BHP just announced they will be closing half of the Old Dominion Historic Mine Park in order to complete site characterization and implement a final mine closure project for the tailings storage facilities contained therein. The park closure impacts 8 of the 13 trails, closes 2.4 of the 4.4 mile trail system, eliminates access to both ramadas and the 7’ cement compass, hides 26 educational signs, and cuts off contact to 8 of the 9 disc golf holes. The fence to demarcate open and restricted sections of the park is scheduled to go up at the end of February. In the best case scenario, the park restrictions will last around 3 years while the worst case would see permanent closure of this part of the park.
Losing access to half the park is a disappointment and frustration both to those who have worked hard to develop the park and to people who use the facility. However, this region has been impacted by mining company decisions for over 100 years and has resiliently ridden the waves of change in the industry. It will do so again in this new era.
The Old Dominion Historic Mine Park is a sustainable, multi-purpose civic resource that encourages community gathering, recreation, and the promotion of our regional mining heritage. It provides event space, supports community health through play and exercise, hosts the only handicapped accessible playground in Gila County, and is an increasingly important economic driver for the region. It is the home course of the local junior high and high school cross country teams and has been the site of large regional cross country races. It has hosted hundreds of guests at fundraisers that support local causes. Using grant funding, local teachers are developing STEM curriculum to support field trips to the site by elementary students.
The park has generated growing tourism as families, senior groups, and hiking clubs from around the state make the park their destination. Increasingly, this is including out-of-state and international visitors, as well. The Gila County Historical Society uses the park in it’s annual Old Dominion Days highlighting local history. Additionally, the park is a catalyst for new business development, like E-volve Adventure Rentals, a new e-bike business that promotes the Old Dominion as a great site for riding their mountain bikes.
While some of the most utilized parts of park will remain open (e.g., bathrooms, playground, picnic pavilions, boneyard), the closure paralyzes the only disc golf course in the region. A faithful group of disc golfers use the course daily and, amazingly, this also generates revenue for our region. Rebecca Williams of Dream Manor Inn, a local boutique hotel and event venue, states a group of over 100 people traveled from Wisconsin to Globe because the bride liked the award-winning wedding venue and the groom was a semi-professional disc golfer who wanted to practice with his team at the Old Dominion’s course in preparation for a tournament in Phoenix the following week.
When learning of the planned closure, local residents are shocked and confused. They want more information and ask: What safety issues need to be addressed? Didn’t BHP already spend millions of dollars to reclaim the site? Did something happen locally to impact our access to the park? Is BHP planning to close the park permanently and reopen the site as a copper mine?
The answer to all these queries can be summed up in a single issue: recent world-wide tailings dam failures.
Tailings are the left-over materials after minerals have been extracted from ore. Tailings can be large or fine particles and sometimes contain toxic byproducts from the mining process, though this is not the case in this region where tailings are essentially sand and clay. Tailings are typically stored in a variety of engineered structures referred to as tailings dams or tailings storage piles. Earthen tailings dams can be huge and rank among the largest engineered structures on the earth. Tailings dams from copper mining in the Globe-Miami area are typically stored in piles created by the tailings themselves rather than behind an earthen dam. Unlike a dam engineered to contain water, tailings dams are created throughout the life of the mine, not built all at once, and they are constructed to be permanent structures built to hypothetically last indefinitely.
All of this is well and good… until it isn’t.
Over the past 5 years, a number of catastrophic tailings dam failures have occurred around the world, including two in the Brazilian state of Minas Gerais in 2015 and 2019. These incidents alone resulted in an estimated 300 deaths, horrific humanitarian issues and environmental damage, and billions of dollars of loss for the impacted communities. Both were linked to Vale, the world’s largest iron ore miner, and one was a BHP non-operated joint venture. The litigation from these collapses is still under way and has already cost the involved companies over $50 billion.
