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‘No’ to proposed mining in the Pecos Wilderness

By Harris Klein, President of the Bosque Chapter of Trout Unlimited
Albuquerque Journal | August 11, 2019

In June, the Albuquerque Journal published an article revealing plans by Comexico LLC, a subsidiary of New World Cobalt, to mine in the Santa Fe National Forest north of Pecos. Comexico submitted an application to drill exploratory boreholes near the Pecos River, the first steps in plans for a large-scale mining operation in the upper Pecos watershed.

Due to an antiquated bill dating from 1872, foreign companies like Comexico have free and unfettered access to state mining claims on America’s public lands. Senator Udall and Representative Grijalva of Arizona have introduced bills that would allow land managers to weigh other uses of public lands, such as outdoor recreation, and the values of local communities when evaluating mining proposals. The 1872 mining law makes it easy for foreign companies to mine our public lands and leave U.S. taxpayers to pay for cleanup. These bills would help ensure mining companies pay their fair share.

The Pecos River is an important watershed and one of our state’s most popular outdoor tourism destinations. Cold, clean water that originates on national forest lands and flows through Pecos Canyon is a vital resource to New Mexico, especially for downstream communities and landowners. The location where Comexico plans to begin mining is near the site of the old Tererro Mines, which contaminated the Pecos River, killing thousands of fish, and became a Superfund site that cost taxpayers $28 million to clean up.

Trout Unlimited is one of many organizations in New Mexico opposed to any new hardrock mines in the upper Pecos watershed. A large-scale mine on over 4,300 acres of public lands in one of our state’s top outdoor destinations is contrary to the goals of growing New Mexico’s recreation economy and increasing outdoor tourism. The Pecos River and the 223,000-acre Pecos Wilderness draw people from around the world, and any investments in this area should be aimed at increasing jobs and tax revenue provided by small businesses reliant on the region’s pubic lands, trails, waters and wildlife. A large-scale hardrock mining operation in the upper Pecos is incompatible with such efforts.

Harris Klein, of Albuquerque, is president of the Bosque Chapter of Trout Unlimited.

This guest column originally appeared in the Albuquerque Journal.

Santa Fe County adopts new mining rules

By T.S. Last | Albuqueruqe Journal
September 1, 2019

SANTA FE, N.M. — A public hearing on an ordinance to amend county’s Land Use Development Code wasn’t supposed to be about the prospect of a new mining operation north of Pecos.

But nearly all of the 18 people who spoke during the hearing at Tuesday’s County Commission meeting referenced the proposed project by Comexico LLC, a subsidiary of an Australian firm that has filed an application to conduct mineral exploration in the Santa Fe National Forest near Tererro on the eastern edge of Santa Fe County.

County officials made clear that the amendments to the ordinance covering hardrock mining weren’t specific to the Comexico project.

Yet, residents of the area, geologists, attorneys and representatives of such groups as the Upper Pecos Watershed, New Mexico Wilderness Alliance and New Mexico Acequia Association all expressed opposition to renewed mining near Tererro at the former site of a mining operation dating back to the 1930s. The old mine wasn’t cleaned up and resulted in an environmental disaster decades later.

The first speaker, Carlos Valdez, who said he lives in the upper Pecos valley, recalled how runoff from a heavy snow melt in 1991 sent toxic metals into the Pecos River, killing nearly 10,000 rainbow trout at a state hatchery and resulting in $28 million worth of reclamation work.

“We don’t want that happening all over again,” he said.

Joseph Simpson, whose family began homesteading in Tererro in the 1800s, remembered fish dying, too, along with trees along the riverbank.

He said companies shouldn’t have the right to take minerals from the national forest.

“This is our land. This is the people’s land,” he said.

Other speakers raised concerns about the impact mining would have on water quality, wildlife and tourism in an area that has become a popular destination for campers, hikers, anglers and summer homes.

Garrett VeneKlasen, executive director of the New Mexico Wildlife Federation who ran as a Democrat for state land commissioner last year and once worked as a fishing guide on the Pecos River, said regulating hardrock mining was no small thing. He said there were thousands of mining claims in New Mexico and that the new county amendments would create a “line in the sand.” He also talked about the “unity of community” that had galvanized against the exploration project near the Pecos Wilderness.

