SHERIDAN — A Sheridan man will be inducted into the International Technology Mining Hall of Fame this weekend. Doctor of Environmental Science and Engineering Terry I. Mudder will accept the honor in the category of Environmental Management and Stewardship at a banquet in Salt Lake City.
The award is a newly created platform to recognize innovative professionals who have made technical contributions to mining that have changed the course of the industry.
Mudder developed a wastewater treatment system that uses microbes to convert cyanide, which is used as a critical element in some mining processes, into nitrate. The process developed by Mudder operated at the Homestake Mine in Lead, S.D., for more than two decades and was featured in National Geographic magazine. Mudder said he didn’t expect to become an internationally renowned “cyanide guy” when he embarked on his career. His first job out of grad school was working in a lab for the mine.
“It was a total fluke that I ever worked there, to be honest with you,” Mudder admitted, indicating he had imagined his future would consist of something along the lines of designing water treatment plants for municipalities. “I never had any concept of working in the mining industry, ever. It never even crossed my mind.”
Mudder said he was living in Rapid City, S.D., in 1980 and had agreed to a job interview at the Homestake Mine because he wanted to make a trip to the Black Hills.
“Of course, they hired me on the spot. I was so over-educated for that job,” said Mudder, who built his doctorate title upon the foundation of a bachelor’s degree in chemistry and a master’s degree in organic and analytical chemistry.
For about six months, Mudder worked as a rank-and-file lab analyst. Around that time, the Environmental Protection Agency issued a directive that the Homestake Mine had to treat processed water before discharging it back into a nearby river. That’s when Mudder was tapped to embody his full capabilities.
“I was walking through the plant one day and the boss called me in his office,” Mudder said, recalling the supervisor had taken note of his background and hastily assigned a new job description.
“All of the sudden, I was a chief environmental engineer and chief research chemist and all these people I had been working for were now, overnight, working for me,” Mudder said.
Cyanide is added to water as a part of a process to draw out precious metals from raw sediment extracted from the earth. While it’s the only element that can perform that job to a meaningful degree for excavators, it’s also a known toxin.
“Cyanide is the only chemical capable of extracting gold and silver in the quantities to make it economical,” Mudder said.
“Unfortunately, it’s cyanide,” he laughed, referring to the compound’s unfavorable public reputation.
Mudder worked with James Whitlock and a team of researchers to establish a base of information used to develop the water treatment system. Today, Mudder is hailed as the first to use biotechnology to treat mining wastewater, but at that time, the outcome wasn’t certain.
“There was a lot of pressure from the company because nobody had done this before, and I was young,” Mudder recalled. “We eventually built the plant and I stayed there a year and ran it to make sure it ran properly, and then left. Basically, it ran the next 25 years flawlessly.”
The mine eventually shut down and was later repurposed as a federal research facility. After five years of sitting idle, new operators found they were able to revive the existing water treatment program when necessary.
“They just cranked it back on and the bugs came back,” Mudder said.
Mudder obtained a patent for the organisms responsible for the degradation process, which he has turned over to the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology. After leaving the Homestake Mine, Mudder spent decades as a consultant for hundreds of mining and industrial projects around the world, working as an engineer and ambassador for the mining industry. In addition, he has remained involved in the industry’s scholastic community, serving as adjunct professor graduate student and thesis advisor and guest lecturer at several colleges in the U.S., Canada and Australia.
Mudder operated a consulting firm, Times Ltd., out of Sheridan for several years, but is winding down his career and looking forward to retirement. He said he chose to relocate his family to Wyoming because of the friendly tax environment for businesses and chose Sheridan for it’s aesthetic appeal, lack of wind and community charm.
Mudder was nominated for the award by International Mining Publisher John Chadwick, a former colleague.
“Terry Mudder has probably done more than any other single person to improve the management of cyanide use in this industry and others and to educate anyone who will listen about the misconceptions and ‘best practice,’” Chadwick said, adding the International Technology Hall of Fame is one of the first truely international award ceremonies in the industry.
“He is a passionate environmentalist who follows the science. He wants the ‘right’ thing to be done, not necessarily any popular course of action that might have been espoused by pressure groups. But, if a popular course of action is ‘right’ he will support it,” he added.
Mudder is among the inaugural class spanning 14 categories. He characterized nominees in each category as innovative thinkers who were willing to take risks.