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Exploratory drilling by mining company facing opposition

Edward Sainz and his daughter Felisha Sainz, from Albuquerque, fish in the Pecos River downstream from Indian Creek on Thursday. Area residents are worried about possible pollution from a potential mining operation flowing into the river. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

People who live and recreate in the Pecos Canyon are up in arms over a proposal by an Australia-based company to conduct exploratory drilling for copper, gold and zinc near Tererro, not far from where a $28 million cleanup of old mining operations took place in the 1990s.

“A mine up there would alter the character of the canyon completely,” says Frank Adelo, who was born and raised in the area, and is part of a decadelong effort to create Pecos Canyon State Park.

Former Gov. Bill Richardson signed off on a memorial to create the park 10 years ago. Funding was slow to come, but the Legislature appropriated $250,000 in 2016 and $2.1 million this year.

Adelo is excited about that, but his excitement has been tempered by the prospect of the resumption of mining operations in the area.

“More and more, the Pecos has become a recreational area. It’s already one of the most heavily recreated areas in New Mexico,” Adelo said. “Mining has no place in our canyon.”

The Upper Pecos Watershed Association that Adelo heads is part of a recently formed coalition of about 25 groups intent on keeping mining out.

The coalition is building momentum. Although most of the proposed exploratory drill sites are in Santa Fe County, the San Miguel County Commission in June passed a resolution that resolves to work with Santa Fe County to protect the area’s watersheds.

“San Miguel will be mostly affected by this. Everything drains toward San Miguel County, and the only access to it (the drilling site) is through San Miguel County,” Adelo said, adding that access would be up N.M. 63, a narrow road through the canyon unsuited to accommodate large trucks.

The Santa Fe watershed is just two miles from the proposed drilling site. Last week, the Santa Fe County Commission passed its own resolution authorizing staff to participate in state and federal agency proceedings involving the Tererro project. It also adopted new, more restrictive regulations for hardrock mining.

Old law in play

But can mining in Pecos Canyon, on a site on federal land within the Santa Fe National Forest, really be stopped?

“The 1872 mining law categorically states that on public lands (mining) is a permitted activity,” Mike Haynes, an Australian who serves as managing director and CEO of New World Cobalt, said in a phone interview last week.

C. Cunningham/Albuquerque Journal

A subsidiary of his company, Comexico LLC, has submitted an application with the New Mexico Energy and Minerals and Natural Resources Department for a permit to conduct exploratory drilling on Jones Hill near Tererro, about 10 miles north of Pecos in the national forest

Haynes says it’s nothing to get excited about.

“We’re not proposing mining. We’re proposing to drill exploratory holes, no different than if someone wanted to drill a water well in their backyard,” he said.

“It’s a process that, nationwide and globally, has been proven not to contaminate waterways,” he said, adding that there has never been any recorded contamination from previous drilling in the area. Comexico identified 83 potential drilling sites in its application, but the company initially plans no more than 30 holes, using drill pads for similar tests decades ago.

Earlier this year, the company signed agreements to acquire rights to 20 federal mining claims and secured interest in 4,300 acres for metal sulfide and ore mining.

Haynes said Comexico plans to drill to verify the findings of past testing and attempt to delineate what other minerals may be found underground. “If it looks optimistic, it would culminate in a feasibility study,” he said. “That’s when you start looking at economic factors.”

According to a document on New World Cobalt’s website, “Significantly improved metal prices today make the economics of developing a mining operation considerably more favourable now than in the 1980/90s.”

In the past few months, the company has sent soil samples to a laboratory for analysis, Haynes said. In recent weeks, the company has also done some ground geophysics surveying.

At this stage, the state Mining and Mineral Division has deemed Comexico’s application administratively complete. The next step is for the division to decide if the application is technically approvable. If that happens, a public hearing would be scheduled before a decision on whether to approve an exploratory permit is made.

Susan Torres, a spokeswoman for the Mining and Mineral Division, said there are already plans for a public hearing in Pecos some time this fall, though no date has been set.

“We’ve been getting a lot of comments about this, so we know there’s a lot of interest in this process. And we encourage that feedback,” she said. “I understand the excitement, but I think it’s good to emphasize that this is a long process and the Forest Service will be taking public comment, as well.”

Within the U.S. Forest Service, the project would be subjected to the National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA). Torres also said the company would be subjected to the mining regulations adopted by the Santa Fe County Commission last week. She said final approval would require “a long extensive process.”

Even before exploratory drilling could begin, the company would have to submit a mine plan of operations the Forest Service would have to approve.

Yet, the Santa Fe National Forest says that it is limited as to what it can restrict by the nearly 150-year-old Genera Mining Act that went into effect under the Ulysses S. Grant administration, which authorizes the mining of minerals on public lands.

