By Michael Jensen, NM Environmental Law Center
New Mexico’s Environment Department is pushing through a discharge permit for New Mexico Copper Corp.’s Copper Flat Mine that relies on incomplete and inaccurate information and does not account for impacts to surface and groundwater.
Contaminants in groundwater and surface water will pass under and across Ladder Ranch, impacting four perennial streams that cross Ladder Ranch on their way to the Rio Grande and that support wildlife restoration and ranching operations.
Potential contamination of surface and groundwater could negatively impact endangered and threatened species. Mexican gray wolves are housed at Turner Ranch Properties’ Ladder Ranch before reintroduction. Ladder Ranch and the Hillsboro Pitchfork Ranch host mule-deer restoration efforts. Other habitat restorations and reintroductions involve Rio Grande cutthroat trout, Chiricahua leopard frog, Bolson tortoise, and two species under review for endangered listing: Rio Grande chub and Rio Grande sucker.
The Environment Department’s draft permit does not include the recent conclusion by the Third Judicial District Court that the mine has only about 862 acre-feet per year of water rights, not the more than 20,000 it needs. The draft permit shows substantially higher production at the mine than the amount claimed in New Mexico Copper’s permit application and supporting documents and has a smaller disturbed area, smaller waste rock piles and a lower depth in the planned pit lake.
Independent analysis indicates that the pit lake will function as a flow-through pit during rapid fill of the pit post-closure (not an evaporative sink as claimed by New Mexico Copper); this means that it must meet water-quality standards and/or that the corporation must pump it, most likely “in perpetuity,” which violates the Mining Act’s requirements for new mines.
The permit allows for the widespread use of “permit amendments,” including changes in location, quantity and quality of discharges initially authorized. Permit conditions that went through a robust public-participation process could be removed immediately after the permit’s effective date, undermining public participation in the draft-permit process and the purpose of including permit conditions.
Permit amendments are unlawful under the Water Quality Act.