The Lisbon Valley area is no stranger to mining and its impacts. The Keystone-Wallace copper mine was built in the 1970s, and much of that mine’s infrastructure remains after being inactive for over 40 years. The Rio Algom Uranium Mill was in use from 1972 until 1988, leaving the groundwater supply contaminated with arsenic, uranium and other elements.

Today, though mining remains one of the region’s major employers, many residents oppose a new in-situ mining experiment proposed by the Lisbon Valley Mining Company.

“I would hope that the [San Juan] County Commission would all take the time to look at this very closely and help us to fight this in-situ mining,” said Curtis Wilcox, one of the several community members who attended the San Juan County Commission’s weekly Zoom meeting on Nov. 17 to voice their concerns about the project. “I’m worried it’s going to destroy our livelihoods.”

In-situ mining is a method by which minerals are extracted by first dissolving them with acid while they remain in the ground, and then pumping that solution to the surface where the mineral is then recovered.

In 2009, Lisbon Valley Mining Company took the helm of the largest operational mine in southeastern Utah and, in 2019, began considering a new kind of in-situ mining. Miners would inject diluted sulfuric acid into the ground to help dissolve copper in Burro Canyon Aquifer — 200 to 900 feet deep into the ground — using up to 2,700 wells. In-situ mining has been a staple of the industry in recent history, but the Lisbon Valley Mining Company’s experiment would necessitate mining into sandstone instead of harder rock layers.

In 2019, a Lisbon Valley Mining Company spokesperson said that the business was “putting in … millions and millions of dollars to prove up a technology that eliminates the need for open-pit mining…and could benefit the overall industry on a global scale.”

Open-pit mining is particularly devastating to the environment; it unearths dangerous chemicals hidden deep in the earth’s crust, degrades surrounding land, and can release poisonous gases into the air, along with intense noise pollution. The benefits of in-situ mining, on the other hand, include few visible land scars, less greenhouse gas emission, minimal noise and a safer working environment for employees. But residents’ concerns about water contamination may outweigh those advantages.

For the company’s novel in-situ mining project to take off, Lisbon Valley Mining Company must acquire an aquifer exemption permit from the Utah Division of Water Quality and the United States Environmental Protection Agency. The permit can only be given if the proposed mining does not affect an aquifer used as a source of drinking water. If obtained, the Lisbon Valley aquifer would be the first in Utah to be opened to in-situ mining.

“We are very concerned when they start using this in-situ process that will affect our drinking water and the water that we water our livestock with,” said Monticello resident R.L. Wilcox at the same meeting. “This is a very important issue for us.”

Beyond their water-related concerns, residents cited Lisbon Valley Mining Company’s checkered financial past with the county as a reason to oppose the mine. According to the San Juan County treasurer’s office, Lisbon Valley Mining Company owes $2.1 million in property taxes, having missed payments since 2014 when there was a decrease in copper prices worldwide. As a result, the company has faced tax liens from the Utah State Tax Commission and lawsuits from four contractors alleging that the company failed to pay for its equipment and machinery.

“The mine has declared bankruptcy once, run out of operating funds again, been in arrears of their county property taxes for half a decade, had to call in emergency support from the state to prevent an impending ecological catastrophe, and has visibly scarred thousands of acres,” said David Roccaforte at the Nov. 17 meeting. 

George Shaw, president of Lisbon Valley Mining Company, emphasized that when combining taxes, wages and vendor payments, the company has contributed $200 million to the local economy.

Other meeting attendees raised concerns about how the mine could affect future generations, given the damage done to the landscape and water supply of the region by past projects.

Curtis Wilcox of San Juan County is a fourth-generation rancher in the area whose family has developed their water sources for livestock and livelihood for over a century.

“Without the water, our operation could not go on,” he stated at the meeting. “I worry about the mine getting approved and believing that they’re not going to harm anything, and once the acid is released, we can’t get it back.”

The San Juan County Commission, composed of Republican Bruce Adams and Democrats Willie Greyeyes and Kenneth Maryboy (both members of the Navajo Nation), wrote a letter to state officials asking that information about in-situ mining in Lisbon Valley be released to the public.

“Residents and livestock users of these existing water wells are understandably concerned with the potential effects on water quality of these wells,” the letter read. “Quality water sources are scarce in this area and degradation or decrease of these waters would have devastating effects on culinary and livestock users of these waters.”

No one at the Nov. 17 meeting spoke in favor of allowing in-situ mining in Lisbon Valley.

The Utah Division of Water Rights held a public hearing on the issue on Nov. 24, where other community members voiced their opinions.

As Lisbon Valley Mining Company’s timeline for attaining the necessary permit and beginning construction remains uncertain, San Juan County and Lisbon Valley residents hope to sway their county commissioners against the project.

Public comments will be accepted on the Lisbon Valley Mining Company’s in-situ copper mining operation through Dec. 4.


Dec. 5, 2020: This article has been revised. A previous version misattributed a quote to George Shaw, when it was said by David Roccaforte. We regret the error. 

Residents raise concerns about contaminated groundwater

“I’m worried it’s going to destroy our livelihoods.”

– Curtis Wilcox