In April, 2019, a group identified as the Investor Mining & Tailings Safety Initiative called for global intervention in response to the most recent tailings dam failure in Brazil. This group, governed through a steering committee chaired by the Church of England Pensions Board and the Swedish Council of Ethics, represents shareholders with over $13 trillion invested in extractive industries. They have asked mining companies around the world to assess their tailings dam liabilities and report both the number of dams they manage and their current condition in terms of potential dam failure consequence. Never before has there been a worldwide accounting in this area
While there have always been professional engineering standards utilized for tailings dam design and operation, there has been limited government oversight and, in the United States, no official tailings dam rules. Consequently, methods and guidelines have varied between mining companies around the world. Besides accounting for existing tailings dams, the investor initiative asked that the mining industry do three additional tasks: establish worldwide standards for tailings stewardship, complete annual assessments of all existing tailing dams, and provide verifiable reports of compliance to the highest standards of safety to be reviewed by an independent inspector and made publicly accessible.
In what is being called the largest shareholder mobilization to a single event, this investor group stated they will consider divesting their shares if accountability is not established and companies do not provide transparent access to markers of risk. This divestment would constitute a crushing blow to the mining industry. Most larger companies responded quickly.
As of now, about half of the 726 mining companies approached have complied with the investors’ request. Reuters reported in October, 2019 that initial analysis of those responses list 1,635 dams holding over 473 billion square feet of waste material, mostly located in the Americas. About 10% of the dams included in these reports cite stability issues, though many clarify these were historic problems that have been addressed.
For the Globe-Miami region, both BHP and Freeport McMoRan gave presentations to community leaders in 2019 regarding tailings and the condition of local facilities, as well as offered to do additional presentations if desired by the community. They also published materials about tailings assessment and management online for public review. To access this information for BHP facilities and to find links to additional resources on tailings, go to https://www.bhp.com/environment/dams-and-tailings-management/. For Freeport McMoRan, the information can be found at https://www.fcx.com/sustainability/environment/tailings/controlled-riverine-tailings-management.
Because mining companies currently are doing more in-depth analyses of all their tailings dam liabilities, the Old Dominion Mine Park’s reclaimed tailings dams are under scrutiny by BHP, the company who owns the property and is ultimately responsible for any tailings incidents associated with it. The Old Dominion tailings dams are unique in our region as this is the only closed mining site that is open to the public through active use as a park. As such, there are several tailings dams and waste rock piles within park boundaries that impact the Old Dominion Mine Park land. BHP is reviewing the management and remediation of these features at Old Dominion, as well as other tailings facilities they manage in the local area, something Freeport McMoRan is also doing. These include tailing dams at Solitude and Copper Cities, next to WalMart, behind Bullion Plaza Museum, and behind the Miami YMCA, to name a few.
Most tailings dams failures are associated with water management in and/or on the tailings. Old Dominion Park tailings are mostly dry and well-drained due to the closure design. Adequate drainage enhances soil stability which is why there are so many cement water channels at the Old Dominion.
BHP is considering a number of options for tailings dam maintenance that will occur after assessment of their current condition. These include capping them with additional dirt and rock to create a thicker environmental armor, building buttresses to increase support and stability, and/or moving the tailings materials entirely off site to fill open pit mines (as will occur soon for the tailings dam BHP owns on Miami Avenue). Moving waste material is the most expensive option and is complicated by the fact that most decommissioned open pit mines are used currently for water management and tailings placement would interfere with water storage. Additionally, moving waste material could take years to accomplish. When BHP decided to move about 30 million tons of tailings formerly along Highway 60 in Miami, it took them 14 years. As a point of comparison, Solitude contains over 60 million tons of waste material, making removal an unlikely option at this site. Large tailings dams are usually capped in place for safe, long-term closure.
As of now, BHP is not sure what tailings maintenance plan they will employ at the Old Dominion. There has been and will be planned drilling that will help them analyze the possible solutions and make a decision that incorporates community feedback. Regardless of the remediation plan selected, there will be a lot of work done on the site in the next few years and it will cause some inconvenience, but BHP has stated that ultimately it will make the community safer and transition the land to a more permanent footprint that could be utilized for long-term community repurposing. BHP has stated that it is committed to working with the community through the transition, identifying new opportunities for local economic development.
