A landmark New Mexico law comes of age

 

Shelbie Knox

 

Some of the biggest mines in the United States operate in New Mexico. The Chino and Tyrone copper mines, the fourth- and fifth-largest open-pit mines in the United States, flank Silver City in the southwestern corner of the state. From the Highway 152 overlook that skirts the edge of the Chino pit, the three-story-tall dump-trucks that haul copper ore up haulage roads look like so many scurrying ants.

In the north, near Questa, the Molycorp molybdenum mine (now owned and operated by Chevron Mining Inc.) may not be so large, but it nonetheless makes an impression. Although much of the mine is underground, surface operations have peeled away the top of an entire Sangre de Cristo mountain peak in search of molybdenum.

These mines, and their smaller brethren that dot the landscape of our state, have contributed significant mineral resources to the world. But it has not come without costs. Hard-rock mining is the most toxic industry in the world. Mining and refining processes can involve the use of toxic chemicals like cyanide, which is particularly useful in leaching metals from rock. The very act of moving earth—even in an arid state like New Mexico—can have significant impacts on water near the mines. Near Questa, centuries of mining at the Molycorp/Chevron mine and small mines along its banks killed off miles of the Red River. No bugs. No fish. None but the heartiest, acid-tolerant plants. Beneath hard-rock mines, the damage is even more widespread: plumes of contamination that spread through groundwater for centuries, or, more likely, millennia.

Until 1993, there were few laws regulating the pollution released by New Mexico’s mines and no laws requiring reclamation. But that year, our state passed a landmark law to change the way that mining is done here. It was a massive effort, recalls Douglas Meiklejohn, executive director of the nonprofit New Mexico Environmental Law Center (NMELC), who helped draft what became the New Mexico Mining Act. Many of the state’s environmental groups, including the Río Grande chapter of the Sierra Club and Amigos Bravos, sat at the table. So did lobbyists from Phelps Dodge, flown in from Phoenix. Then-State Rep. Gary King spearheaded the legislative process. Governor Bruce King threatened to call a special session if a mining bill wasn’t delivered to his desk in March, 1993.

In Santa Fe County, the Cunningham Hill mine was leaking cyanide into the Río Galisteo,” recalls Meiklejohn. “It helped galvanize the effort by elected officials and public-interest groups to fix what had become a major environmental problem for New Mexico.” Implemented in July, 1993, the New Mexico Mining Act significantly changed the mining business in our state. Now, hard-rock mines—new mines, old mines, big mines, small mines—are required to be more environmentally responsible and to develop reclamation plans that will restore the environment to a “self-sustaining ecosystem” after mining operations cease. Mining companies must secure financial assurance, which, in simple terms, guarantees that, if a company goes bankrupt or otherwise walks away from environmental liabilities, there will be funds available for cleanup.

Both literally and figuratively, the Mining Act was a watershed law.

What we had before—the federal 1872 Mining Law—put handcuffs on all of the regulating agencies. It declared mining as the best use of the land and gave miners free reign to do whatever they wanted to do,” says Brian Shields, executive director of Amigos Bravos, who also helped draft the Act. He explains that, at the Molycorp/Chevron mine, that meant putting 360 million tons of waste rock next to the Red River. Molycorp/Chevron was the first test of the Mining Act. Amigos Bravos and its attorney, the NMELC, participated in the years-long permitting process. The result: the company now has more environmentally sound operating practices, a reclamation plan and a financial assurance of $157 million. In 2003, it was the largest financial assurance for a mine anywhere in the world.

The Mining Act put into place safeguards that say, ‘You can mine, but we need to make sure that the mine doesn’t destroy our natural resources,’ ” says Shields. The process that now is in place takes a more holistic view of permitting: regulators now look at environmental and public health impacts along with mine design and safety. Twenty-one years after its implementation, the law is resulting in a more sustainable future for the state.

Harry Browne, who worked as director of the Gila Resources Information Project (GRIP) when the Chino and Tyrone mines were going through their initial permitting phases under the Act, agrees. He says that citizens were not able to hold Phelps Dodge (now Freeport McMoRan) totally accountable, “but without the Mining Act it would have been far, far worse.” Browne points out that the Act not only makes sense for protecting critical water resources, but it is an incredible safeguard for taxpayers, who often have to foot the bill for mine reclamation in our country. If Freeport McMoRan were to walk away from its New Mexico mines today, it would leave $550 million in financial assurance for cleanup. That figure won’t cover complete reclamation, but it is $550 million more than was available before the Mining Act.

This is an extraordinarily insightful law. It seems rare that our legislators think 100 years in the future, but that’s what the people who passed this law did,” says Browne. “We should all be extremely grateful that we have the Mining Act because we care about future generations in New Mexico. They’re the main beneficiaries of the Act.”

 

Shelbie Knox is a development officer at the NMELC. For more information on the Mining Act, see a fact sheet at www.nmelc.org. Find out more about environmental issues at New Mexico’s major minesites at www.amigosbravos.org or www.gilaresources.info

 

 

 

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