By Teresa Seamster, Chair, Northern NM Group
Pecos River Canyon is a priceless natural gem. Clear rushing water in a narrow canyon surrounded by steep slopes and feeding into tranquil Monastery Lake a few miles north of the town of Pecos. It’s a fisherman’s dream spot, with rare Cutthroat Trout and undisturbed sections of river to cast into. It’s a cabin dweller’s dream of quiet trails and green mountains and soaring hawks and owls at dusk. It is a place that attracts thousands of out of state tourists who find what they cannot easily find in Texas, California or Ohio – solitude, natural beauty unchanged in places since time began, and freedom from the developed world.
Unbeknownst to visitors is that one of the strangely barren but vegetated mountain slopes that rises above Willow Creek, is actually the reclaimed site of El Molino. This huge mill operated for decades in the first half of the 20th century and processed over 1.2 million tons of zinc, lead, copper, silver and gold from the nearby Tererro Mine becoming the largest employer in New Mexico.
Fast forward to the 1990s. The old abandoned El Molino and mine – half way up the Pecos River between Pecos and Cowles – experiences an unusually high spring runoff event. Floodwaters pulse down the Pecos River washing across waste containment ponds holding contaminated mill tailings along Alamitos Creek and sending it downstream into the fish hatchery killing more than 90,000 fish.
The massive fish kill of 1991, brought attention to the ongoing contamination draining from the mine and mill sites creating “a perfect storm” of media attention.
A US Fish and Wildlife report found high levels of zinc and aluminum in Pecos fish, macro invertebrates and small mammals. Toxic waste rock was deposited in Willow Creek and in the Pecos River floodplain creating fears for farmers and fishermen. Suddenly, concerns about human health surfaced about the long-term use of mine waste as fill material for roads, campgrounds, camping pads, trailheads and at the Lisboa Springs Fish Hatchery. The concentration of metals into the fish and agricultural food web was starting to be documented.
The extent of the contamination was enormous. Discussions between industry, government agencies and community stakeholders concluded that corrective actions were mandatory but that Superfund listing should be avoided. In a description from one 1995 report (Robinson) – the community wanted “a Superfund level of cleanup without the perceived cost and delay problems of a Superfund.”
The corrective actions were extensive, eventually going through the steps of a Health and Environmental Risk Assessment; a community relations plan, a Natural Resources Damage Assessment, Feasibility Study for remediation, and clean up design and ongoing mitigation that continues to this day.
The cost sharing agreement between AMAX Resource Conservation Company and the State of New Mexico (Environment Department, Game and Fish, Department of Transportation and Natural Resource Damage Trustee) eventually cost the state 20% of the $7 million in clean up and mitigation. In addition to the state and the successor businesses of the original mining company, several federal agencies had liability sue to their ownership of land contaminated by the mine and mill waste.
The Cycle Continues
Today, this same scenario could be repeated. The entire Pecos River system of watersheds, river, tributaries and floodplain could be re-contaminated due to a recent application by the Australian based New World Cobalt Mining Company that has a small limited liability group, Comexico, LLC, filing for exploratory rights in the old Tererro Mine area.
This exploratory permit requests Santa Fe National Forest to allow primitive road access to a large area of old bore holes for Comexico to conduct exploration drilling of 30 or more wells to test for additional ore deposits that may be commercially profitable for a mining company to purchase from New World Cobalt. If mine leases are sold, some 4,700 acres of Jones Hill area above the Pecos River would be re-stripped and developed,
Opposition from the residents and county governments of Santa Fe and San Miguel has been swift and widespread.
San Miguel’s Board of County Commissioners has passed a Resolution asking for a moratorium on new mining until a hard rock mining Ordinance similar to the one recently passed by Santa Fe County can be drafted and passed. Much higher levels of land use protection and financial assurance are part of the new requirements in the Santa Fe County ordinance.
Residents, Upper Pecos Watershed Association, Pueblo leaders from Tesuque, Pecos and Jemez, NM Acequia Association, farmers, fishermen, outdoor enthusiasts, hunters, hikers, conservation organizations and local business owners have all attended community meetings and contacted elected officials and Santa Fe National Forest with their concerns.
Governor Michelle Lujan-Grisham has written a letter of opposition to the Forest Service that this project is unsuitable for this location, for this recreation-based economy and for this critical watershed.
A repeat of the 1991 disaster would be unconscionable. The cost of ruined natural resources and livelihoods in Santa Fe and San Miguel Counties is too high a price to pay.