no longer local companies that you are familiar with and can talk to. 

AG: That is a common theme for us at ESAL, the connection between local and global issues. Thank you so much for taking the time to share your knowledge with us today. I learned quite a bit.

For further reading, please see these open-access examples of Zamzow’s work in the mining sector:

Engineers & Scientists Acting Locally (ESAL) is a non-advocacy, non-political organization. The information in this post is for general informational purposes and does not imply an endorsement by ESAL for any political candidates, businesses, or organizations mentioned herein.
Published: 09/14/20
Updated: 09/14/22
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