NM Supreme Court upholds water-sacrifice zones

By NM Environmental Law Center, Gila Resources Information Project & Amigos Bravos

In March, the New Mexico Supreme Court issued a stunning and puzzling decision in its long-awaited review of the Copper Rule. The case could set precedent for how the State of New Mexico protects water at all industrial sites.

The Court’s decision was clearly based on prioritizing copper mining in New Mexico, despite the fact – acknowledged by the industry, the New Mexico Environment Department, and the court – that copper mines will “inevitably” pollute large areas of groundwater that will become increasingly important in our arid climate.

This is especially important for permitting new copper mines where the groundwater is still “pristine,” a term used by the court. The Copper Rule removes all the water beneath the massive area covered by an open-pit mine from any Water Quality Act standards. Standards would not apply until water pollution reached the so-called “point of compliance”: monitoring wells set up beyond the mine’s operational area, which can cover many square miles.

 “We are very disappointed with the New Mexico Supreme Court’s decision to uphold the Martinez Administration’s rule to weaken New Mexico’s Water Quality Act” stated Allyson Siwik, Executive Director of Silver City-based Gila Resources Information Project.

“The Supreme Court has effectively sanctioned the idea of groundwater sacrifice zones in the area of copper mines. In Grant County, we are 100% dependent upon our groundwater aquifer. Allowing Freeport-McMoRan, the world’s largest publicly traded copper company that operates three copper mines in the Silver City area, to pollute rather than prevent groundwater contamination threatens our drinking-water supply over the long term.”

“This decision does not recognize the importance of protecting the state’s most important resource – clean water,” said Rachel Conn, Projects Director for Amigos Bravos.

“The Court’s idea of ‘strategic containment’ is in direct opposition to the State Water Quality Act’s purpose of preventing and abating water pollution. It is never a good idea to allow polluters to write their own rules. This decision could pave the way for other polluters to demand similar rollbacks in water-quality safeguards and allow the federal labs, wastewater-treatment plants, dairies, and other industries to pollute under their sites and further risk groundwater pollution of public water supplies.”

“The Court’s ruling only heightens our determination to protect New Mexico’s groundwater,” said Douglas Meiklejohn, Executive Director of the New Mexico Environmental Law Center, which is representing GRIP and Amigos Bravos in the case.

“We disagree with the Court on the law, and think that the Court has an unrealistic view of how pollution of groundwater spreads. We are very concerned because groundwater is the most precious resource in New Mexico. The Court made clear that it was considering the Copper Rule on its face and not as it is applied in individual mine permits. We intend to monitor situations in which the Rule is applied to determine whether it violates the Water Quality Act or other statutory provisions.”

More information on the New Mexico Environmental Law Center website.

Featured image of Chino Copper Mine Pond, courtesy Gila Resources Information Project.

NM Supreme Court upholds water-sacrifice zones