Wet Potash Salt Tailings Threaten Colorado River Water Resources
Disclaimer - Aerial photos are often difficult to interpret. From the distortion of the window glass, to the interplay of light and shadow, the viewer might mistake one thing for another. The following conclusions are mine alone, and are based on the various visits and perspective views that I have experienced at Potash. If Intrepid Potash, Inc., the State of Utah Division of Oil, Gas and Mining or the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) disagrees with my conclusions, they might still want to verify the facts for themselves.
When viewed as a unit, an in-situ recovery (ISR) potash mine, the evaporation ponds and the processing and storage structures comprise the Cane Creek Facility. Sitting on what looks like the central bulge of the ancient Cane Creek Anticline, the facility encompasses hundreds of acres. At its highest elevation are the injection sites. While many in-situ mines require both injection and pumping, the salt structures beneath Potash appear to spontaneously eject brine at the surface. From there, wet potash salt tailings run freely to the evaporation ponds. Terraced across the bench land is a set of eighteen large ponds. A smaller set of six ponds extends almost to the edge of a precipice. Surrounding those ponds on both sides are side canyons that empty into the Colorado River.
If all goes well, the produced water and fine tailings are retained by the evaporation ponds. A plastic lining on the bottom of each pond is designed to prevent groundwater seepage. However, several of my photos showed what appeared to be brine running down from the evaporation ponds. It was most clearly visible in the stream beds leading to the Colorado River. My first thought was that concentrated brine was somehow leaking from the evaporation ponds. As likely as that scenario might be, I quickly thought of an alternative. Perhaps forty years of hydraulic injection mining in this complex of fractured rock had created springs that flow with brine-laden water. If water has interpenetrated subsurface rock formations, it could undermine the ponds or cause a sinkhole. If the underlying structure of the rock is compromised, a large seismic or weather event could destroy the integrity of the earthen dikes that retain the concentrated brine within the ponds. Could the current seepage of brine re-manifest as a salt and fertilizer flood? Directly below that mesa, unprotected by any catch basin lies the Colorado River.
Looking down at the processing and storage structures from the airplane, I saw potash spilled around it like recent snowfall. Along the roadways surrounding the structures and at the loading area, finished potash and salt spill freely. From there, wind, water and gravity move it down toward the river. When properly applied, potash is an excellent fertilizer. If millions of gallons of concentrated salt and potash were to enter the Colorado river, it could threaten the agricultural and drinking water supply for over fourteen million people.
If the Intrepid Potash Cane Creek Facility represents the current state of the art in potash mining, what can we expect from the upcoming Passport Potash, Inc. mine in Arizona's Holbrook Basin? If the proposed Holbrook Basin ISR potash mine goes into operation, it would immediately become one of the top ten water users within the Little Colorado River Basin. Today, it is rare to find wind-driven water wells anywhere in the Four Corners. Historical use of wind-driven pumps for cattle watering and cattle fodder was pumping enough to dry out most Four Corners aquifers. With regional water tables at historical lows, most water sources are now too deep to tap with wind power. No one knows exactly how much the Holbrook Basin aquifer may hold. One can only hope that it is enough.
Most of the water used at the Cane Creek Facility soaks into the ground as brine-laden slurry or evaporates from the settling ponds. In this desert-style solution mining, there appears to be little recycling or reuse of produced water. If not for a steady supply of Colorado River water, the Cane Creek Facility would not be sustainable. If the proposed Passport Potash Holbrook, Arizona Project utilizes solar energy to dry fine tailings, there will be little remaining surface water there to recycle. A gallon pumped from the Holbrook Basin aquifers could be a gallon gone forever.
Before potash mining is approved at the Holbrook Basin play, the public deserves straightforward, honest and complete answers regarding the intentions of Passport Potash and its partners. Here are my questions:
Is Passport Potash proposing a conventional mine or an in-situ recovery (ISR) mine in the Holbrook Basin?
If it is to be a solution mine, what water sources do they plan to tap?
How much water will their one-to-two million tons per year (1-2 mtpy) mine require?
If produced brine is injected back into rock strata below, could it raise the salinity of the aquifer?
Is there sufficient seasonal inflow to the aquifer, or will the mine require a net annual withdrawal from the aquifer?
If there will be a water deficit, what environmental impact will there be on the Holbrook Basin and the Little Colorado River Basin at large?
Is the economic development created by ISR potash mines in the Holbrook Basin worth the risk of environmental degradation?
Before full-scale ISR mining accelerates all over the Four Corners, we need an honest and independent appraisal of its environmental impact. Not bothering to conduct an environmental impact study, the Utah BLM Office recently downplayed the impact of potash mining in the Sevier Valley, Utah. In fact, they published a statement that mining there would have "no impact". With solution mining in the Four Corners, there is always an impact, not the least of which is a trade-off between mineral yield and water usage. Plans are currently underway by both Ringbolt Ventures and Mesa Exploration for ISR potash mines in the Lisbon Valley, Utah. Uranium Resources, Inc. has approval for an ISR uranium mine on the Navajo Reservation in Arizona. Although still contested in court, plans go forward for extraction of oil sands from the Uintah Basin, Utah. With so many plans underway to divert or pump water into mineral processing, we can no longer ignore the issue of regional water usage. There is not, after all, an unlimitied supply.
As a child, I would often share a milkshake with a friend. From the word, “Go”, we would each suck on our straw as fast as we could until the glass was empty. Shall we now stand by and watch as the quest for oil sands, uranium and potash production dries every aquifer in the Colorado River Basin? Continuing on our current heedless path guarantees a future with water shortages for all.
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