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Hudspeth County Herald – 2/23/2011

New Mining Claims Staked On Wind Mountain

A Colorado-based company has staked more than 50 claims to mine cobalt from Wind Mountain and adjacent areas on Otero Mesa, a coalition of conservation groups announced this week. That news is likely to intensify the ongoing debate over the future of Otero Mesa, the management of federal lands there and the possibility of their designation as a national monument.

According to a statement released Tuesday (Feb. 22) by the Coalition for Otero Mesa, Geovic Mining Corp staked more than 50 new mining claims on federal land on Otero Mesa in October and November of last year. Geovic is seeking to mine for cobalt, on lands overseen by the Bureau of Land Management. The claims are centered on Wind Mountain, one of the region’s commanding landmarks and the highest peak in the Cornudas range, and adjacent areas on Otero Mesa. Wind Mountain is located about 15 miles northwest of Dell City. The claims encompass a total surface area the size of 2,178 football fields, the Coalition said. 

Bobby Jones, within whose grazing allotment most of the claims have been staked, said the number of Geovic’s mining claims could be far higher than the figure identified by the Coalition. He said that his conversations with BLM officials indicated Geovic had staked at least 146 mining claims in the area, encompassing a total area between 2 and 2 and a half miles long and half a mile wide.

Calls to Geovic and to officials with the BLM to discuss the Otero Mesa mining proposal, its extent and the potential timeline for its development were not returned as of press-time.

The Coalition said the mining proposal represented a profound threat to the mesa’s ecosystem, wildlife and scenic values, as well as to the groundwater that underlies the mesa. The Salt Basin Aquifer is considered to be one of New Mexico’s largest untapped freshwater resources; the aquifer is thought to be hydrologically connected to the water used in the Dell Valley. 

In their statement, Coalition members said that the mining proposal was another reason why the federal government should act to designate federal lands on Otero Mesa a national monument, a step that would prevent extractive industries such as mining and oil and gas from moving into the area.

“Without the permanent protection that it deserves, Otero Mesa is always going to be one drill bit, one mine shaft or one spill away from being lost to us,” said Nathan Newcomer, associate director of the New Mexico Wilderness Alliance. “This new threat of hardrock mining in Otero Mesa underscores the urgency of providing permanent protection for this wild and beautiful grassland.” 

Mining on public lands is governed by the General Mining Act of 1872, which identifies hardrock mining as the “highest and best use” of public lands. Because of the law, the potential environmental impacts of mining projects are subject to far less scrutiny than those of other projects, such as those proposed by oil and gas companies. Mining projects that are deemed “small-scale” have a particularly low bar to cross for approval, and Coalition members are concerned that Geovic has staked its host of separate claims in a concentrated area in hopes of identifying them all as “small-scale” and avoiding a comprehensive environmental review.

Cobalt mining can be conducted in several ways, and it remains unclear what form a cobalt-mining project in the Wind Mountain area might take – whether it would involve shafts, an open pit or the large-scale removal of large parts of Wind Mountain and other volcanic formations.

Those who lease the BLM land for livestock operations would likely feel the most immediate impact of a mining operation on Wind Mountain.  

Bobby Jones, whose family’s longstanding allotment includes about two-thirds of Wind Mountain and much of the adjacent country in which the claims have been staked, said a major mining development could interfere with his livestock operations and potentially threaten the quality of water in his stock wells. But, he said, the 1872 mining law and the BLM’s model of “multiple use” for federal lands “holds the order of the day.” He said the development of any specific plan for mining would allow for some public input. He said he would hope to influence the implementation of a project to minimize its impact on his ranching.

“I would prefer that they didn’t mine – it could possibly cost me some cow numbers, because of the surface disturbance,” Jones said. “But I know the way the law is written, and I’ve got to go by that.”

Jones said he has half a dozen stock wells that circle Wind Mountain, some of which are “very shallow” and others of which are about 500 feet deep. He said mining – and the possible use of toxic acids to concentrate the material – could damage the quality of water in those wells.

“That’s one thing I do have concerns about,” he said.

Jones added that mining could also impact the quality of water used for irrigation and the city drinking supply in Dell City.

The presence of mining claims in the area certainly does not mean a mining project will move forward, Jones said. There have been numerous claims staked and projects explored on Wind Mountain over the decades, he said, including prospecting several years ago by a Colorado company for feldspar.

“Since the 1950s there has been quite a lot of prospecting going on here and there, but they’ve never found anything of commercial value,” he said. 

The potential economic impact on the area of a mine remains unclear, but Jones said he thought it was more likely Geovic would bring in previously trained, professional staff rather than hire workers locally.