The fact that the Old Dominion is a player in this drama is not surprising as it has always been an anchor for this community and claims a fascinating evolution over the years. As a mine, it operated from 1882 to 1931, produced over 765 million pounds of copper, and was the main reason Globe was the fourth largest city in Arizona at statehood. Following mine closure, the community pushed to repurpose the site into a park. This request received little traction until BHP took over the property and started multiple reclamation efforts in the 1990s to meet EPA directives to address contaminants polluting Upper Pinal Creek. The biggest reclamation project occurred from 2002 to 2006 when BHP invested over $11 million to move more than 600,000 cubic yards of tailings; built a 100,000 cubic yard rock buttress at the base of the main tailing pile (just above the railroad tracks); and brought in over 250,000 cubic yards of soil to cover and vegetate the recontoured hills on site. During the reclamation efforts, engineers with MWH, the firm responsible for the design and implementation of remedial construction on site, caught the vision and made key contributions to the creation of a park. BHP management also supported this concept and provided the much needed greenlight.
With BHP and the City of Globe’s permission, the Old Dominion Mine Park Committee was formed in 2000 as a sub-committee of the Gila County Historical Society, an organization committed to the preservation of local history and historic places. In a unique three-way collaboration, BHP continued to own the land, but allowed the City of Globe a legal easement to 195 acres on the site. Globe agreed to hold the insurance and do park maintenance once it opened, but the Old Dominion Mine Park Committee was tasked with fundraising, designing, and developing the park with input from public, corporate, and municipal stakeholders.
Through this process, individuals and organizations enthusiastically stepped up with support. Hundreds of local volunteers invested thousands of hours and raised over $752,000 to create the park which opened February 12, 2011. In 2012, Governor Brewer recognized the park for the “Arizona Centennial Legacy Project” Award and other awards followed. Throughout the years, the ODMP Committee continued to add park amenities and currently is working to bring outdoor adult fitness equipment to the flat hilltop just above the children’s playground.
The park is well used, well loved, and receiving increasing notoriety across the state.
So how does a humanitarian disaster in Brazil impact powerful decision makers in Australia to close portions of a beloved park positively impacting a little mining town in Arizona? The explanation is both complicated and amazingly simple.
The tailings dams in this region have been in place for decades (most at least 50 years and some over 100 years) and are considered stable with minimal risk of collapse. This is particularly true of the Old Dominion tailings dams after reclamation projects were completed. However, now that shareholders are asking for additional verifiable testing to prove stability, mining companies are scrambling to provide numbers.
To provide data and until worldwide standards are developed, most mining companies are deferring to the most stringent standards known, those established by the Canadian Dam Association. Unfortunately, the CDA standards classify both water and tailings dams by the impact of failure, not the likelihood of failure. In other words, if a dam has people living downstream, then failure – even something deemed very unlikely to occur – could be classified as an “extreme risk.” Extreme risk tailings dams require further assessment and controls to limit the risk while the assessment is taking place. This label is unacceptable to mine investors; consequently, the mining companies are taking decisive action to counter the extreme risk classification. Actions include limiting public access while the situation is being studied.
In order to understand why the actions by the mine seems so sudden and dramatic, one need only look at new consequences stemming from the Brazilian failures that are increasing pressure for dramatic action. Besides the billions of dollars of civil suits being settled in court, Brazilian prosecutors are now pursuing criminal cases against mining executives by charging them with murder– not the more logical accusation of “negligence,” but the extremely serious “unlawful premeditated killing of another human being.” Also, they are not only bringing suit against the geologists and onsite managers at the impacted mines, but also going after executives who were not involved in daily operational decisions. This legal development came after BHP had already elected to take rapid and seemingly dramatic steps to require of their team the highest standards of safety, environmental stewardship, and tailings dam management. The new legal proceedings simply cemented their already implemented “zero tolerance” response for tailings dam collapse. Locally this resulted in the planned closure of any Old Dominion Park trails where people have been walking on tailings dams.
Zach Larsen, Principal of Business Improvement for BHP, is based in the Globe-Miami area. When asked why drilling is planned for the Old Dominion, Larsen explained the pending drilling is not looking for copper or mineral wealth, but rather focusing on hydrological monitoring. BHP did similar drilling in 2017 and 2018 when they installed piezometers (the yellow pole configurations seen around the Old Dominion Historic Mine Park). Piezometers measure liquid pressure underground by seeing how high liquid is forced up a tube while moving against gravity. This is called pore water pressure and is an indication of ground stability, the primary concern in preventing dam failure. Because of the new expectations, Larsen states BHP is being asked to give even more refined reports of the lands they steward; consequently, they are needing to install additional piezometers to be able to prove that the land between their existing piezometers is as solid as they are inferring from the neighboring readings.
