By Tim Dyer
Special to The Ely Times
I began my career at Magma Copper Co. in July 1993. My first day on the job was in Washington D.C. in a meeting with the Department of Interior (DOI) and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). I hadn’t even been to either the Magma office in Tucson, Arizona, or the project office in Ely. I was told by Harry Smith, the vice president of Magma for Robinson, to meet him and the Magma team in the lobby of the hotel.
It was trial by fire.
I had been hired to manage the Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) on behalf of Magma for the Robinson Project. I also met, for the first time, the Ely BLM team who would lead and direct preparation of the EIS, and DOI officials, in that meeting to discuss how to proceed on the EIS.
That was also the first day I met one of my colleagues, Richard Ott, Robinson’s Mill Manager, who would support me on the EIS. He was sitting in the lobby of the hotel. We looked at each other and somehow knew that we both worked for Magma.
Richard did not have a mill to build or run, so he was directed to assist me on the EIS. He took a crash course from me on the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and became an invaluable support to me for the next 12 months.
I met Harry Smith about a month prior during my interview. He asked if I could complete an EIS in 12 months. I said yes. They hired me and I started to wonder “What was I thinking?”
In rodeo terms I got the re-ride on the bull and needed to get an 8-second ride!
We were meeting in Washington with high level officials because the original Record of Decision (ROD) to approve of the project had been issued after completion of Environmental Assessment (EA) by the BLM, technically a shorter process. The outcome of an EA is either a Finding of No Significant Impact (FONSI) or a determination that an EIS is required.
The Mineral Policy Center in Washington D.C. appealed the ROD on the basis that a large mining project like Robinson required an EIS, thus the decision to approve did not comply with NEPA. NEPA requires that an EIS be prepared when there is a “potential for significant impacts.”
Timing is everything. At the time that the EA was being prepared and completed, Bill Clinton had been elected president and appointed Bruce Babbitt as Secretary of Interior and Jim Baca, BLM Director. Both were sympathetic to the anti-mining environmental groups.
Up until then most mining projects in Nevada were being reviewed by EAs. However, there was a new sheriff in town with a whole different perspective on mine projects and NEPA. Thus, new BLM Director Jim Baca sided with the MPC and overturned the ROD approving the project.
As a result, the Nevada Governor’s office and Nevada Congressional members, particularly Senators Harry Reid and Richard Bryan, became involved. The decision to overturn the ROD had also created a furor amongst locals and many mining advocates in Nevada.
Robinson was in the political spotlight.
Ely desperately wanted the Robinson Project to bolster its suffering economy. Afterall, Ely grew up around the Kennecott mine at Ruth (now the Magma Robinson Project) and the smelter in McGill. They were operated up until 1978, when they were closed due to low copper prices and new air quality regulations that required significant upgrades to smelters. Ely’s economy never recovered.
Nevada officials were urging the federal government to find a way to resolve this matter, so the mine could be built, and the Ely economy revitalized.
Magma had two choices – appeal the decision or prepare an EIS. An appeal would have required review by the Interior Board of Appeals, and if not successful, a judicial appeal. These would have almost certainly taken years. Magma decided to have BLM prepare the EIS, if it could be expedited.
Harry started the meeting off in Washington saying that Magma was willing to do an EIS if it could be expedited. A DOI deputy committed to expediting the EIS. The Ely BLM supported that commitment. That DOI commitment would be critical a year later when the BLM was ready to publish the Draft EIS.
Monday, Oct. 10, 1994 was technically the end of the public comment period on the Final Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS) and Record of Decision (ROD). However, that was Columbus Day, a federal holiday. So, the ROD was delayed one day to Oct. 11, 1994.
The ROD was a culmination of a year-long process where an (EIS) was prepared and published. In the end it took 13 months.
It was fitting that the ROD technically came on Columbus Day. This little corner of America was discovered once again.
Now, it is so gratifying to see Robinson operating 25 years later. When it started is was supposed to have a 17-year mine life (2011). It did have a few years where it was put on care and maintenance due to low copper prices. Nonetheless, it persevered and is still going! A great credit to the people who have figured out how to make it work.
The rest of the story – the real story here – is 25 years of dedicated people operating the Robinson Mine to the benefit of its families and the community.
Happy 25th anniversary Robinson.