WATER CRITICAL IN MINE RECLAMATION
Editorial focus by Harold Hough
What’s more valuable, five tons of high grade gold ore or five tons of water for your reclamation project? If you answered five tons of high grade gold ore, you are wrong. Pound for pound, water used in reclamation will add more to your bottom line than the ore you mine.
It may seem hard to believe, but a few tons of water per acre can make or break your reclamation project. Without adequate water, a mine reclamation project can easily fail or fall years behind schedule. Therefore, considering the cost to reclaim land and the money tied up in reclamation bonding, it’s easy to see that thousands of dollars can be lost because of the lack of thousands of gallons of water.
Reclamation involves large sums of money. According to studies by the Penn State, reclamation costs range from $2,500 per acre on flat land to over $12,000 in more rugged terrain. In order to ensure that the reclamation is finished, most mines carry between $5 to $25 million in reclamation bonding. Although some of the cost involves grading and treating the soil, a major component of the cost is revegetation. In addition, the land must be successfully revegetated in order to release the bond money.
A quick look at the revegation process shows the risks and costs. In order to meet the reclamation requirements set by the government, a certain amount of vegetation must be thriving on the land after a set amount of time.
Yet, the success of the revegetation depends on the amount of rain plants receive, especially in the drier American West. If it is a dry year, most of the transplanted plants will die. Since there is only a brief window of opportunity each year when a plant can be transplanted, if the rains fail to come, the mine may have to wait a whole year to replant. That not only sets the project back 12 months, it requires more money for revegetaion, while the bond money remains in escrow.
THE COST OF FAILED RECLAMATION
To show how much money is spent when dry conditions set reclamation back a year, consider the hypothetical cost to reclaim one acre of hilly land. In this case, we assume it will cost $2,000 to revegetate the land. If the reclamation is successful, the bond of $5,000 will be released in three years. Conditions dictate planting only in the spring.
In addition to planting costs, there are opportunity costs of posting the reclamation bond. Normally, the money would be invested in equipment, which would increase revenue. Assuming a 20% return on investment, the $5,000 bond will cost a mine $3,000 over three years, in addition to the actual cost of reclamation. If the plants fail to grow, the mine incurs the $2,000 cost of replanting and the additional $1,000 because the reclamation bonding couldn’t be used for business purposes. If the total reclamation area is 100 acres, that means the total cost of that drought year is $300,000.
Although the amount of water required varies depending on the area and the vegetation, experts say that 1,500 gallons can save one acre of plants. That means the cost of not watering is two dollars per gallon or about $0.25 a pound of water. That equates to $500 per ton of water, which is more valuable than most gold ore.
As valuable as water is, there is also the cost of labor to bring it to the site and then hand water the plants. Nor are there any good short cuts as spraying the whole property requires more water and causes more environmental damage from running spray trucks over the freshly revegetated ground. There is also the problem of leaching toxic materials into the ground water.
There are ways to improve the plant’s survivability. One solution is a product called DRiWATER, which is a time release water system. DRiWATER is a biodegradable polymer that holds water and slowly releases it to the plant’s roots for as long as 90 days. They can be placed next to the plant’s roots when the plant is transplanted. According to studies, they increase the plant’s survivability rate by 100%. They also come with tubes so the gel pacs can be replaced on a regular basis.
Although watering reclaimed land may seem wasteful, in reality it is a sound investment. Proper watering dramatically increases the survival rate of transplanted vegetation and guarantees the reclamation can be done in the minimum time. Done in the right way, and at the right time, water can positively impact your bottom line just as much as the discovery of a high grade ore deposit.