“Everyone is together on this,” he said. “We’re going to stop this thing.”

County attorney Bruce Frederick said what the mining ordinance does is assert county jurisdiction on federal land. He said that while the county lacks land use and zoning authority on federal lands, it does have the authority to regulate what goes on within county boundaries.

He said the amendments adopted by the commission would cover all new mining operations, meaning whatever mining might result from Comexico’s exploratory drilling would be subject to the new county regulations.

According to county documents, under the new regulations, applicants for large-scale sand and gravel and hardrock mining operations must provide a background report that includes information about stockholders’ holdings, subsidiaries, previously owned and operated projects, and any enforcement action against them.

They also must submit a sampling and analysis plan that describes the location, geology and ecology at the site, and methods to be used. There also must be a technical and financial feasibility assessment, including an estimate of reclamation costs and schedules.

In addition, the rules mandate a greenhouse gas analysis and a plan to offset emissions. Finally, the applicant must provide a closure plan with a final report describing post-closure monitoring.

The five-member County Commission unanimously approved the amendments. When the vote was taken, the about 100 attendees applauded and were joined by some of the commissioners themselves.

Earlier in the meeting, the commission passed a resolution relating to the Tererro mining exploration project, authorizing staff to participate in state and federal administrative proceedings related to the application. In a statement provided to the Journal, Commission chair Anna Hamilton said the resolution “encourages staff to participate with state and federal agencies to maximize public participation, conduct (a National Environment Policy Act) analysis, and assures adequate and enforceable conditions.”

This article originally appeared in the Albuquerque Journal.

County Commission creates new rules for hard-rock mining

By Robert Nott | Santa Fe New Mexican
August 27, 2019

The Santa Fe County Commission on Tuesday unanimously added requirements to the county land code regarding hard-rock mining.

Applicants will have to submit a background report that includes whether a proposed project has the potential to adversely impact public health, safety and welfare; a sampling and analysis plan regarding potential impacts to the county’s water, soil, vegetation and other natural resources; and a greenhouse gas analysis.

The county also wants mining companies to conduct a technical and financial feasibility assessment that includes a description of debt and equity at each phase of the operation and estimated annual costs. Finally, all large-scale sand and gravel mining operations in the county must provide a closure plan.

“This spells out what our options are going to be for regulating any mining applications we get,” Commissioner Anna Hamilton said.

Tuesday’s vote was the latest action in a series of public discussions on rules governing mining operations under county jurisdiction. Currently there are no such operations, county spokeswoman Carmelina Hart said.

An Australian-owned company wants to conduct exploratory drilling for minerals on Santa Fe National Forest land near Terrero, north of the village of Pecos. New World Cobalt is seeking federal permission to begin exploration this autumn.

The county ordinance can’t prevent that operation, County Attorney Bruce Frederick said Tuesday, noting federal law allows mining operations on federal forest land that comply with environmental standards.

However, several people who spoke during the public comment portion of Tuesday’s meeting said they hope the county’s adoption of the new rules will have some impact on the Pecos Canyon project.

“If companies can’t commit to the safeguards we put in this ordinance, maybe they shouldn’t be coming here,” said Roger Taylor, president of the Galisteo Community Association.

Some 100 people attended Tuesday’s hearing, with about 20 speaking on the issue. No one spoke against the ordinance. But a woman, who said she represents the sand and gravel industry, said the hard-rock requirements could have an “umbrella effect” that could cause problems.

Issues concerning hard-rock mining in the county have come up in the past. Some five years ago, hundreds of county residents protested a proposed basalt mining project on La Bajada Mesa, saying it would ruin scenic views and stir up dust and noise from blasting. In 2015, the county commission rejected the mine proposal.

This article originally appeared in the Santa Fe New Mexican.

Modernizing Mining Law

Santa Fe County passes ordinance to overhaul hard rock mining regulations

By Leah Cantor | Santa Fe Reporter
August 28, 2019

The room of the county building where the Santa Fe County Board of Commissioners holds its meetings was packed Tuesday evening in anticipation of the last item on the public hearing agenda: an ordinance amending the Sustainable Land Development Code (SLDC) to include the adoption of regulations for mineral resource exploration, extraction, and processing.

