Two news articles caught my attention this past month. The first one described a proposed lithium mine in northern Nevada. Lithium is a key component used for large storage batteries in electric vehicles and for energy storage.
Of main concern was the potential impacts to nearby rural communities including traffic, noise, nighttime lighting, air and water quality, and the effect that an influx of numerous workers would have on rural communities. These same impacts could play out at other sites throughout the western U.S. and in Utah where lithium deposits may be found.
If the dream of an electric vehicle transportation fleet is to become reality, these impacts must be addressed.
The second article was an opinion piece by Mr. Thom Carter, Energy Advisor to Governor Spencer Cox, who wrote about the need for extractive energy and mining operations to keep an “all of the above” energy mix of renewable and non-renewable energy projects active in Utah. He provided the message that “keep it in the ground” was not possible if we wish to produce the critical minerals necessary to manufacture solar panels, wind turbines, and all the energy storage and power transmission infrastructure to keep renewable energy moving. His premise is that “advocating for renewable energy sources also means maintaining, if not expanding, our mining infrastructure.” I totally agree with his point of view.
The bottom line is that the development of renewable and non-renewable energy and the production of critical minerals is not a zero-sum scenario vis-à-vis the importance of climate change, public land management, environmental impacts, or economic benefits to rural communities. It is not one or the other of two competing alternatives, because the goal of a more livable world for people relies on those materials that we can extract from the earth. All considerations must be weighed in the balance to produce the best possible outcome for Utah citizens.
Division of Oil, Gas and Mining staff attempts to perform its regulatory function in this manner. We do not pick winners and losers in the extractive industries based on political or ideological preference. Our decision-making on permit approvals and compliance enforcement are science and logic-based and designed to achieve acceptable outcomes for responsible development. I truly believe that we can find innovative solutions to many of the challenges facing humanity as we work collaboratively to achieve a better quality of life through energy and mineral development.
Division management recently selected Ammon McDonald as the new Oil and Gas Program Operations Manager. This position manages and oversees field staff, with a priority on ensuring they have the proper tools and adequate resources to successfully complete their jobs.
Since 2011, Ammon has worked for the Division as a geologist/environmental scientist III where he was responsible for the permitting and inspection of Class II underground injection control (UIC) wells and waste disposal facilities. He conducted a variety of inspections and investigations ensuring compliance with Division’s rules. He provided technical expertise to staff members, the Utah Board of Oil, Gas and Mining, other government agencies, and the public.
In 2008 he began working for the Utah Geological Survey as a geological technician where his duties included digitizing well logs, constructing base maps using GIS software, conducting digital core photography, data analysis and compilation, sample collection, and field work.
Prior to 2008, Ammon was a staff geologist/environmental scientist for IHI Environmental where he conducted environmental site assessments, fugitive emissions and ambient air monitoring, soil and groundwater sampling, and borehole core logging.
Ammon graduated from the University of Utah with Bachelor of Science Degrees in Chemistry and Geology.
The Division’s Abandoned Mine Reclamation Program (AMRP), in cooperation with the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), safeguarded 29 abandoned mine openings in the Mineral Canyon area in Grand County in mid-April. Closure methods included metal grates, machine backfills, and native stone walls designed to protect features of historic significance and animal habitat, while protecting the public from injuries or death. Abandoned mines are hazardous because they are no longer maintained, lack ventilation, and may collapse.
The BLM Moab Field Office designated Mineral Canyon as a high priority for abandoned mine closures due to high visitation and recreational use areas in the Mineral Bottom area. Mineral Bottom accesses Canyonlands National Park (White Rim Trail), Green River boat ramp, campground, and airstrip. Mineral Canyon’s Fruit Bowl area, located on a rim above the canyon, is used for high-lining and base jumping. Mineral Bottom also provides a designated area for high-lining, base jumping, and parachuting events in the Canyon/Horsethief BASE Jumping Focus Area.
Mineral Canyon was a modest uranium and vanadium producer having mineral discoveries and production beginning in the early to mid-1950s.
The project was funded by grants from the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement (OSMRE,) BLM and Department of Energy (DOE).
