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Mines for climate-friendly technologies face growing water scarcity in the West

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Climate solutions like solar panels and electric cars require lots of minerals - copper, lithium, manganese. The U.S. plans new mines for these metals across the West. But as NPR's Julia Simon reports, the country's need for these metals can sometimes collide with the region's lack of water.

(SOUNDBITE OF ENGINE RUNNING)

TYSON NANSEL: You do have a miner in there.

JULIA SIMON, BYLINE: On a 107-degree morning in the mountains east of Phoenix, a miner in a hard hat peeps out of the top of an 11-foot-tall bucket. Tyson Nansel, spokesperson for the Resolution Copper mine, says the miner's about to plunge...

NANSEL: Sixty-eight-hundred feet underground.

SIMON: ...Where the copper lies. To process it, the mine will use water - a lot, says geologist James Wells, much of it from an area east of Phoenix.

JAMES WELLS: The equivalent of a brand-new city of something like 140,000 people - that's how much water we're talking about.

J SIMON: Earlier this summer, the Phoenix area restricted some new home construction because of groundwater supplies. The region's water supplies are under increasing stress from drought and climate change. Yet it's in this same area where Resolution will use wells to suck up billions of gallons of water over the next 40 years.

WELLS: That's just a big, big new demand for water in a time that Arizona just doesn't have much water to spare.

J SIMON: Resolution is one of many mining projects planned for the arid West - projects the U.S. hopes will ensure supplies of key minerals for the energy transition. Copper, lithium and manganese are used in the batteries, electric vehicles and renewable energy that will help the U.S. get off fossil fuels. But locals worry about the impact of these new Western mines on the region's scarce water supplies. Wendsler Nosie Sr. is leader of San Carlos Apache Stronghold, a group that opposes Resolution.

WENDSLER NOSIE SR: When it comes to water, you know, water is life, and nothing matters without water.

J SIMON: Mining companies use water for processing the minerals, for dust control. And when working deep underground, they remove groundwater so it doesn't flood their mines. In the Patagonia mountains south of Tucson, environmental groups are concerned about the impacts of a new manganese and zinc mine. Local environmentalist Carolyn Shafer says it's not just the volumes of water that the Hermosa project would use but also the impacts on water quality. She's particularly concerned about mine water discharges in a creek that was already polluted by mining waste.

CAROLYN SHAFER: It's going to also cause all these other contaminants to now be picked up and washed downcreek.

J SIMON: The Hermosa project says they've built a state-of-the-art water treatment plant so their water discharges meet state standards and are reducing water in their mine waste. As for Resolution, the mine's president, Victoria Peacey, says they'll be using stored Colorado River water as well as groundwater. And she says they, too, are minimizing water usage, especially in the copper processing.

VICTORIA PEACEY: We've agreed to completely change the technology of some of the facilities to reduce the amount of water.

J SIMON: But some Arizonans worry their mining sector isn't regulated enough when it comes to water. Tom Buschatzke is the director of the Arizona Department of Water Resources. He says the state's groundwater code does have some exemptions for the mining sector. Agriculture, industry and construction companies have to prove that water wells they drill won't affect other water wells. Mining companies don't have to do that.

TOM BUSCHATZKE: The mining wells do not have to go through the wells spacing requirement process.

J SIMON: As for water usage, mining companies self-report their numbers. There's no government monitoring. He says his agency will check things out if something doesn't look right.

BUSCHATZKE: We are a regulatory agency, but at the same time, the best way to ensure regulatory compliance is to have positive relationships with the water users.

J SIMON: Experts say the West's mining-friendly regulations are the legacy of scrambles for minerals in the 1800s, like the Gold Rush. Wells, who consults for groups which oppose Resolution mine, says they're out of date.

WELLS: There's not enough water to go around in Arizona. And, you know, everyone should be playing by the same rules.

J SIMON: It's the era of climate change, he says. And when groundwater supplies go, it can take generations to get them back.

Julia Simon, NPR News, Superior, Ariz. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Julia Simon
Julia Simon is the Climate Solutions reporter on NPR's Climate Desk. She covers the ways governments, businesses, scientists and everyday people are working to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. She also works to hold corporations, and others, accountable for greenwashing.