“While the SFNF can require Comexico to implement measures to protect resources, under the 1872 mining law (as amended) and general practice, the Forest does not have the authority to prohibit the exploration and development of mineral resources,” states an SFNF document addressing Comexico’s project.

“But what we can do is put mitigation measures into our NEPA analysis,” Julie Anne Overton, an SFNF spokeswoman, said.

For instance, SFNF can require the company to restrict core drilling to times of year outside the breeding season of the threatened Mexican spotted owl, she said.

Mining talk ‘premature’

Larry Gore is a geologist for the U.S. Forest Service who has been working with Comexico with their application. He agrees that talk of actual mining near Tererro is premature.

“I think the big misconception is that everyone is leaping to the mine. This is an exploration project,” he said, adding that it would take place on only about 2.2 acres of land. “Mining is so far out, there’s no way to know the facts about what it would really entail.”

That’s not to say people shouldn’t be paying attention. Gore said people still recall the effects of mining that took place in the area nearly 100 years ago. In 1991, a heavy snow melt caused toxic materials from the old mining operations to flow into the Pecos River, killing close to 10,000 fish downstream.

Gore said NEPA is designed to safeguard against such disasters.

“It basically requires an agency to take a hard look at the proposal and look at what impacts there would be,” he said. “It would look at species of concern, what impact this operation would have on those species and other wildlife, and the impact on water resources. That’s a major concern for people downstream.”

Also taken into consideration before any mining operations are started are what cultural and archeological resources could be impacted. “Basically, NEPA discloses what needs to be done and the authorization letter tells them what needs to be done,” he said.

But that’s not enough to erase the concerns of mining opponents, especially under the Trump administration, which has relaxed regulations aimed at protecting the environment. Gore said people who want to stop mining would be well advised to participate in an ongoing Santa Fe National Forest planning process, now in a public hearing stage.

Changing federal law?

Another tactic to restrict mining activities on public lands is to change federal laws, and New Mexico senators Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich are trying to do that.

Udall and Heinrich have introduced legislation that would require mining companies to pay royalties on mineral resources, such as gold, silver and copper, extracted from public lands and make them responsible for cleanup.

The old law that remains on the books “gives individuals and corporations the authority to extract minerals from public lands without owing anything in royalties to the federal government – unlike any other industry, including coal, oil, and gas,” the senators said in a June news release

The old Terrero mine site as it looked in 2000, years after a heavy snow melt caused toxic materials to flow into the Pecos River, killing close to 10,000 fish downstream. (Journal File)

In a statement to the Journal, Udall said the Tererro proposal “that is right next door to the stunning Pecos wilderness area and could contaminate the Pecos River” is on his radar.

“It is the poster child for how foreign mining corporations can exploit our outdated mining laws: We have an Australian company proposing to come in and mine U.S. public land in a treasured outdoor recreation area without paying any royalties, while taxpayers are still wrestling with the legacy of toxic waste piles left behind by the previous mining operation that contaminated the Pecos River, killed thousands of fish, buried a creek, led officials to declare the area a Superfund site, and hurt the area’s tourism economy.”

The Santa Fe-based WildEarth Guardians environmental group supports updating the federal law. The group’s Madeleine Carey said there are things that can be done at the state level, too.

“Governor Lujan Grisham needs to appoint a Mining Commission who understands the federal Mining Act of 1872 is woefully insufficient and out of date, and that the burden of protecting New Mexico’s land, water and wildlife is squarely on their shoulders,” she said. “And she needs to ensure they are empowered to say no to mining operations that have strong local opposition and put our community waters at risk.”

Carey said the most important thing that can be done is already happening: The community has organized against it. And if Comexico decides to go ahead, despite the opposition?

“We will weigh our options for intervention, which may include litigation,” she said.

Bringing jobs and minerals

While there’s much opposition to mining in the Pecos Canyon, New World Cobalt’s Haynes says there’s plenty of support for it, too.

“There are also a large number of supporters who are not as vocal who say this is an opportunity for development that would create well-paying jobs,” he said, speaking of investors.

Haynes said the United States would be the big winner if mining were to happen at the Tererro site.

“The U.S. is dependent on foreign sources of copper. More than 30% of copper is imported and 85% of zinc is imported,” he said, “In order to address the demand, they have to get it from somewhere.”

Haynes said those polluting accidents from old mines like the former Pecos-area operation were the result of legacy waste created when mining regulations were less stringent.

“These days, there is much more regulatory oversight on the development and more oversight on reclamation, and I think the industry as a whole has benefited from that,” he said.

And any mining that might occur in Pecos Canyon is still a long way off, he said.

“We don’t have a viable proposition right now. We’re simply applying to drill holes that will verify previous results. We’re not yet in a position to propose a mining operation, and we’re not contemplating who would because we’re not at that stage yet.”

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