Josh Payne is the compliance manager for the Division’s Oil and Gas Program and has been with the Division for 15 years. He is responsible for ensuring compliance with Division rules and regulations and monitoring and resolving outstanding issues or problems. He credits program teamwork and the framework of Division rules and regulations as successful tools used in protecting the public and the environment while promoting responsible development.
The best things Josh enjoys about his job is the flexible work schedule that creates a good work-life balance and the people with whom he works.
Josh’s career started in petroleum supply in the Army in 2001. He is a standardization instructor and maintenance pilot in the Utah Army National Guard, which requires extensive compliance with regulations. He has flown for the military for the past 15 years and is always in awe when looking at the world from above.
Josh is from Utah but has lived all over the world. He enjoys spending time outdoors, especially with his family. His to-do list is never ending and usually includes a new home project or woodworking hobby.
New years are always a time for transition and renewal, and boy, do we need some renewal after the last year! Now is a time to look forward with hope and commitment to seeing better days ahead.
We have worked hard this past year not only to keep the machine of government humming, but to move faster and farther down the road of progress than before. Some notable accomplishments include:
Shortly after in-person office work was curtailed in March, we used electronic tools previously developed to move seamlessly into a new remote workplace.
Electronic permitting and reporting have been in place for several years
allowing continued interaction with the regulated community with very few hiccups.
Division field inspectors were able to extend their reach with remote work processes for
collecting data and recording information on our databases.
Staff implemented new tools for prioritizing workloads, inspection frequency, and monitoring
conditions in areas of higher concern.
Board of Oil, Gas and Mining hearings are being held remotely for both Board members and participants. Meetings have been held in a hybrid in-person/electronic format for several years, so the transition was relatively simple.
Many have questioned the need to return to a fully in-person workplace as we have seen
benefits of more efficient communication between managers and staff, employees working
within their own flexible schedules, and the improvements in air quality. At some point, we will likely return to a hybrid telework scenario with fewer employees onsite, but still deriving the benefits of remote work.
Recognizing that we are also faced with a transition of governmental administration in
Washington DC, the new year brings substantial uncertainty for the extent of new federal
policy and the impact of those changes on Utah’s economy and quality of life. The commitment
from Division staff to continue meeting our responsibilities is unwavering. We will continue to ensure
responsible development of our underground energy and mineral resources while protecting
the public health, safety and welfare and preserving the environment. We like to think that our
efforts will continue regardless of who is in White House, and our processes for continuous
improvement will forge ahead.
While this past year presented us all with challenges and unforeseen circumstances, Division staff moved forward completing projects and adapting to new ways of doing business. Below are a few of the highlights from 2020.
Coal Program staff helped coal operators navigate the regulatory path nimbly and efficiently to continue their work. Skyline Mine operators determined that additional power was required for continued operations of their long wall miner. A corridor had previously been approved, however a larger corridor for the above ground powerline was needed, requiring additional permitting. Due to time constraints with the onset of winter, staff worked closely with the operator to get the additional permitting finalized so the powerline corridor could be completed.
Deer Creek Mine Reclamation of the Deer Creek mine was completed in late 2019. During 2020 spring runoff, several rills and gullies began to form on the reclaimed slopes. The operator and program staff immediately mobilized to the site and began working through the regulatory issues associated with repairing the erosion. A rogue culvert unknown during the operation of the Deer Creek Mine was identified as the issue. On-site field visits and conference calls with federal agencies were conducted to address regulatory issues and allow the operator to continue repair work before winter.
On March 20, Division staff was notified that operations at the Lisbon Valley Mine in southeastern Utah had shut down. The Division subsequently issued an order for final reclamation to be complete by September 30, 2021. Over the next several months program staff spent many hours overseeing reclamation operations and reviewing the mine plan and reclamation cost estimate. In January 2021, the operator submitted an adequate bond and obtained Division approval to re-start operations.
In December 2019, staff issued tentative approval of the revised Notice of Intention (NOI) for the Benjamin Quarry in Utah County. This decision was appealed informally to the Division by concerned area residents and then formally to the Board of Oil, Gas and Mining, which upheld the Division’s decision to approve the NOI with certain conditions. One issue of the appeal included the concern for petroglyphs around the mine.