Jones said he met geologists with Geovic last year, when they were prospecting on the mountain. He said that although even their exploratory activity created some disturbance to grass he uses to graze cattle, the geologists had also made an effort to be “good neighbors.” He said the geologists told him that Geovic’s owner had previously worked as a geology professor. The owner, the geologists told Jones, had learned of Wind Mountain through one of his graduate students, Russ Boggs, who conducted a geologic survey of the area as part of his studies. 

Jones said the strategic importance of cobalt and the related rare-earth elements also shed a different light on the mining proposal. Cobalt, as well as rare-earth metals being targeted on Round Top Mountain near Sierra Blanca, are essential to a range of technologies – but the vast majority of those minerals are mined abroad. 

“I’d hate to see this thing go, but I’d hate to be under the thumb of China because it didn’t,” he said.

The New Mexico Wildlife Federation, a sportsmen’s group and member of the Coalition for Otero Mesa, said that a mining project would undermine the ability of hunters to utilize and enjoy federal lands on Otero Mesa.

“Sportsmen and their families have a long legacy of using Otero Mesa, and every acre we lose to development, of any kind, robs us of passing on that legacy,” said John Cornell of the New Mexico Wildlife Federation. “The long term values of its cultural, recreational, hunting and ranching and water resources far outweigh any short term benefits of mining.”

A representative of the Apache Advocates for Otero Mesa, a Mescalero group that has been leading youth trips to the mesa to introduce young tribe members to their heritage, said national-monument designation was essential to preserve the mesa intact.

“To us Apaches, Otero Mesa is sacred,” said Ted Rodriguez, headman of the Mescalero Apache Traditional Elders Council. “It holds a very special place in our history and must be treated as a holy site, not a mining site. It deserves no less than national monument status.”

As with the rare-earth elements that are being targeted on Round Top Mountain near Sierra Blanca, cobalt is used in consumer electronics and in new energy technologies. These industries are often viewed as at the forefront of future economic growth, making the extraction of substances like cobalt and rare-earth metals attractive to mining companies.

The fastest growing use of cobalt is for rechargeable batteries – used in consumer electronic devices like cell phones and personal computers and in hybrid vehicles, among other products. Cobalt use for rechargeable batteries accounted for about 25 percent of global demand in 2009, but that figure is expected to rise to about 45 percent by 2018. In 2009, an additional 7 percent of demand for cobalt was for use in high-performance magnets, such as those used in the most recent generation of wind turbines. Cobalt for use in metal alloys and chemicals, such as pigments and dyes, accounted for more than half of global demand in 2009.

In 2009, no cobalt was mined in the United States. Almost half of the world’s cobalt was produced in Africa, in the Democratic Republic of Congo and in Zambia. In information found on its Web site, Geovic projects that cobalt supplies could be insufficient to meet rising demand as soon as 2016. 

Geovic, which has its corporate headquarters in Denver and its operations offices in Grand Junction, Colo., currently owns a 60.5 percent stake in Geovic Cameroon. Geovic Cameroon holds a mining permit to a large area in the African nation, an area that the company says may hold the largest primary cobalt resource in the world. The National Investment Corporation of Cameroon, a government-owned entity, controls the remaining 39.5 percent of the project. Geovic Cameroon is currently raising capital to begin mining.

During the last decade, the Coalition for Otero Mesa worked to prevent oil and gas drilling on federal lands on the Otero Mesa, which the Coalition describes as “America’s largest and wildest grassland.” The mesa is a vast grassland prairie that extends from the Cornudas Mountains and the highlands just north of Dell City to the Sacramento Mountains, encompassing more than 1 million acres. Membership in the Coalition for Otero Mesa includes the New Mexico Wilderness Alliance, the Wilderness Society, the Southwest Environmental Center, the New Mexico Wildlife Federation, the National Wildlife Federation, the Sierra Club, the Audubon Society, Restoring Eden, Environment New Mexico and Apache Advocates for Otero Mesa.

Many area ranchers also opposed oil and gas drilling on Otero Mesa, citing concerns about how the development could damage the grasslands and groundwater on which their operations depend. In April 2009 opponents of drilling on the mesa won a reprieve, when U.S. 10th Circuit Court of Appeals found that the BLM had not adequately considered the potential impact of oil and gas drilling on the grassland ecosystem and underlying groundwater.

Since that time, the coalition of conservation groups has advocated that federal lands on Otero Mesa be declared a national monument – a step that, under the Antiquities Act of 1906, can be taken unilaterally by the president and that would bar extractive industries like mining and oil and gas from operating on the mesa in perpetuity. Many area ranchers believe such a step would be the beginning of a “slippery slope” that would ultimately mean the end of grazing leases – and of their longstanding ranching enterprises – on the mesa.

The conservation groups say that a management plan for a monument could protect grazing rights and other historic land uses on the mesa and that a national monument would simply serve to “keep things the way they are.” Area ranchers are deeply skeptical that such a plan would hold.

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