El Paso Wins BLM Award For Reclamation Efforts At Nevada Site

April 2009 Vol. 236 No. 4

Bart Wilking and Scott Pope, El Paso Corporation

El Paso Corporation, operator of the nation’s largest interstate natural gas pipeline system, has been awarded the U.S. Department of Interior, Bureau of Land Management (BLM) 2008 Hardrock Mineral Environmental Award for environmental excellence in reclamation work on the Comstock Mill Site project in Storey County, NV.

The award acknowledges effective environmental stewardship, and recognizes recipients for having exceptional track records of meeting or exceeding federal, state or local reclamation requirements. The 2008 award recognizes the efforts El Paso made in implementing the principles of sustainable development, a concept adopted by the U.S. and 192 other countries, to balance environmental, economic, and social considerations in planning for mining operations.

Nominations for the award were first screened by BLM state officials, who sent the applications to BLM headquarters in Washington, DC, for final judging. A panel, including a group from outside the BLM, completed the judging.

To win the award, El Paso had to demonstrate a high level of social responsibility as set forth in the nomination form, which says: “These non-monetary awards highlight some of the finest examples of responsible mineral resource development. The awards illustrate the principles of sustainable development without compromising the needs of future generations. The awards program also helps to promote successful ideas and practices that may be implemented at various locations throughout the nation.”

BLM Director Jim Caswell adds, “These awards recognize companies and individuals who have shown exceptional dedication to partnership, stewardship, and sustainable development — to being good neighbors in a growing and changing West.”
El Paso retained MWH, of Broomfield, CO, to provide engineering and planning services for the reclamation project. MWH also won the award and accepted it along with El Paso this past fall.

El Paso first hired MWH in 2000 to assist with bringing the site’s reclamation project from a federal CERCLA-driven process to one covered by the Nevada Department of Environmental Protection’s (NDEP) mine closure guidelines.

“MWH has expertise in sustainable mining and experience in responsible mine closure and reclamation,” said Dr. David Ellerbroek, vice president of MWH. He added, “Our close partnership with El Paso gave both companies the ability to achieve successful outcomes. We’re proud to share this prestigious honor from BLM with El Paso Corporation.”
Scott Pope, principal environmental representative at El Paso, said, “The collective work of El Paso and MWH allowed us to achieve exceptional results for this project and gain this highly regarded award from BLM.”
BLM Director Jim Caswell said, “Encouraging sustainable development – maintaining our high standard of living while providing for future needs – is a high priority for this agency. (The) award winners reflect that priority and will help the public lands continue to meet the demands and needs of present and future generations.”

The Comstock Mill Site, about three miles southwest of historic Virginia City, became a gold mining and milling area in the early 1920s, culminating with the construction of the Comstock Mill by Houston Oil and Minerals in 1978. From 1979 through 1982, the Comstock Mill operated without a plan of operations or reclamation bond, receiving ore from area mines and extracting gold using the cyanide process and depositing mill tailings in an adjacent 40-acre, unlined, tailings impoundment.

The property was sold several times over the next two decades. BLM, which repeatedly tried to bring the Comstock Mill site into compliance with mining and environmental laws, pursued reclamation of the site with the successive owners of the property.

In March 1987, the EPA identified the Comstock Mill as a potentially hazardous waste site, and in 1990, identified “contamination of the groundwater and surface water by cyanide and other heavy metals” that leached from the unlined Comstock Mill tailings impoundment. By 2000, the site had become a nuisance with reports of illegal activity and occupancy, and safety concerns.

In 2001, after the operator, Marietta Mining, refused to address public safety and contamination concerns at the site, the BLM issued an Immediate Suspension Order, which prohibited the use or occupancy of all or part of any property in order to protect health, safety or the environment. The suspension order usually describes how the occupant or owner failed to comply with requirements, and sets a time limit in which corrective action should be taken.

El Paso Corporation stepped forward to claim a limited liability at the Comstock Mill after merging with Tenneco, which had reclamation responsibility. The mill buildings were judged unsuitable for use because of structural instabilities and the presence of asbestos. Although it never operated the Comstock site, El Paso demonstrated its “Neighbor to Have” policy and agreed to perform the mill demolition and tailings impoundment reclamation to mitigate cyanide contamination of local groundwater.

The company submitted a Decommissioning and Demolition Plan for the Comstock Mill Site in December 2005 and a Tailings Reclamation Plan in July 2007. After consulting with stakeholders, El Paso–in the fall of 2006–began to demolish and remove all buildings, structures and underground features at the site. The buildings had to be cleared of all asbestos-containing materials before removal from the site.

The reclamation of the Comstock Tailings Impoundment began in October 2007 and was completed in early 2008. El Paso re-graded the tailings impoundment, topped it with clean soil, and installed a lined drainage channel designed to withstand a 100-year storm event. The lined drainage channel prevents accumulation of precipitation on the impoundment and the subsequent rise of precipitation through the toxic mill tails.

El Paso’s primary reclamation goal was to mitigate the flow of cyanide and toxic metals from the impoundment into local groundwater. The 10-acre site was graded into the natural topography, covered with two-to-five feet of clean soil, and seeded with native species. In the end, the reclamation will help ensure protection of public safety and health, and provide a final landform compatible with natural surroundings that promote re-vegetation.

The BLM’s Carson City Field Office praised El Paso Corporation’s efforts and cooperative spirit when nominating the Comstock site for this award. In addition to the BLM award for the Comstock site, in 2007 the community of Lake County, CA, recognized El Paso as a leader in environmental stewardship, honoring the company with a proclamation that shows the community’s appreciation for the reclamation of the Abbott Turkey-Run Mercury Mine. Other BLM offices shared similarly positive experiences of working with El Paso on reclamation projects.

First presented in 2003, the BLM Sustainable Mineral Development awards are similar to the Interior Department’s Office of Surface Mining annual awards for excellence in coal mining reclamation. The BLM’s hardrock mining awards enable the Department of Interior to showcase some of the finest examples of responsible mineral development by the industrial- and metallic-minerals industry, as well as sand-and-gravel operators.

Bart Wilking, engineering manager at El Paso, said “This highly valued honor sums up El Paso Corporation’s commitment to our vision of being ‘The Neighbor to Have’. The team that worked on this project is extremely proud to be a part of this award-winning reclamation effort.”

About the authors

Scott Pope, principal, Environmental Health & Safety, has been an El Paso employee since 1999, starting with the Environmental Health & Safety organization in Farmington, NM. In 2000, he transferred to the Environmental Remediation Department where he began working on the Comstock project. While working in the remediation department, he was responsible for a portfolio of environmental remediation projects, most of which were legacy issues acquired through mergers. He recently transferred to El Paso Western Pipeline Environmental Group where he is responsible for environmental compliance at compressor stations and storage fields in Colorado and Kansas.