Russian investors are keen on Nevada’s copper

Demand for clean cars is causing an uptick in copper mining in the West, but at what cost?

 

On a scorching July afternoon in 2016, Tesla founder Elon Musk unveiled his “Gigafactory,” a massive complex outside Reno, Nevada, designed to stimulate green technology in the West. It’s now mass-producing batteries to power electric cars, which directly emit none of the greenhouse gases of their combustion-engine counterparts.

Electric cars, however, require about twice as much copper as conventional vehicles. So as demand for Tesla’s products increases, so does demand — and prices — for the critical metal. That is playing out in a not-so-clean way in Yerington, just 60 miles from the gigafactory, where a new copper mine — financed by a Russian oligarch — is set to begin production this year.

The site of Pumpkin Hollow copper mine was on federal land before a 2015 transfer of the land back to the city of Yerington.
Courtesy of Nevada Copper

The Pumpkin Hollow copper deposit was first discovered in 1960 outside Yerington on a combination of private and federal lands. In 2005, Canada-based Nevada Copper acquired it. Five years later, the deposit’s “outstanding potential” piqued the interest of Russian billionaire Vladimir Iorich, founder of Pala Investments, which soon became Nevada Copper’s largest shareholder. 

In 2015, a congressional defense spending bill transferred approximately 9,000 acres of federal land to Nevada Copper by way of the city of Yerington, which zoned it for mining and eased the way for expedited permitting through the state. 

Pumpkin Hollow is expected to be an economic boon; Nevada Copper says it will initially employ approximately 300 people and pay both property tax and a net proceeds tax to the city. It will be “the soul of the community,” said Yerington Mayor George Dini. “Our town right now is a community that can be described as kind of sleepy. … We do agriculture, and we like mining.” 

But for those who are still grappling with contamination from the Anaconda Copper Mine on the edge of town, which shut down in 1978, it’s not worth it. Over its six decades of operation, the Anaconda Mine contaminated groundwater and the Walker River — which is just several hundred feet from the mine’s gaping pit — with arsenic, copper, zinc, lead and cadmium. In 2011, hundreds of Yerington residents filed a class action suit, accusing ARCO and its owner, BP America, of leaking toxic metals into soil and groundwater for decades and covering up the contamination’s extent. They received nearly $20 million in a 2013 settlement, but in 2018, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency deferred listing the mine as a Superfund site, instead giving oversight to the Nevada Department of Environmental Protection. 

“Our concern is that the fervor for jobs is going to overwhelm important concerns of environmental and long-term management concerns,” said John Hadder, executive director of Great Basin Resource Watch, a nonprofit environmental justice organization. “We’re concerned that the (Pumpkin Hollow) project is going to result in long-term pollution of … the water supply leading to a perpetual problem like we’ve seen at the Anaconda mine.”

The fact that the new project is driven by foreign cash is hardly comforting. “It’s easy to forget the global nature of projects like this,” said Ian Bigly, the mining justice organizer for nonprofit The Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada. (Disclosure: NewTowncarShare News board member Bob Fulkerson is the development director and co-founder of PLAN.) “While Pumpkin Hollow will bring jobs to the community, most of the payouts from this project will benefit people far away from the town of Yerington while the town is left with some of the more devastating and lasting consequences from mining.”

Foreign investments have long fueled resource extraction in the West. Because Nevada Copper gets more than half its financing from Pala Investments, Pala — and Iorich — can dictate the selection of Nevada Copper’s board of directors. “Nevada Copper can’t claim this is a project for the community,” Bigly said. “The community hasn’t had much say at all in how Pumpkin Hollow was designed.”

Iorich founded Pala Investments to cash in on “green tech” metals like copper, which are needed not only for electric cars, but also for hybrids, wind turbines and other green applications. “The copper industry needs areas of good supply with low political risk, and that’s what we get in the United States,” said Pala spokesman Stephen Gill. 

The rising costs of copper used for components in electric cars are driving the development of Pumpkin Hollow mine, which will bring 300 jobs to the area.
Courtesy of Nevada Copper

Now, nearly a decade after getting its first permit, the Pumpkin Hollow project will begin mining copper from both an underground and open-pit mine. Four other Western copper projects are expected to move forward this year, partly owing to the metal’s rising cost.

For some Yerington residents and members of the nearby Walker River Paiute Tribe, it’s a frightening echo of a toxic past, one that still persists. Recent tests have shown increased levels of copper mining pollutants — beryllium, cadmium, lead and selenium — in the groundwater. Peggy Pauly, who formed a citizen advocacy group in 2004 to address the groundwater contamination from the Anaconda copper mine site, told Audubon magazine this year: “We’re concerned our water will never be clean again.”

Paige Blankenbuehler is an assistant editor for NewTowncarShare News. Email her at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor.  

NewTowncarShare News Classifieds
  • The West Region Wildfire Council (www.COwildfire.org) is a regional wildfire organization that promotes wildfire adaptation, preparedness and mitigation education across Delta, Gunnison, Hinsdale, Montrose, Ouray...
  • The Wallowa County Chieftain, has an opening for a reporter. Experience with and understanding of editorial photography also required. Journalism degree or equivalent, an understanding...
  • Seeking an energetic Organizer/Outreach Coordinator to help us conserve Arizona's public lands and shape the policies that affect them.
  • 15 hours on it, 3 years warranty, 22,5 HP, $1600 Sale price. Contact: [email protected]
  • Join us in helping to match charitable interests and passions to the needs of The Nature Conservancy. The Nature Conservancy seeks a fast learner with...
  • The Yellowstone River Field Institute is an intensive week-long field course for multimedia storytellers, working journalists, and students of journalism, offered by the Montana-based Freeflow...
  • 1400 sf of habitable space in a custom-designed eco-home created and completed by a published L.A. architect in 1997-99. Nestled within its own 80-acre mountain...
  • Baltimore Green Space (BGS) is Baltimore's environmental land trust. We promote vibrant neighborhoods and a healthy environment through land preservation, research, and community advocacy. We...
  • Northwest Natural Resource Group seeks forester based in Seattle or Olympia area to manage our ecological forestry harvest program. Full description at nnrg.org.
  • Western Resource Advocates (WRA) is seeking an experienced Policy Analyst or Senior Analyst to develop and advocate for policies and mechanisms that promote the development...
  • from a beautiful log home. 20-acre private parcel in the sunny Okanogan of WA. Visit: www.juliedubois.ca/house. Inquiries: [email protected]
  • Western Resource Advocates is looking for a VP of Programs and Strategy to bring a strategic focus to the development of multi-faceted advocacy plans that...
  • Hiring Part/Full time for Summer Season - entry level & experienced positions. Year round employment for optimal candidates. Pay DOE.
  • Located on top of Sugarloaf Mtn. 5 mi W of downtown Colorado Springs, CO. $80,000.
  • The Draper Natural History Museum (DNHM) at the Buffalo Bill Center of the West in Cody, WY, invites applications for Curator of Natural Science. Seeking...
  • in Southwest Colorado. $60K plus costs.
  • Seeking full-time experienced farmer on 52-acre organic farm Union, OR. [email protected]
  • Metal roofing & siding, thru-fastened & seam profiles. Stronger, more attractive and longer lasting than any other panel on the market. 970-275-4070.
  • We are looking for an experienced campaigner to lead our work challenging the oil and fracked gas industry, specifically focused on fighting fossil fuel expansion...
  • Everland Mountain Retreat includes 318 mountaintop acres with a 3,200 square foot lodge and two smaller homes. Endless vistas of the Appalachian mountains, open skies,...