New Mexico Environment Secretary Ryan Flynn testified in front of the U.S. House of Representatives on Thursday regarding August’s Gold King Mine spill in the Animas River, promoting New Mexico’s management of natural resources. But Flynn’s actions at the Environment Department have put New Mexico in greater danger of such water-contamination disasters in the future.
“The Animas River toxic spill provides an opportunity for Ryan Flynn and the state of New Mexico government to re-evaluate their neglect of, and indifference to, the need for stringent environmental regulations in northwest New Mexico,” said Mike Eisenfeld, New Mexico Energy Coordinator for San Juan Citizens Alliance. “The Animas River spill, unfortunately, is the tip of the iceberg when it comes to environmental problems facing our rivers in New Mexico, including legacy hard-rock mining, coal mining and burning, and uranium/vanadium.”
Flynn told the Congressional Oversight and Government Reform Committee on Thursday that the Environment Department would never allow a private entity that we regulate to monitor itself.
“That’s absurd,” said Dan Lorimier, Sierra Club Rio Grande Chapter conservation coordinator. “The Environment Department is doing exactly that with both the copper and dairy industries. Under the new Dairy Rule, the dairy industry reports quarterly, and the Environment Department has said it wouldn’t even look at the reports until permits came up for review.”
Freeport McMoRan, the copper-mining giant, also monitors itself and submits quarterly reports.
“Gov. Martinez and Secretary Ryan Flynn need to take a hard look at their own actions to weaken safeguards that once protected New Mexico’s water,” said Demis Foster, CVNM executive director. “Not only has the Martinez administration allowed polluters to write their own regulations under Secretary Flynn, like the Copper Rule, the administration has also gutted key protections like the Pit Rule — which protected our groundwater from exposure to chemicals generated by oil and gas operations.”
Flynn also testified that states would often be better at handling environmental cleanup projects than the federal Superfund program.
“That’s certainly not the case with some sites in New Mexico. It’s pushing 20 years to clean up historical mine contamination at the Chino mine site, and they’re still not done,” said Allyson Siwik, executive director of Gila Resources Information Project. “The situation with Chino is the same as Gold King — the local community didn’t want a Superfund designation, but while the state said it would get it cleaned up in five years under the Chino Administrative Order on Consent, studies are still ongoing, and cleanup is far from complete.”
Flynn argued Thursday that states should be given more of the responsibility for management of natural resources.
“But given recent actions by Flynn and the Martinez administration, greater state oversight of our natural resources would be tragic indeed,” said Camilla Feibelman, Sierra Club Rio Grande Chapter director.
“Mr. Flynn’s attacks on EPA hide the fact that the Martinez Administration has aided and abetted the dismantling of water-quality protections in New Mexico to the benefit of industry,” Siwik said. “The governor’s Copper Rule and her weakening of the Pit Rule demonstrate her support for polluters and disregard for the environment and public health of New Mexicans.”
“The Animas River mining spill offered a tragic — and fluorescent — reminder that resource extraction and other polluting industries have no place in our watersheds,” said Eleanor Bravo, director of Food and Water Watch New Mexico. “In New Mexico, mining, Big Dairy and dangerous gas and oil extraction like fracking loom like specters over our precious waterways. With its deplorable record of favoring big business over the health and welfare of the people, the New Mexico Environment Department can’t be trusted to protect our water.”
“The EPA made major mistakes and must be investigated and its processes improved and reformed. But laying blame solely on the EPA for the Gold King Mine accident distracts attention from the root cause of the spill: the mine owners and the lack of responsible reclamation of the mine site,” Siwik said.
On Wednesday, Sens. Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich announced their desire to introduce legislation for mining reform that includes charging a fair royalty on public minerals to fund a Hardrock Reclamation Fund to clean up abandoned mines, a comprehensive survey of abandoned mine lands and a plan to clean them up, as well as “Good Samaritan” legislation that would protect those involved in environmental cleanup from liability.
The Gold King Mine is technically “inactive,” and has an owner who should be held accountable. It is erroneous that the Gold King Mine and many associated mines in the Animas River Watershed are simply abandoned — there are private and federal owners that should be as accountable as the EPA.
“The current 1872 Mining Act allows hard-rock mining companies free reign to mine anywhere on our public lands without paying any royalties and without any federal requirements for operations and cleanup. The legislation by Sens. Heinrich and Udall is a good start at fixing that and addressing the contamination that already happens to our water from these thousands of abandoned and inactive mines,” Siwik said.