The ordinance, adopted on a unanimous 5-0 vote, completely overhauls antiquated mining laws and creates the first standardized regulatory procedure for evaluating new mining activity on federal lands in the county.

"This [ordinance] spells out what our options will be to regulate all mines in the future," said commissioner Anna Hamilton commented before public comments began. Commissioner Rudy Garcia asked County Attorney R. Bruce Frederick to clarify what kind of jurisdiction the county has over federal lands.

The federal government controls zoning and the ability to determine issues of land use, but the state and counties have jurisdiction over environmental regulation of mining activities that could have countywide impacts, Frederick explained. That means the county can't ban mining in general from an area, but a specific mine proposed on federal land within county boundaries must meet the regulations set by the county to get approved.

The topic on most people's minds was mineral exploration proposed by an Australian prospector near the Pecos Wilderness, only a few miles from the old Tererro mine that left a toxic legacy site upriver from Pecos communities and has caused environmental problems since it was abandoned in the 1930s.

The proposed mine has raised interest in the county's mining rules substantially. In April, the commission held a public hearing on the new regulations that was much more sparsely attended. Most who testified this time talked about the consequences of mining in the Pecos area.

"I was raised up above the Pecos in Tererro by my grandfather and my grandmother, my great grandfather homesteaded there back in the 1880s" one man, Rick Simpson, said in an emotional comment about the impact that pollution from the old mine had on his family and community over generations. "This is our land, this is the people's land … I just hope that there are enough people here that have the cojones to stand up to whoever is doing this."

Yet the county's rules are much greater than any one mining proposal. As one man representing the New Mexico Wilderness Alliance noted while expressing support for the ordinance, "the proposal in Tererro is likely only the tip of the iceberg."

According to The Diggings, a site that records mining claims on public lands throughout the country, there are 353 active mining claims in Santa Fe County alone, and 11,213 in the state of New Mexico. Based on reports by the industry, the Trump administration's pro-mining stance will likely result in an uptick in proposed developments of active mining claims.

County staff have spent nearly three years crafting additions and amendments to the county’s mining policies. The new regulations give the county greater oversight over proposed projects, enhance environmental protections and establish a standard procedure for applying regulations to all future mining activities that fall into the category of “Developments of Countywide Impact,” which include both hard rock mining and sand and gravel mines. Provisions that apply specifically to large scale sand and gravel mines were added as well.

"Extractive operations often fail to meet the terms of their permits and are organized to protect themselves from liability, as a result, local governments frequently bear the cost of clean up," a county document states. This scenario is all too common in New Mexico, where taxpayers have paid billions to clean up toxic legacy mine sites.

To avoid getting saddled with reclamation costs in the future, under the new ordinance companies applying for mining permits will have to provide background information to the county to demonstrate compliance with laws, regulations and clean-up orders on past projects. Companies also have to prove that they can pay for all aspects of the proposed project and reclamation costs, including an annual inspection fee that the county will charge the company to pay for assessments and inspections implemented by the county.

The ordinance includes other amendments aimed at strengthening environmental protections. New projects will have to provide analysis of existing environmental conditions up front and will be required to offset their greenhouse gas emissions to net zero. Projects must not result in net loss of wildlife habitats after reclamation, and must demonstrate how they will mitigate potential impacts to water sources in the area.

Enrique Romero, the staff attorney for the New Mexico Acequia Association, commended county staff for amendments that protect water quality. "I don't know how many people know this, but in January the state engineer forbid any new well permits in the area surrounding the old Tererro mine," he said, explaining that due to the concentration of toxins from past mining activities, the state issued "a moratorium in perpetuity unless [water] quality levels improve."

The ordinance also strengthens public participation requirements.

All individuals who gave public comment at the hearing supported the ordinance. The single person to raise objections was a representative of a commercial gravel company who argued that aspects of the new regulations would be overly burdensome to gravel and sand mining operations that are often far less destructive and have much slimmer profit margins than mining for precious metals and rare minerals.

In addition to this ordinance, county commissioners also passed a separate resolution Tuesday afternoon that authorizes county involvement in the state and federal proceedings related specifically to the new Tererro mine.

This article originally appeared in the Santa Fe Reporter.