Staff continue using tablets to record inspections and are working to expand the efficiencies by developing an inspection prioritization application. The tablets help inspectors keep track of inspection frequency, which is a major aspect of determining inspection scheduling.
Abandoned Mine Reclamation Program
Despite a slow and unusual start to the construction season due to the uncertainties presented by COVID, the Abandoned Mine Reclamation Program (AMRP) completed two coal and six non-coal abandoned mine reclamation projects this year.
Coal reclamation consisted of the Clear Creek Refuse Reclamation Project and the Hiawatha Culvert Maintenance Project located in Carbon County. Non-coal projects closed a total of 170 hazardous abandoned mines and completed maintenance at 30 previously closed mine openings. Projects included the completion of the Spor Project in Juab County that began in the fall of 2019, the White and Deer Flat Project in San Juan County, Phase I of the Willard Peak Project in Weber County, the Westdip Bat Cupola Project in Tooele County, and the Buckmaster-OIG Project in Emery County. Maintenance projects included the Jacob City Maintenance Project in Tooele County, and the Temple Mountain Maintenance Project in Emery County.
The Hiawatha Culvert Maintenance Project was located about 14 miles southwest of Price at the historic Hiawatha mine. In 1914 mine operators built a culvert over a stretch of Miller Creek to accommodate a road crossing. The 200-foot culvert is constructed of large sandstone blocks and features a rare and striking barrel vault top exhibiting fine craftsmanship representative of the Italian and Greek immigrant stonemasonry of the early 20th century.
In 2012, the Seeley forest fire destroyed much of the vegetation on the Wasatch Plateau above Hiawatha. As a result, storms washed trees and rock debris down the watershed. Flooding washed out extensive portions of the century-old culvert walls and AMRP staff feared that the unsupported block culvert walls would collapse into the creek. At best, this would dump sediment in the creek; at worst, the creek could be dammed and risk a catastrophic flood event Besides losing a remarkable cultural feature and road access across the creek, structural failure of the culvert would have a significant effect on water quality and downstream fisheries.
Last September AMRP staff contracted with Strong Solutions, LLC of Fairfield, Utah to stabilized the damaged culvert by replacing the washed-out portions of the walls and floors with reinforced concrete. Immediately downstream of the culvert, a log jam was removed, and a deep gully head cut that threatened to undermine the culvert was stabilized by building a rock drop structure with stairstep basins to allow fish to migrate upstream.
Coal mining at Hiawatha began around 1909 and continued until 1992 with extensive operations in four canyons and in multiple coal seams. The company town of Hiawatha, with a peak population of approximately 1,500 residents in the 1940s, supported the operations.
Oil and Gas Program
The Division’s Oil and Gas Program successfully launched the Field Inspection Prioritization application that uses specific criteria to generate and implement data-driven decisions. Staff has worked with the Groundwater Protection Council (GWPC) to develop and implement the application designed to display in a spatial and report form which oil and gas sites should be inspected according to various inputs.
All oil and gas wells were given a priority rating from one (highest priority) to three (low priority). Prioritization is based on operational factors such as compliance issues and history, age of the well and how long since the last inspection. Geographic factors include well proximity to surface water, groundwater, human population density and wildlife habitat.
The program has been operational since January 2020 and has already helped our inspectors increase their inspection efficiency. The field application allows real time data collection that is automatically uploaded to the database saving inspectors time and reducing input errors. The program empowers program staff to consistently make decisions leading to reduced risk and more effective regulation through timely inspections.
This is an effective tool that will give management and staff the ability to make data driven decisions ensuring protection of Utah’s resources, while promoting responsible development.
The Utah Board of Oil, Gas and Mining is accepting nominations for the 2021 Environmental Excellence Awards now through Wednesday, February 19. Environmental Excellence Awards recognize operators who go above and beyond what is required by regulation. Innovations in environmental technology, environmental improvement to active mine sites, outstanding final reclamation projects, and community outreach are eligible for consideration. Nomination form and more information is available at https://www.ogm.utah.gov/includes/2021CallForNominations.pdf
Chris Roher is a senior reclamation specialist with the Division’s Abandoned Mine Reclamation Program. He started with the program as a graduate school intern in 1982 and moved to a full-time division employee in 1983.
