ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — The next 18 months will be critical for restarting copper mining in south-central New Mexico near Hillsboro for the first time since the 1980s.
New Mexico Copper Corp., which began working in 2010 to reopen the old Copper Flat mine that shut down three decades ago, expects the U.S. Bureau of Land Management to begin a public environmental review of the project in July. And before year-end, the process for approving all state permits should be underway, said Jeff Smith, New Mexico Copper’s chief operating officer in Albuquerque.
That would put the company on a potential 18-month time line to break ground, with commercial operations expected to begin in 2018. If all goes as planned, the mine, located about 20 miles southwest of Truth or Consequences, would bring about 1,150 construction jobs and 270 permanent ones to the area.
“We expect the BLM to issue an environmental impact study for public comment at the end of July,” Smith said. “At the same time, we’ve been working in parallel on all state permits, which will be submitted for review this year.”
If approved, the company expects to invest about $360 million to get the mine up and running. It’s already invested about $45 million in the permitting process, feasibility studies and other preparatory work since 2011, including purchase of all rights to the property from an elderly prospector who originally discovered copper and other mineral deposits in the area in the 1950s.
The zone was briefly mined in the 1980s by Quintana Minerals, which went out of business when world copper prices tanked from $1.70 to 70 cents per pound. Quintana left all its infrastructure intact, which New Mexico Copper has acquired with the property.
When the company began publicly discussing the project in late 2011, it had projected reaching commercial operations by 2013. But preparatory work for state and federal approval has taken longer than expected, with some 25 permits needed to operate the mine, Smith said.
That includes a final environmental impact statement from the BLM, plus state air quality and groundwater discharge permits.
“It takes a lot of planning to obtain those permits, with a lot of work upfront,” Smith said.
Still, the company has made steady progress, said Fernando Martínez, director of the Mining and Minerals Division at the Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department.
“We’ve tied our state permitting process with the federal process,” Martínez said. “About once per month, we meet with the federal officials and the company to keep the process moving.”
The company must also review water rights with the Office of the State Engineer. Quintana Minerals drilled four wells in the 1980s and New Mexico Copper plans to continue pumping from them.
“We filed a set of declared water rights on those wells,” Smith said. “We need all, or the majority, of them to operate the mine and that takes a permit from the State Engineer.”
The company’s definitive feasibility study, completed in 2013, outlines an estimated 1 billion pounds of copper deposits, plus 430,000 ounces of gold and 9 million ounces of silver.