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Chaco legislation clears US House committee

July 18, 2019
KOB-TV (via the Associated Press) 

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) - Federal legislation aimed at limiting oil and gas development near a national park in New Mexico held sacred by Native Americans has been endorsed by a key congressional committee.

The House natural resources panel on Wednesday approved the Democrat-sponsored bill. A similar measure is pending in the Senate.

Tribes and environmentalists have been advocating for more protections beyond the boundaries of Chaco Culture National Historical Park, saying the region is full of culturally significant sites.

The legislation would permanently ban drilling on federal land within 10 miles (16 kilometers) of the park.

Most of the land surrounding the park belongs to the Navajo Nation or individual Navajo allotment owners. While top Navajo officials support cultural preservation, they have stopped short of asking for a drilling ban because development in the region nets substantial revenue.

This article orinally appeared on KOB.com via the Associated Press.

Taxpayers shafted under antiquated mining law

By Santa Fe New Mexican Editorial Board
June 10, 2019

The news that an American subsidiary of an Australian company is planning to conduct mineral exploration in the Santa Fe National Forest near Terrero is setting off alarm bells among outdoors lovers and environmentalists alike.

To many, the wild lands around Pecos — with fishing, hiking, camping and hunting — are incompatible with the work of extracting minerals from the ground. Then, too, the Pecos area’s history with the mining industry, including a legacy of pollution and expensive cleanups, is hardly one to make residents comfortable with the process.

However, as Santa Fe National Forest officials point out, the federal government can do little to stop companies that want to profit from mining on public lands. Under the amended General Mining Act of 1872, companies have freedom to search for minerals. Forest officials can require companies to protect resources, but the antiquated mining act does not allow land managers to prohibit the exploration or development of mineral resources. If gold or zinc or copper is on public lands, companies have the right to search and extract.

What Comexico LLC, the American subsidiary of New World Cobalt, wants to do is explore previously identified mineral deposits in the Pecos/Las Vegas Ranger District. Comexico also has filed its exploration permit application to the New Mexico Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department. The applications propose core drilling near Jones Hill, close to Terrero, in hopes of identifying base and precious metal deposits for mining.

Because the company’s plan states that exploration will not disturb the surface, the operation won’t even require analysis under the National Environmental Policy Act. Core drilling activities as outlined in the company’s plan of operations, however, would require some analysis under the act depending on the scope of operations and how greatly it would disturb soil, plants, water, air or wild animals. The drilling operation should affect about 2.2 acres, according to the company’s public notice. Despite that public notice, the public has little say in what happens next.

The 1872 act needs to be rewritten so that local communities and stakeholders have more say about what happens in their backyards — after all, it was President Ulysses Grant who signed the first piece of legislation regulating hard rock mining. It’s time for an update.

The Hardrock Leasing and Reclamation Act of 2019 was introduced last month to reform the 1872 law, including the introduction of a modern leasing system. Sen. Tom Udall is a sponsor of the bill in the Senate, and U.S. Rep. Raúl Grijalva of Arizona has introduced the House bill.

Among other things, the new legislation would allow land managers to weigh other uses for public lands — hard rock mining would not be the default best use, but recreation, hunting, fishing and conservation could be considered. The legislation would start a “polluters pay” dedicated fund to clean up abandoned hard rock mines on public lands, provide better protection for national monuments, parks, roadless areas and other natural heritage sites and, importantly, make sure the U.S. Treasury is better compensated for minerals taken from public lands. Right now, oil and coal companies pay royalties, but hard rock mining companies use public lands for free.

The old mining law makes it easy for foreign companies to extract resources, take their profits and leave U.S. taxpayers holding the bag. Right now, there’s little way to stop exploration and drilling in the Santa Fe National Forest — even if mining is not the best use of the area. For that to change, Congress must pass legislation that protects both our public lands and our pocketbooks.

This article originally appeared in the Santa Fe New Mexican.

New Mexico's U.S. senators seek hearing on mining laws

By Steve Terrell | Santa Fe New Mexican
June 12, 2019

New Mexico Sens. Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich are calling for a U.S. Senate committee hearing on a bill aimed at updating laws governing mining that have been unchanged for nearly 150 years.

Their effort comes at a time when an Australian mining company is planning to to conduct exploratory drilling on Santa Fe National Forest land near Tererro, north of Pecos.

The bill Heinrich and Udall are sponsoring would introduce a new royalty rate of 5 percent to 8 percent that would put hard-rock mining on the same level as other mining industries — requiring companies to fund cleanup of their abandoned mines, obtain permits for noncasual mining operations on federal land, allow for the petition of the secretary of the interior to withdraw lands from mining, and force a review of areas that may be unsafe or inappropriate for mining.

“Mining companies, both foreign and domestic, are governed today by a law that has changed little since the actual California gold rush that gave rise to the act in the first place,” the senators said in a news release Wednesday. “America’s mining laws have remained relatively untouched since they were established by President Ulysses S. Grant in 1872. This antiquated system puts most public lands at constant risk of new mining, lets industry off the hook for toxic mine cleanup, and robs the American people of royalties from mining.”

The mining industry opposes such measures. In response to a similar bill in the U.S. House, the American Exploration & Mining Association last month called the legislation “a disaster in the making for the domestic mining industry and for America.”

In a news release, the organization said such legislation “would substantially chill private-sector investment in exploring for and developing minerals on federal land and dramatically increase our already extensive reliance on foreign sources of minerals.”

The senators said the bill would protect taxpayers in the event of another toxic spill like the Gold King Mine disaster that polluted waterways in the Four Corners region in 2015.

