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Tuesday, February 18, 2003

Bill Would Ease Mine Environment, Water Rules

By Tania Soussan
Journal Staff Writer
    Phelps Dodge Corp. and other New Mexico mine operators could win exemptions from some state environmental protection and cleanup rules under a bill in the state Senate.
    The legislation (SB 473) introduced by Sen. Ben Altamirano, D-Silver City, and backed by Phelps Dodge would allow the creation of "mining districts" in which water quality and other environmental regulations would be eased.
    The state Environment and Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources departments, which regulate mines, oppose the legislation.
    "This bill to me is not responsible at all," said Environment Secretary Ron Curry. "This bill effectively strips this department of its ability to regulate water quality in any mining district."
    Bill Brancard, director of the Energy Department's Mining and Minerals Division, said the bill would be "a significant step backward" that would allow mines with approved reclamation plans to reopen the process under less stringent rules.
    Mining companies would be able to avoid the extensive cleanup work now required if the bill passes, said lawyer Roderick Ventura of the New Mexico Environmental Law Center.
    "They wouldn't have to reclaim the land," Ventura said. "They could keep it the way that it is forever."
    But Phelps Dodge spokesman Richard Peterson disagreed.
    "Even mines within mining districts will have to be operated and reclaimed in a way that protects air quality, water quality and the environment," he said.
    Peterson said the current Mining Act has several problems and requires mine operators to get sometimes duplicative approvals from two state agencies.
    The mining districts created in the bill would be areas where mining is the "highest and best use of the land." The bill strips the Environment Department of authority in those districts and relaxes other regulations.
    Peterson said the bill would help Phelps Dodge by no longer requiring a mine site to be clean up to the standards necessary for other land uses such as livestock grazing or recreation.
    The legislation also would allow mining companies to post a self-guarantee or self-insurance as financial assurance for the required mine reclamation.
    Altamirano could not be reached for comment. The bill has not yet been scheduled for a hearing.