As a senior reclamation specialist, Chris manages projects from the initial abandoned mine inventory to construction and closure. This planning process can include budget estimating, National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA) compliance, procurement of construction and professional services, construction inspection, and contract management. Chris has been project manager for 49 construction contracts totaling $9.4 million, including reclamation at 100 coal mine sites an installation of over 1,880 non coal closures.
Chris enjoys his work for numerous reasons including being able to hike and explore areas of the state. With Utah’s vast mining history, his work has taken him every corner of the state. He is also proud that the AMR has an exemplary record of thoughtful project design and execution in sensitive environments that has earned the respect of land managers.
Chris has a Bachelor of Science degree in Zoology/Environmental Studies from Butler University and a Master of Science degree in Environmental Sciences from Indiana University.
When Chris is not working, he enjoys watching independent films, world travel, and global cuisine and music.
As the saying goes, time flies when you’re having fun. I don’t think that “fun” aptly describes 2020, but it is hard to grasp that it has been nearly a year since the Office of the Legislative Auditor General published its audit report of the Division’s Oil and Gas Program – and truly time has flown.
Including work that was in process at the time the audit was released in November 2019, it has been a busy 12-14 months for the program. Although government audits do not often highlight the positives and they are usually difficult to endure, I have to admit that Division staff rolled up their sleeves and went to work addressing the recommendations of the audit.
Below is a summary of some of the valuable accomplishments achieved over the past year. Each of the following items included several subparts that are worth digging into in detail, but to keep things brief, this summary is at a fairly high level.
Improved Compliance Workflow – non-compliance issues can now be addressed in a timely manner using database upgrades and implementing an automated electronic compliance process to simplify tracking, streamline administrative process, and incentivize the regulated community toward compliance.
Prioritization Modules – data driven software provides real-time information to staff in determining critical priorities for field inspection and personnel deployment.
Filling key staff positions – including additional field operations monitoring staff as well as Salt Lake based technical staff for reviewing proposals and compliance tracking.
Performance metrics – again applying technology to ensure data-driven decision making as well as tracking key indicators of both operator compliance and OGM staff effectiveness.
Updating bonding requirements – a status report of current bonding has been briefed with the governing Board of Oil, Gas and Mining, and new rules to update bonding requirements have been drafted and will proceed through Division development and stakeholder review in accordance with time frames established by the legislature.
But that’s not all. The Division has been just as busy carrying out the work of its other programs in regulating mineral mining and coal mining along with safeguarding hazards associated with legacy abandoned mines in the state. Along with the day-to-day work of the Division, our Board has been active in conducting monthly electronic hearings and finalizing work on various rulemakings that were deemed important.
Even through the challenges of remote work, the past year has been productive and it is due largely to the dedicated state employees who work for the Division. I am grateful for their effort and commitment.
The Utah Division of Oil, Gas and Mining Abandoned Mine Reclamation Program received the 2020 National Association of Abandoned Mine Land Programs (NAAMLP) Hardrock Physical Safety Reclamation Award for the 2019 Red and Fry Canyon abandoned mine closure project in San Juan County.
Funded by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement (OSMRE), 62 hazardous mine openings in the Red and Fry Canyon uranium districts on BLM land were closed using backfills, masonry walls, polyurethane foam plugs, and fabricated steel gates and grates. In addition, 12 electrical transformers dating to the 1950 – 60s were removed and disposed of from two mines.
Twelve of the sites are eligible for listing in the National Register of Historic Places because they provide important information about uranium mining associated with the Cold War uranium boom. Closure methods and activities were carefully managed so as not to adversely affect these historic properties and to retain the historic landscape.
This project is the first construction phase of a 400 square mile project initiative that addresses abandoned uranium mines in the Red Canyon, White Canyon, Fry Canyon, and Deer Flat mining districts.
Historically, the bulk of the mining activity and production in the project area occurred when the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission was purchasing uranium ore for defense-related activities between 1947 and 1970. After the federal support ended, most mines were abandoned. However, several uranium mines in Red Canyon were active as of 1980 and one permitted mine remains today.
The Red and Fry Canyon Project is a showcase example of interagency cooperation and collaboration to protect public safety while protecting the environment.