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AG appeals copper mine water rule

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SANTA FE – Attorney General Gary King and other opponents of a newly adopted rule governing copper mines and groundwater have gone to the state Court of Appeals in an effort to get it overturned.

King says the rule approved in September by the state’s Water Quality Control Commission violates state law, because it allows groundwater at copper mine sites to be contaminated at levels above water quality standards.

“Ninety percent of New Mexicans rely on groundwater for drinking water, and this new rule, if allowed to be implemented, could render our water undrinkable for hundreds of years,” King said in a statement.

King filed a notice of appeal Thursday; environmental groups and Ted Turner’s Turner Ranch Properties, which owns the Ladder Ranch in Sierra County, had filed a day earlier.

The rule, which the Water Quality Control Commission approved 9-1, was proposed by the state Environment Department and endorsed by Freeport-McMoRan Copper & Gold – which has the Chino and Tyrone mines in southwestern New Mexico – and the New Mexico Mining Association.

The rule is scheduled to take effect Dec. 1.

The Environment Department said the industry-specific regulations – which include requirements for monitoring wells, contamination containment and cleanup when mines close – would provide greater protection for groundwater and bring more consistency to permitting decisions.

The department said Thursday that the new regulations “are the most stringent and environmentally protective regulatory requirements in the country, and we are confident the rules will be upheld.”

It also said through spokesman Jim Winchester that the environmental groups that are appealing “have proven to oppose the extractive industries as a whole for decades in New Mexico.”

Bruce Frederick, an attorney with the Environmental Law Center representing Turner Ranch Properties and the Gila Resources Information Project, objected that the new regulations expressly allow water pollution.

“We are appealing the rule, because we think it’s unconstitutional and diametrically opposed to the (Water Quality Control) Commission’s express statutory mandate, which is to prevent water pollution,” he said.

King said the adoption of the rule flies in the face of 36 years of interpretation of the state’s water quality law and regulations under Democratic and Republican administrations.

“The AG’s position is based on a plain reading of the Water Quality Act, not politics,” said King, a Democrat who has announced he will run for the party’s nomination to challenge Republican Gov. Susana Martinez next year.

King also said the composition of the Water Quality Control Commission “has changed dramatically” under the Martinez administration, with members who were viewed as too environmentally friendly replaced by gubernatorial appointees “viewed as willing to serve the administration’s interests.”

The only member of the Water Quality Control Commission to vote against the new copper regulations, geologist Doug Bland, resigned this week. He notified the commission in an email Monday that “due to other commitments” he will not attend future commission meetings. Bland could not be reached for comment.

Bland, who works for the Bureau of Geology and Mineral Resources at New Mexico Tech, also resigned over the weekend from the Mining Commission, which he chaired, citing other obligations. He was the geology bureau’s appointee on both panels.

Frederick said Bland stood up for environmental and public interests on the two commissions.

Martinez, whose administration has made it a priority to roll back environmental regulations it says hamper businesses and economic development, came under criticism this week for her newest appointment to the Mining Commission – Democratic former state Rep. John Heaton of Carlsbad – as a designated environmental representative.

“He has a decidedly anti-environmental record,” said Leanne Leith, political director of Conservation Voters New Mexico, which does an annual scorecard and gave him an overall score of 46 percent for the last six years he was in the Legislature, through 2010.

Knell said Heaton brings “a balanced environmental perspective as we regulate energy production in New Mexico.”

Heaton, a retired pharmacist, said he has been a strong supporter of clean air and water, recognizing the public health implications.

“I think my record was … very pro-environmental, so I guess that’s a matter of interpretation,” he told the Journal .

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