Allyson Siwik, Chapter Executive Committee, Gila Resources Information Project Director
With only 16 days left in the 60-day legislative session, mining giant Freeport-McMoRan, owner of the Chino, Cobre and Tyrone copper mines in Grant County, tried to push through a bill to roll back critical safeguards in the New Mexico Mining Act. Although a strong defense by environmental groups and legislative champions prevented HB625 from ever coming up for a vote in the House Energy, Environment and Natural Resources Committee, we expect that the mining industry will bring the bill back during the 2016 legislative session.
Freeport-McMoRan owns and operates in Grant County two of the nation’s largest open-pit copper mines that contaminate a billion gallons (3,345 acre-feet) of water annually and will cost half a billion dollars to clean up. For nearly 25 years, the Mining Act has ensured that mining corporations like Freeport protect our water, clean up messes they create, and don’t leave taxpayers footing the bill for billions of dollars of reclamation costs.
Sponsored by newly elected Rep. John Zimmerman (R-Doña Ana, Grant and Sierra), HB625 proposed changes to the Mining Act that would have serious environmental consequences for mining-impacted communities and financial implications for the state. The bill would have opened huge loopholes in the Mining Act that would have allowed mining companies to walk away from reclamation and shifted the burden of mine cleanup onto local communities and the state.
Specifically, the bill would have permitted new mines to pollute surface and ground water for thousands of years by changing the Mining Act to no longer require “perpetual care.” Unlimited expansion of mines without public notice and participation would have been acceptable with the bill changes. Industry’s proposed changes would also have given mining companies a loophole to indefinitely postpone reclamation/cleanup of a mine, even after they stop producing, by removing the total number of years a mine can go on standby. Language in the first committee substitute would have reduced the amount of money mining companies are required to post as a cleanup bond.
Freeport-McMoRan did not bring its bill to any interim legislative committees to discuss the changes in a more deliberative way. The bill was given only one committee assignment in the House very late in the session, significantly limiting the amount of scrutiny it would have gotten. Because the dummy bill process was used, the two committee substitutes were never posted on the legislative website, preventing public
access to bill language. The sponsor and his expert witnesses insisted that the bill was all about removing duplication in the Mining Act and streamlining the permitting process.
But a number of factors came into play to prevent the bill from advancing. The Mining and Minerals Division, the agency authorized to implement the Mining Act, had concerns with the bill related to financial assurance and removal of public notice and participation from the standby process, among others.
House Energy, Environment and Natural Resource Committee members Brian Egolf, Javier Martinez, Stephanie Maez, Matthew McQueen and Jeff Steinborn all grilled the bill sponsor, Rep. Zimmerman, and his expert witnesses, Freeport-McMoRan’s attorneys/lobbyists Dalva Moellenberg and T.J. Trujillo, questioning why these significant changes to the Mining Act were not vetted first through the appropriate interim committees and what the impacts would be, not just for large mines, but smaller operations and other types of hard-rock mines. Concerns of Rep. Sarah Maestas Barnes (R-Bernalillo) demonstrated that not all the Republicans were on board with the bill, and after two days of questioning and debate, it was clear the bill was dead.
Your calls and emails played a big role in defeating this bill, showing that the power of citizen engagement in the Legislature can stop powerful industry groups from weakening our environmental protections.
Featured photo “Tavan Tolgoi 05” by Brücke-Osteuropa – Own work. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons