Public decries copper-mining rule

ChinoMine-photo courtesy of gilaresources.info

By John Buchser, Chapter chair

It’s getting difficult to keep track.

This spring, more critical environmental protections were added to the list of those dismantled by state commissions appointed by Gov. Susana Martinez.

These commissions, including the Water Quality Control Commission, the Oil Conservation Commission and the Environmental Improvement Board, at one time included a balanced group of industry and agency representatives, experts and conservationists. Gov. Martinez has populated these boards with a large majority of members who are openly antagonistic to the resources they are charged with protecting.

Among the recent threats — though it’s far from a done deal thanks to Sierra Club supporters and such allied organizations as the Gila Resources Information Project and Amigos Bravos — is the Copper Rule proposed by the state Environment Department.

The Water Quality Control Commission conducted hearings in April and May on the rule, which is purported to protect groundwater and surface water from copper-mining contamination.

Rather than adopting the recommendations of its technical and advisory committees, as is required by law, the Environment Department threw those recommendations out and drafted its own rule that “reflects the wholesale acceptance by NMED’s upper management of virtually all comments submitted by [copper-mining company] FreeportMcMoRan, Inc.,” the New Mexico Environmental Law Center said.

Bill Olson, a former Environment Department employee hired by the department to consult on the rule, ended his contract when he discovered that his technical expertise was ignored in favor of industry language. Olson testified against the rules at the hearings.

“The rule expressly allows copper-mining companies to pollute groundwater above water-quality standards, without the existing requirement of obtaining a variance,” said Gila Resources Information Project in its public statement.

The Rio Grande Chapter submitted written and in-person comments opposing this license to pollute.

“It appears that the copper industry wants to reduce the cost of mining an ever-depleting resource at the expense of our groundwater. This is in clear violation of the WQCC’s charge of adoption of regulations ‘to prevent or abate water pollution in the state or in any specific geographic area or watershed of the state,’ chapter Executive Committee member Susan Martin told the commission.

More than 950 New Mexicans responded to the Rio Grande Chapter’s action alert by sending written comments opposing the rule to the commission.

Several members also testified in person in Santa Fe, and many community members attended a comment session in Silver City.

During the hearings, WQCC commissioners could be overheard joking about how they sounded like prosecutors when they questioned technical witnesses who testified against the rule.

But regardless of any bias, they now know they can’t slip this rule into the books without public scrutiny. Nearly a thousand written comments in opposition and numerous investigative news articles, editorials and letters to the editor have made the public well aware of the Environment Department’s tactics.

The commission will deliberate on the rules at its Aug. 13 meeting. We will keep you updated. For more information and the Gila Resources Information Project website.