Copper Flat Mine: It's the water

The mine will take an inordinate amount of water (perhaps a third of all groundwater used in the county) and not return any to the aquifer because of pollution.
Copper Flat Mine tempts residents with job promises but would rob county of a resource already in short supply.

By Max Yeh

In 2005, when the economy was booming, driven by increased consumption, copper prices reached unimaginable highs. But when the economy crashed, copper prices remained high. Low-quality ore became and continues to be profitable. Mines that were thought exhausted were reopened, stockpiles of low-quality set-asides were milled, and marginal deposits became hubs of new activity.

All over the Southwest, newly formed mining companies are jumping through regulatory hoops eager to cash in before the prices drop, and all over the desert small communities find themselves embattled and also divided over the issues that mining creates.

Hillsboro, in southern New Mexico, is no different. Five miles outside of this small hill town in a sparsely populated and rural county lies the open pit of Copper Flat Mine. Small claims at the site have been worked for more than 100 years, but open-pit mining and full milling activities began in 1982 and went bust only four months later. Three different companies failed to jump-start it in 30 years.

Now a Canadian venture-capital company, Themac Resources, with Australian backing and operating as New Mexico Copper Corporation, is trying again.

As one expects, Themac plays the hand of economic development. It is well connected and supported by local, county, and state politicians, not to mention local real-estate developers, restaurant owners, operators of mobile-home parks, and job-seekers. It also presents itself as a model of environmental concern.

Yet, there are sufficient doubters: ranchers, farmers, environmentalists, retirees, artists, writers, who have made themselves familiar enough with mining practices, hydrology, geology, and state and federal regulations to give
Themac an argument.

These locals are supported by more formal environmental organizations, primarily the Rio Grande Chapter of the Sierra Club and the Gila Resources Information Project, who successfully brought New Mexico and two of the country’s largest open-pit copper mines to rational standards of reclamation in mining.

Their perspective is not the economics of profit. At BLM’s hearings to define the scope of the Environmental Impact Study, person after person in Hillsboro spoke to the issue of water. In this desert climate, with annual rainfall about 12 inches and only 3 percent of that recharging the aquifer, there is not enough groundwater to support the mine without damage to those living near the well field. Indeed, the whole riparian system of nearby Las Animas Creek is threatened, including the only stand of Arizona Sycamores east of the Continental Divide.

The mine will take an inordinate amount of water (perhaps a third of all groundwater used in the county) and not return any to the aquifer because of pollution. Since the aquifer feeds into the Rio Grande system, its consequential depletion can affect the water supply along the whole lower part of the Rio Grande, in New Mexico, Texas, and Mexico. Thus the Elephant Butte Irrigation District, representing the farmers that own most of the rights to the river water in southern New Mexico, joined in expressing their concerns to the BLM.

Then there is the other water issue: the release of polluted waters into the aquifer. The site is already polluted from the 1982 mine operation, and Themac is required to remediate that situation before mining. Perhaps with this in mind, the New Mexico Environment Department is holding Themac to rigorous preventative standards in the negotiations over the mine’s proposed treatment of tailings, but locals point to other possible sources of water pollution: the acidity of the pit lake, the runoffs from unlined ore piles, failure of the tailings dam.

Residents also worry about the long-term effects. Themac projects 20 years of operation; the local residents want a sufficient reclamation plan that does not require permanent maintenance and a sufficient financial guarantee so that taxpayers might not finally have to fund a cleanup.

Of course, water is not the only issue. Locals speak of wildlife habitat, destruction of cultural artifacts, dust control, around-the-clock blasting, degradation of the county roads, traffic congestion, and though they hope that these concerns will be sorted out in the complex of state and federal permits that oversee mine operation, they keep a watchful eye on the permitting process.

Local media characterize the dispute as a choice between jobs and water, but opponents of the mine point out how inefficient copper mines are in turning water into jobs.

Almost any other industry would generate far more jobs with far less water, resulting in a sustainable economy that does not jeopardize the county’s future.

However one frames the issues, it still comes down to water.