Restore funding for groundwater projects in Grant County
For more than a century, hard-rock mining has been a driver of economic development in Southwestern New Mexico, but not without significant environmental impact to the area’s landscapes, water and air quality, wildlife and ecosystems. Since a chance inspection back in 2000 turned up 200 bird carcasses in the acidic waters of tailings ponds at the Tyrone open pit copper mine outside Silver City, state and federal agencies have pursued a natural-resource damage claim against Freeport-McMoRan (formerly Phelps Dodge), the largest publicly-traded copper company in the world.
Extending across 20,743 acres, groundwater contamination at Freeport’s three mines, Chino, Cobre and Tyrone, will need to be pumped and treated forever to contain the existing plumes of heavy metals, sulfates, and other pollutants and prevent migration of contamination to aquifers and drinking water wells that would pose a health and safety risk for Grant County residents. Soils and creeks in the vicinity of the mines also have been contaminated, affecting wildlife and ecosystems.
The New Mexico Office of the Natural Resources Trustee (ONRT) and Freeport reached a $13 million settlement in December 2010 for groundwater damages caused by the mines. According to the consent decree, settlement funds are to be used by ONRT “to plan and implement projects designed to restore, replace, rehabilitate, and/or acquire the equivalent of ground water resources allegedly injured, destroyed, or lost as a result of the release of hazardous substances and non-hazardous substances at or from the Sites.”
In signing the consent decree, the ONRT also agreed “to solicit public review and comment on the Restoration Plan and in no event will any project proceed without the publication in a newspaper of general circulation in the vicinity of the Sites of the opportunity to review the proposed project and submit comments on the proposal to the Trustee.”
Legislature improperly spends money elsewhere
However, before Grant County communities had a chance to provide input about the groundwater restoration plan, and without public knowledge, the state Legislature funneled $1.5 million of settlement funds to the Attorney General’s Office for Lower Rio Grande water rights litigation during the 2011 legislative session.
Not only does this appropriation appear to be in violation of the federal Superfund law, the New Mexico Natural Resources Trustee Act and the consent decree, but resources that could have been used for groundwater restoration projects in economically distressed Grant County instead will go to fund risky water rights litigation in a different watershed. There is no certainty that this lawsuit will end up acquiring on behalf of the public the equivalent of the groundwater damaged.
Nor is it fair to rob Grant County to pay for Lower Rio Grande litigation. Grant County loses out on the groundwater and public health benefits that could have been realized from the $1.5 million, and the economic boost that these projects would create will go instead to fatten the incomes of Santa Fe attorneys and consultants.
The ONRT has identified $9.5 million more in fundable projects than is available in settlement funds. There are four projects waiting in the wings that could be partially funded if the $1.5 million had been available, including wastewater and sewer projects in the Mining District and Silver City.
The Legislature needs to right this wrong
Grant County will forever be dealing with the legacy of mining. It is inexcusable that mining-impacted communities are not being fully compensated for the natural-resource damages that have occurred in their backyard.
The state Legislature needs to right this wrong and restore $1.5 million to ONRT’s budget so that needed groundwater improvement projects can be implemented.
Allyson Siwik is executive director of the Silver City-based Gila Resources Information Project, a non-profit organization dedicated to promotion of community health by protection of the environment and natural resources in Southwestern New Mexico.
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