Because of the current federal law, taxpayers have had to foot the bill for the billions of dollars in cleanup costs at abandoned hard-rock mines, which Udall and Heinrich said have polluted 40 percent of the headwaters at Western watersheds.

There is a long history of hard-rock mining corporations operating on federal public lands in New Mexico. Currently, there are dozens of active mines either in operation or in the process of getting cleaned up.

Other senators signing the letter to the leaders of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee included Democratic presidential hopefuls Kamala Harris of California, Cory Booker of New Jersey and Michael Bennet of Colorado.

New World Cobalt already has staked a claim to publicly owned minerals and wants to drill core samples in a search for metal deposits on just over 2 acres in an area that has a history of mining but is part of a forested canyon long popular for recreation.

Though lead and zinc operations closed in 1939, it took decades and millions of dollars to clean up a waste pile left by the Tererro Mine and nearby El Molino mill, where mined rock was processed.

Asked about New World Cobalt’s proposal, Udall spokeswoman Annie Orloff said, “It is a perfect example of the overall problem with our mining laws: We have an Australian company proposing to come in and mine U.S. public land in a treasured outdoor recreation area without paying any royalties, while taxpayers are still facing a multibillion-dollar liability for cleanup of abandoned mines from the past 140-plus years.”

Heinrich spokeswoman Whitney Potter said Heinrich “does not think this is an appropriate place for a mine, especially because it’s a high-use recreation area and because of the threat to water quality.”

Mark Allison, executive director of New Mexico Wild, said the pro-environment organization has requested the state Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department hold a public hearing on the Tererro proposal.

“It is difficult at times for communities to appreciate the need to protect certain public lands when there is no imminent threat,” he said in an email. “… We want to convene a community meeting soon to try to get people as much information as possible and to hear their concerns and questions.”

This article originally appeared in the Santa Fe New Mexican.

Mining company seeks to drill on land north of Pecos

By T.S. Last | Albuquerque Journal
June 6, 2019

SANTA FE – A Colorado mining company wants to conduct exploratory drilling for minerals in the Santa Fe National Forest north of Pecos, not far from Terrero, and in the general area of campgrounds and other recreational sites along the Pecos River.

Comexico LLC, a subsidiary of Australia-based New World Cobalt, has submitted a plan of operations to the National Forest and applied for an exploratory permit with the New Mexico Energy Minerals and Natural Resources Department, according to a National Forest news release on Thursday.

Comexico’s application identifies 83 potential drilling sites, but the company says no more than 30 drill pads would be constructed.

The company says that it expects drilling operations to be confined to 2.2 acres about 10 miles north of Pecos near Terrero, not far from where a $28 million clean up of old mining operations took place in the 1990s.

In April, New World Cobalt signed agreements that gave it rights to 20 federal mining claims and secured interest in 4,300 acres for metal sulfide ore mining.

The project – known as the Tererro VMS Project, for “volcanogenic massive sulfide” ore – provides an outstanding opportunity to develop a new VMS camp centered on the Jones Hill Deposit,” according to an April 9 news release put out by New World Cobalt. “NWC’s strategy will be to advance development of the Jones Hill Deposit while commencing exploration aimed at expanding the resource base – the first exploration to be conducted in the district since 1993.”

The company’s documents also call the project the Terrero Cu-Au-Zn Project, using the element abbreviations for copper, gold and zinc.

The mining of gold, silver, zinc and lead began in the area in the 1880s and continued into the late 1930s. Mining operations resumed in the 1950s and continued into the 1990s, according to stories from the Journal’s archives.

In 1991, a heavy snowmelt and a thunderstorm sent a pulse of the mine’s toxic metals into the Pecos River, killing nearly 10,000 rainbow trout at the state’s Lisboa Springs Hatchery a few miles downstream. Cyprus Amax Minerals Co. of Denver, which owned the mineral rights at the time, and the state of New Mexico paid for the $28 million cleanup, with New Mexico taxpayers footing about 20% of the cost.

The environmental group WildEarth Guardians says that it will oppose the new project.

“Proposals like this highlight the critical need to modernize the 1872 Mining Law and we support (U.S.) Senator (Tom) Udall’s efforts to do so,” John Horning, the group’s executive director, wrote in an emailed statement to the Journal.

“In the meantime, we will fight this proposal to extract minerals because we believe it’s incompatible with the Pecos Wild & Scenic River, as well as the clean water and healthy wildlife that most New Mexicans want protected on the Santa Fe National Forest.”

The National Forest said in its news release that the 1872 act prevents it from prohibiting the exploration and development of mineral resources on U.S. Forest Service lands. However, it has provided the company with biology protection measures, including protections for the Mexican spotted owl, Rio Grande cutthroat trout and the Holy Ghost ipomopsis, a species of flowering plant that grows only in Holy Ghost Canyon.

Hugh Ley, who operates the popular Terrero Trading Post, said a notice announcing Comexico’s intentions had been posted at his store and a few other locations in the area.

From what he can tell, all Comexico is proposing now is to conduct core sampling. But area residents are concerned.

“Everybody is like, now what do we do? Where do we go from here?”, he said of the reaction to the notice.

According to the exploration permit application, Comexico would start operations in October and potentially engage in drilling activities through February 2020. Reclamation from the work would be completed within a year of the project’s implementation, avoiding nesting season.

“All potentially hazardous chemicals will be stored within a secondary containment vessel to ensure there is no leak onto or into the ground, nearby streams, or existing boreholes,” the application says. “No chemicals will be disposed of onsite. All trash and waste will be removed from the site and disposed of properly.”

This article originally appeared in the Albuquerque Journal.

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