“The accident at the Gold King Mine on the Animas River should serve as a wake-up call. New Mexico has thousands of abandoned and inactive mines that are potentially leaking toxic chemicals into our waterways,” said Sanders Moore, director of Environment New Mexico. “We should strengthen our laws and regulations to focus on the sources of this pollution in order to protect our limited water.”
There are real steps the federal and state governments can take to clean up our water and prevent more disasters like the Animas Spill. They include reforming the federal 1872 Mining Act; defending our strong state Mining Act, which came under attack in the most recent New Mexico legislative session; repealing the Copper Rule passed by the Martinez administration, which allows water pollution underneath copper mines and is being appealed to the state Supreme Court; strengthening the Pit Rule, which was weakened by the Martinez Administration’s Oil Conservation Division; and ending the lawsuit the Martinez administration has joined to stop a key federal clean-water protection.
“The recent dirty-water lawsuit by the Martinez Administration to block a critical federal clean-water rule is one more in a long line of actions by our state leadership to reduce water protections,” said Rachel Conn, interim executive director of Amigos Bravos. “The lawsuit has stopped implementation of the Waters of the U.S. rule, leaving thousands of miles of streams in New Mexico vulnerable to pollution.”
“Another proactive move for the state of New Mexico would be to advocate for designation of the Silverton Mining Complex as a Superfund Site. In addition, the uranium-mining tailings along the San Juan River in Shiprock, N.M., should be removed permanently from the terrace above the river. The leaking of uranium into Many Devils Wash and into the river, which flows into the Colorado River, is completely unacceptable,” Eisenfeld said.
“What we need to stop the ongoing leaking of thousands of abandoned and inactive mines into our drinking and irrigation water is not photo ops and finger-pointing but better water protections — and that requires reversing many of the actions Ryan Flynn and Gov. Martinez have taken to gut those protections,” Feibelman said.
— Secretary Ryan Flynn discarded a copper-mining draft rule written by his own staff and a technical advisory committee and instead adopted the wish list of global copper giant Freeport- McMoRan. The rule expressly allows contamination of groundwater beneath copper mines in violation of the state’s Water Quality Act. Flynn could not get any of his own employees to testify in favor of the rule, which is currently being appealed to the New Mexico Supreme Court.
— In late 2014, Flynn’s Environment Department, using precious state resources, submitted detailed comments against a federal clean-water rule that proposed to restore critical Clean Water Act protections to small tributary streams and wetlands. In June the Martinez Administration filed a lawsuit to block this rule. While the lawsuit is pending, the new rule will not apply to waters in New Mexico, leaving thousands of miles of streams in New Mexico vulnerable to pollution.
— Flynn also refused to enforce the state’s groundwater rules for industrial dairies because the dairy industry wanted to weaken the already watered-down rules. Dairies, each of which on average produces more waste than a small city, were allowed to operate on expired permits until the dairy industry and water groups negotiated an agreement.
— The Pit Rule, adopted in 2009, required companies to line oil and gas waste pits and remove waste from well sites as part of a closed-loop system to prevent oil and gas drilling waste from leaching into groundwater and soil. In 2013, Martinez’s appointed Oil Conservation Division repealed and replaced the rule, taking out many of its protective requirements and threatening the groundwater that 9 out of 10 New Mexican depend on for drinking water.
— Because of the lack of environmental safeguards under the federal 1872 Mining Act, mining companies historically walked away from their operations, leaving a toxic mess behind. These abandoned mine lands and inactive mines continue to degrade surface and groundwater quality, affect wildlife and impact recreational opportunities. The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that 40% of the headwaters of Western watersheds have been polluted by mining, and it will take $50 billion to clean up these environmental liabilities.
— Freeport-McMoRan made an 11th-hour attempt this last legislative session to weaken the New Mexico Mining Act, potentially relieving mining companies from cleanup at inactive mine sites on “standby status,” as well as other rollbacks. That bill died in committee.
— The EPA’s budget has been slashed by Congress since 2010, providing even fewer funds to protect water and clean up these abandoned and inactive sites that mining companies have left behind.
Allyson Siwik, Gila Resources Information Project, 575-590-7619, firstname.lastname@example.org
Mike Eisenfeld, San Juan Citizens Alliance, 505-360-8994, email@example.com
Rachel Conn, Amigos Bravos, 575.770.8327, firstname.lastname@example.org
Eleanor Bravo, Food and Water Watch, 505-633-7366, email@example.com
Liliana Castillo, Conservation Voters New Mexico, 505-992-8683
Sanders Moore, Environment New Mexico, firstname.lastname@example.org
Mona Blaber, Sierra Club, 505-660-5905
Featured photo courtesy of Gila Resources Information Project