Ely faces choice between mine, water supply
ELY (AP) – A northeast Nevada town is facing a choice between the survival of a mine that provides jobs for many residents and a spring that has been its main source of water for almost 150 years.
“You have the two primary reasons for why Ely is here, and they are coming to a head over which one to give up to keep the other,” said Sean Pitts, historian for the state-run East Ely Railroad Museum. “I hope someone’s got it figured out.”
Ely’s largest private employer is the Robinson open-pit copper mine. The city’s primary source of water is Murry Springs, which officials acknowledge could dry up if the mine is allowed to pump millions of gallons of water to “dewater” an area of saturated rock to expand the mine.
Elected officials in the city 250 miles north of Las Vegas chose jobs a year ago, when they agreed to allow the mine expansion in exchange for water system improvements paid for by Robinson and its parent company, Quadra Mining Ltd. of Vancouver, British Columbia.
“We cut a good deal,” said Ely Mayor Jon Hickman, who acknowledged that his city, with about 4,300 of White Pine County’s 9,700 residents, didn’t have much choice.
Officials were told that unless the mine could expand, it could shut down within six months. The resulting loss of 500 good-paying jobs could devastate the regional economy.
The expansion is expected to keep the mine going another seven years.
“It really came down to keeping the mine open,” Hickman said. “We could have said, ‘We’re keeping our water and you can close the mine,’ but I guarantee we would have been run out of town if we’d done that.”
Besides, Hickman said, the deal for Robinson to pay for water improvements “set up a lot of safety nets for the city.”
“Do we have a water problem? Yeah, we have a water problem,” the mayor said, “but the mine is picking up the tab for it.”
City Engineer Dean Day said Robinson has drilled two new water wells that should be up and running by May 1. He said the mine also is in the process of rehabilitating one of Ely’s existing groundwater wells, which the city sometimes uses to meet peak summer demand.
Ely resident Ed Thomas isn’t happy about the deal the city made. He says the City Council caved in to pressure from the mine, and in the process signed away the future of Ely.
“I’m not anti-mining by any means, but I’m not willing to give up my water and the water of 3,500 people,” he said.
Officials representing Nevada’s chief water regulator held hearings in Ely last Wednesday and Thursday on the mine’s applications to pump groundwater near the springs.
Acting State Engineer Jason King told the Las Vegas Review-Journal the only Murry Springs water rights holder is the city, and it withdrew any objections once it entered into its deal with the mine.
King said the mine’s plans for pumping will almost certainly reduce the flow of water in Murry Springs, if not stop it altogether.
The flow already decreased about one-third after another mine dewatering project began five miles west of Ely.
Ely businessman and Murry Springs Bottling Co. founder Keith Carson initially objected to the mine’s water applications. But he withdrew his protest after Robinson Mine bought his 12-year-old bottling enterprise. The company sells bottled water under the brand name Elyon.
“Our little bottling operation was standing in the way of the mine,” Carson said. “It was either the mine or us.”