A planned controversial underground copper leaching process has cleared a key hurdle in its bid to start pumping sulfuric acid into wells below Florence.
Officials of Florence Copper Inc. said the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has issued a draft underground injection control permit for the four wells that will become the first part of the project. In a prepared statement, Dan Johnson, general manager of the project, called that a “critical milestone” in the plans.
However, despite the optimistic press release, the company is still far from being able to pump a single drop of acid into the ground, much less extract any copper.
That EPA permit is subject to public comment, review and possible amendments. And foes of the mine who appealed a similar permit issued by the state Department of Environmental Quality are likely to raise objections.
Potentially more significant, even if the EPA grants its final permit, no construction can start on the mine. It still needs a broader set of permissions from DEQ.
Two years ago, that agency rejected the company’s request to conduct full-scale commercial operations. But DEQ did issue a permit for a smaller-scale test operation on a temporary basis.
Last month, however, members of the state Water Quality Appeals Board found what they said were shortcomings in the requirements put into the permit to protect water quality. The board blocked further work unless and until those issues are addressed.
Florence Copper, a wholly owned subsidiary of Taseko Mines Ltd., hopes to use a chemical leaching process to extract copper beneath 1,300 acres it either owns outright or for which it has leased the mineral rights from the state.
The sulfuric acid solution would dissolve what the company believes are 2.4 billion pounds of copper which is trapped in ores underground. The liquid would then be pumped back to the surface with the copper extracted and the solution then reused.
Rita Maguire, general counsel of Florence Copper, acknowledged the regulatory hurdles that remain. But she said the fact the plan was able to get permits from both the EPA and DEQ show that the project can be done in an environmentally safe fashion, even if that DEQ permit was found lacking by the appeals board.