It is striking to note that the $11 million Old Dominion reclamation project of 2002 to 2006 was believed to have addressed any potential concerns and earned gold-standard recognition worldwide for reclamation, setting the bar high for global ethical stewardship of heritage sites. Then the tragedies of the Brazilian tailings dam failures happened and changed the mining industry’s understanding of tailings dam maintenance.
New leadership means new direction and BHP has seen a lot of leadership changes in the past few months, including at the highest levels of corporate responsibility. In his first 100 days as the new CEO of BHP, Mike Henry has been establishing new company priorities. As part of his familiarization with BHPs global holdings, he asked to see their Arizona closed sites as these locations contain a high number of tailing dams. After inspection, Mr. Henry reportedly came away impressed with what has been done here over decades of reclamation, normal maintenance and stewardship. He wants to advance the long-term remediation and repurposing of these sites and this will likely include investing a lot of money into our area in the next 5 years. Hopefully, this investment will both increase safety and reduce long term maintenance costs.
With closed properties being more liability than asset, one may ask why BHP doesn’t sell the properties and, even more basic, why they acquired these sites in the first place. Why invest a lot of money into a region where they are not going to make any profit? The reality is that if BHP sells a site, they then lose the ability to direct stewardship efforts, but ultimately still could be legally responsible if the next owner fails to adequately protect a community or the environment from risk. Also, the properties were not specifically purchased, but rather acquired by the company as liabilities that BHP had to assume as a part of the purchase from Magma Copper of other actively producing properties.
On the recent visit to Arizona, several senior BHP executives visited sites in the Globe/Miami area including the Old Dominion. These individuals then returned to their offices halfway around the world to make risk management decisions that impact a billion dollar company. Unfortunately, the sword of Damocles hangs by a single thread over those in positions of power and is an ever present factor in their decision making. In this current environment, the direction for BHP and all major mining companies is the reduction or elimination of public access on tailings dams. With respect to Globe and Miami, BHP ultimately weighed the risks and benefits of keeping the Old Dominion Park’s reclaimed tailings open to the public and determined that the park closure was in the best choice.
By limiting public access, BHP is able to show shareholders that the company is taking steps to reduce risk with a solution that embraces both comprehensive safety management and fiscal conservatism. Unfortunately, while the situation is being analyzed, it means closing public access to a significant portion of a beloved historic mining park in a small community on the other side of the globe. This decision puts a pin in the balloon of hope that has grown over the park.
However, the situation is not all bad news for Globe-Miami.
Bruce Binkley, Chairperson of the Old Dominion Mine Park Committee, was shocked by the news of the pending park closure, particularly following his efforts to complete multiple park improvement projects in the region slated for closure. However, he also views this development as an opportunity for the park. “We’ve been approaching BHP for years about possible trail expansions. With them taking away access to over 2 miles of trails for an extended period of time, perhaps now they will reconsider our proposals to develop new trails.” He adds, “Over the years, our work with BHP has grown to be collaborative and respectful, and now they are very supportive of our park. We look forward to working together to mitigate the effect of this unexpected closure to parts of the Old Dominion Park.”
Binkley’s hope seems well-placed. BHP has expressed remorse about the turn of events, and recognizes the loss to the community. They have indicated that they will work with the community to look at the development of alternate trail/recreation facilities to lessen the disruption to the community, contributing an equal or greater amount of funding to the redevelopment, and replacing any infrastructure lost due to the closure (such as access to the disc golf goals). If the park closure remains permanent, BHP has also committed to replacing the park in full in another location collaboratively chosen and designed with the community.
Larsen also sees another silver-lining to the closure announcement. “There has been a huge uplift in the mining industry. We’re doing everything to the highest standard now. Now we have to show all of what we’re doing and be responsible to the environment and our communities.” He adds, “It is our ethical responsibility to fix older issues and address environmental concerns. It may take a while to show the community that the increased efforts in environmental and safety sustainability at Old Dominion are positive, but we are confident that this will be recognized with time. BHP is committed to working with the community to minimize the disruption caused by the partial closure of the Old Dominion Mine Park.”
Thea Wilshire works as an author, psychologist, speaker, healthcare consultant, and AirBnB host. Her passions include community development, the creation of public spaces, trying new adventures, and sharing her therapy dog with schools and medical facilities. Find her blog at https://www.acornconsulting.org/blog.