Protecting sacred places and water of Pecos

By Lela McFerrin, Upper Pecos Watershed Association; Ralph Vigil, NM Acequia Commission; Teresa Seamster, Northern NM Group

For over 900 miles, the Pecos River stretches from its high-elevation headwaters in the Pecos Wilderness south through Tecolote, Santa Rosa, Roswell, Carlsbad and across the border to Pecos, Texas. The second-largest river in the state, it is the life-blood of eastern New Mexico towns, ranches, farms and natural landscapes. The value of the Pecos River is immeasurable to New Mexico people, livestock and wildlife, and permitted use of the water for industrial development has been low ever since the Terrero Mine and Molino (mill) in upper Pecos Canyon was officially closed in 1950 and was designated as a “Superfund-level” site in 1995.

Over $38 million and 20 years of reclamation later, the Pecos River is again threatened with a proposal to the Santa Fe National Forest by Australian mining company New World Resources LLC to start exploratory drilling on Jones Hill, 8 miles southwest of the closed Terrero mine, for base minerals (i.e., copper, gold, silver, lead and zinc).

Comexico project

New World Resources’ US subsidiary, Comexico, is applying for a permit to explore for the minerals on Jones Hill in the Pecos River watershed above the village of Pecos. Comexico proposes to use existing forest roads to access defined locations near the old Tererro Mine, the largest ore mine in the state, where enormous quantities of copper, lead, zinc, silver and gold were extracted from the 1920s to the 1950s. This new project will consist of 32 drilled boreholes on 1.65 acres with a 3-mile access road and easements totaling 7.6 acres of disturbance. If fully developed, the new mine and on-site milling operation would cover over 4,300 acres of critical watershed and impact 5 major tributaries of the Pecos River.

The estimated mineral resource to be mined is more than 5 million tons — more than twice the amount of mineral extraction from the original Tererro Mine.

Cultural Pueblo Sites

According to the Forest Service inventory of ancient cultural sites, monitoring for cultural impacts would be required by Comexico and any sites identified would be avoided through ongoing tribal consultation with area Pueblos. The Sangre de Cristo Mountains are considered sacred to Pueblo and tribal nations including the Hopi, with thousands of years of ceremonial use and traditions of careful use of resources and preservation of plants and animals.

A cultural buffer area of 67 acres was surveyed in 2019 and at least 3 sites were evaluated as eligible for protection. Tesuque and Jemez Pueblos disagree with the assessment that these sites can be adequately protected and have asked for further consultation along with representatives of Santa Clara and the Hopi Nation.

Opposition to project

A legal team of water and mine experts is working on behalf of a large coalition of local, tribal and statewide organizations to prepare expert testimony to halt the Comexico application. The US Forest Service has been requested by U.S. Sens. Martin Heinrich and Ben Ray Luján and State Land Commissioner Stephanie Garcia Richard to conduct a rigorous Environmental Impact Study under the National Environmental Protection Act. Instead, the Forest Service decided to do an Environmental Assessment and will issue a decision letter in November.

The Northern Group sent comments to the Mining and Minerals Division on behalf of the Rio Grande Chapter that said, in part:
“We remain extremely concerned that a) Comexico has been unable to provide adequate financial estimates or assurance to cover predicted reclamation costs regarding damage to roads, erodible slopes, contaminated streams, and area dependent wildlife, b) Comexico plans to construct on-site pits to contain drilling waste instead of removal to a proper disposal site, and c) key mitigation and restoration practices and costs are left unspecified or to be answered in the future.” 

Lela McFerrin, Pecos resident and Vice President of the Upper Pecos Watershed Association:
“The legacy of the original Tererro Mine and Molino Mill has been devastating to the environment and wildlife of the Pecos Canyon. The remediation efforts continue to this day.  Willow Creek (adjacent to the original mine site) was completely inundated, a mile of the Pecos was completely denuded of any life forms, acid runoff killed thousands of trout, and the old St. Vincent Hospital in Santa Fe reported exceptionally high rates of cancer patients from the Pecos area during the period of the mining operation.  The potential of another mining operation on Jones Hill poses even greater threat due to the size of the operation and its location directly above the major drainages of Indian Creek, Sawyer Creek, Macho Creek and Dalton Creek.” 

Ralph Vigil, Chairman of the New Mexico Acequia Commission and owner of Molino de la Isla Organics:
“As an 8th-generation resident and farmer of East Pecos, the Pecos River and the land it crosses have been a part of my everyday life for 43 years. It’s not just a river to me; it’s my home, my sanctuary, my family, and has sustained many different cultures for thousands of years. The health of our watershed is of the utmost importance to every community beneath it and crucial to the survival of the countless species of plants and wildlife it nourishes. We must protect these sacred and life-giving watersheds for generations to come and not leave our children to deal with the consequences of poor land-use decisions within watersheds today. Let us not forget the lessons of the past contamination of our waters as we move forward as a community of stewards of this precious land, and may we leave it in better shape than we found it.”

On Sept. 15, San Miguel County’s proposed mining ordinance was presented at a public meeting at Pecos High School, and some 20 residents and organizations spoke in strong support of the new ordinance and opposed any mining in Pecos Canyon.

For more information, please visit www.pecoswatershed.org.

Featured image: Ralph Vigil is a Pecos River Valley farmer, president of Molino de la Isla Farmers Cooperative, chair of the NM Acequia Commission, and an essential leader in the Stop Terrero Mine coalition.

Protecting sacred places and water of Pecos