By Max Yeh, 
Percha/Animas Watershed Association

For the past eight years, an extended and growing coalition of individuals and organizations in Southern New Mexico and Texas – including the Sierra Club – has been resisting the attempt of an Australian-owned Canadian company (New Mexico Copper Corporation) to reopen a defunct, marginal, open-pit copper mine near Hillsboro, in the foothills of the Black Range Mountains.

As with most projects of this kind, unwanted by-products are many: groundwater pollution, dust storms, permanent habitat damage (the eastern-most stand of Arizona sycamores is threatened), round-the-clock blasting, and heavy, pavement-damaging truck traffic.

But the biggest issue is water. The Copper Flat Mine wants to use as much water as would support a city of 50,000 people, and that withdrawal puts all of Southern New Mexico, Texas and Mexico at risk because the production wells are only a few miles from the Rio Grande. The Elephant Butte Irrigation District has said that a break in the mine’s containment system would bring catastrophe to the river. The Rio Grande Compact Committee has said that pumping this much water from near the river violates and increases New Mexico’s liabilities in the suit Texas and the U.S. have filed in the Supreme Court against New Mexico. The New Mexico State Engineer’s Office joined with Turner Properties, whose Ladder Ranch borders the mine, and a group of locals to contest the mine’s claim of water rights and succeeded in reducing that claim, but the litigation continues in the appellate court.

Meanwhile, New Mexico Copper Corp. continues advancing toward mining. It leased a large amount of water from the Jicarilla Apache Nation to offset damage to the Rio Grande, though the Elephant Butte Irrigation District contests the feasibility of that offset. It asked NMSU to lease them water rights for production. It applied for a new appropriation of waters from the state engineer.

Sierra Club members who want to help preserve the waters of Southern New Mexico can attend public hearings on the federal and state permits needed for mining. Members already submitted hundreds of signatures to the New Mexico Environment Department on the mine’s permit to discharge wastewater. The New Mexico Environment Department has responded by scheduling the week of Sept. 24-28 for hearings in Truth or Consequences.

The BLM will announce a hearing on its final Environmental Impact Statement and mining permit later this year. The New Mexico Mining and Minerals Division is completing final assessment of mining information and will be issuing a hearing date soon.

Write to riogrande.chapter@sierraclub.org if you’d like alerts when meetings happen.