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Mining Reclamation in New Mexico Takes Center Stage

A leading environmental challenge people face around the country involves the impacts of mining — be it new hardrock mining operations, or dealing with the aftermath of abandoned mines. Here in New Mexico, however, addressing the impacts of existing mines and their waste piles remain one of the more prominent environmental concerns in the state. This summer we are taking steps to help communities deal with these problems.

Existing mines now face mine closure reclamation standards being applied under the New Mexico Mining Act of 1993 and the New Mexico Water Quality Act. These two Acts require mines to develop and implement reclamation standards, as well as establish full financial assurance bonds, to be in place by December 31, 2001. Our four biggest hardrock mines — Molycorp's Questa Complex and Phelps-Dodge's Chino, Tyrone and Cobre facilities — are facing this final permitting deadline. The reclamation standards being applied are a model for other states facing similar problems.


We have been working closely with community-based organizations to help insure that high-quality reclamation plans are in place by the deadline, plans that fully address the current and future impacts of the above-mentioned mines. These organizations are Amigos Bravos in Taos County, and the Gila Resources Information Project (GRIP) in Grant County. Technical assistance has been provided by the Mineral Policy Center, Center for Science in Public Participation, and Southwest Research and Information Center (SRIC). Legal assistance has come from the New Mexico Environmental Law Center and the Western Environmental Law Center. Together, we have been very successful in raising the visibility of mine reclamation to the public, and plan to continue working actively together through completion of the mine permitting process.

Public hearings are scheduled throughout the summer on the array of permits proposed for the mines. There will be many opportunities for oral and written comment from concerned citizens, as well as the presentation of technical and permitting recommendations by Amigos Bravos' and GRIP's technical teams.


The technical framework for the proposed permits have been established with the Groundwater Discharge Plans and Mining Act Permits issued by state agencies for the Molycorp operations last year, the first of the final permits issued for a major operating mine. Those permits set the framework for all succeeding mine permits in this state.

Some of the provisions required by these permits require:

  • All slopes graded to no steeper than 3:1-4:1 ratios (horizontal length:vertical height), to prevent runoff from eroding the reclaimed area;
  • no less than three feet of non-acid generating growing medium to support revegetation and prevent infiltration;
  • demonstrate revegetation through the establishment of a "self-sustaining ecosystem";
  • collection of any seepage until standards are attained; and
  • full financial assurance bonding, in case a third party is needed to effectively complete reclamation.

These provisions are being questioned by mine operators who have proposed reclamation approaches that would allow steeper slopes, less deep growing mediums, lower quality revegetation performance standards for "self-sustaining ecosystems," and lower levels of financial assurance — assurance necessary to guarantee full reclamation if the operators cannot complete the job.

The current established bond level for the Molycorp site totals more than $150 million each for both the mine and mill tailings sites. As the Chino and Tyrone operations individually are significantly larger than the Questa complex, full financial assurance for cleanup of these sites would likely require a much larger bond for each operation.


Besides preparing their reclamation plans, mine operators are also considering whether to apply for waivers to the Mining Act reclamation requirements for open pits and other waste units on their sites. The waiver process is uncharted territory for all parties involved - mine operators, regulators, and the community groups. The waiver is for the "self-sustaining ecosystem" requirement in the reclamation plan, and can only be approved if full reclamation is shown not to be technically or economically feasible. However, it also requires that the plan can still meet the other applicable environmental standards, and that the site would be safe and stable.


The environmental risks from poor reclamation can cause significant local damage, but these risks can extend beyond the polluting of our land and watershed. Without full and effective reclamation plans and financial guarantees, the people of New Mexico could be a risk of having to cover the costs of reclamation with public funds if the mine operators fail to complete the job. This is a very real concern, as evidenced in Montana at the Zortman-Landusky mine. Their former mine operator was Pegasus Gold (they were once involved in the Ortiz mine joint venture in Santa Fe county). When Pegasus Gold went bankrupt, they left the state of Montana with clean-up costs that were tens of millions of dollars more than the company's reclamation bond. These additional costs are being passed on to the citizens of Montana.

New Mexicans should learn from this and press regulators and mine operators to provide full and effective mine reclamation plans and financial assurance guarantees.

We need to keep the affects of poor mine reclamation from happening to us.

— Paul Robinson

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"Federal policy…has been to assure that "waste management problems shall not be deferred to other generations," and many environmental groups have shared the same view. Geological burial - at first glance anyway - looks like an ideal way to accomplish that since, after all, it "removes" the wastes from the environment and solves the problem once and for all. But in many ways entombment does just the opposite. It deliberately poisons a portion of the natural world for an endless stretch of time and in doing so it not only leaves future generations with thousands of tons of the most dangerous rubbish imaginable on their hands but makes it as difficult as the state of our technology permits for them to deal with it. We cannot promise our children - never mind those who will follow hundreds or thousands of years hence - that they will be safe from the wastes. And so long as that is so, we are not taking the problem out of their hands so much as we are taking the solution out of their hands."
Kai Erikson in
"Out of Sight, Out of Our Minds"
The New York Times Magazine
March 6, 1994.

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