Date of Completion

8-23-2013

Embargo Period

8-22-2020

Keywords

geospatial, remote sensing, copper mining, tailings, financial assurance, environment, law

Major Advisor

Daniel Civco

Co-Major Advisor

Kurt Strasser

Associate Advisor

Roland Geerken

Associate Advisor

Mark Logsdon

Associate Advisor

Thomas Meyer

Field of Study

Natural Resources: Land, Water, and Air

Degree

Doctor of Philosophy

Open Access

Campus Access

Abstract

This dissertation presents the Geospatial Tailings Monitoring System (GTMS), designed to monitor copper-mine tailings throughout the U.S. Southwest, and its legal relevance to the financial assurance industry. No other such system currently exists. Since the 1960s, the U.S. Southwest has ranked among global leaders in copper production. Copper is mined and processed from ore deposits. The vast majority of ore becomes mine waste, primarily as mill tailings—the fine-grained, solid-waste product of the mineral extraction process. Deposited into impoundments that cover large surface areas (normally multiple square kilometers), tailings and tailings pore waters (collectively mine wastes) are highly mobile and susceptible to surface erosion and ground-water infiltration. Mine wastes are often acidic and contain high sulfide, heavy metal, and salt concentrations. Released into the environment, these wastes can cause phytotoxicity and contaminate water and soil resources. Federal and state environmental statutes regulate mine-wastes management. These statutes provide for mandatory financial assurance, often in the form of multi-million dollar bonds, to protect the public from government-response costs to environmental hazards caused by mine wastes. Financial assurance providers (sureties) issue bonds and, by a three-party contract with the government (obligee) and mine operator (principal), the surety assumes a financial risk. This risk is inherent in the bond’s terms. For example, financial assurance bonds are multi-year contractual agreements, during which time bond amounts often increase, regulations change, and equity and commodity markets fluctuate, sometimes financially weakening the mining industry. Furthermore, monitoring mine wastes is difficult and costly using conventional, in situ methods. Multi-year geospatial monitoring of mine wastes using satellite imagery would provide site-specific reports on mine operations and mine-wastes management. Monitoring is particularly useful to detect threats or potential threats to the environment or public health that require investigation. Using this information, a surety could take steps to mitigate its financial exposure, or probable maximum loss (PML), and potentially encourage due diligence among mine operators and regulators. Ultimately, this proactive strategy intended to avoid financial exposure could result in improved environmental quality benefitting the public.

Available for download on Saturday, August 22, 2020

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