New Mexico Copper Corporation is applying for a 12-year mining operations permit from the state’s Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department. The company plans to mine copper ore along with gold, silver and molybdenum at the Copper Flat Mine located about 30 miles southwest of Truth or Consequences near Hillsboro.
New Mexico Copper’s parent company, Canadian-based THEMAC Resources Group Ltd. has been working to reopen the mine since acquiring it in 2011. The mine operated briefly in the early 1980s before shutting down after copper prices fell. But not everyone is in favor of the mine resuming operations.
Charles de Saillan is a staff attorney at the New Mexico Environmental Law Center which represents two ranches located adjacent to the mine, Turner Ranch Properties Ladder Ranch and the Hillsboro Pitchfork Ranch. De Saillan said his clients are concerned about the mine’s impacts on water quality and availability and how dust, light and noise pollution would affect wildlife and ecotourism.
“Their concern is not just about their economics and their business although that certainly is a major concern, it’s also about the environment and the ecology and the ecosystems that they’re trying to preserve on those ranches," de Saillan. "The area here is really unique in terms of the ecosystem, the wildlife that’s there. Very unusual in New Mexico and that’s something that these folks want to preserve not just for themselves, not just for their own businesses but for future generations.”
New Mexico Copper is trying to secure water rights to use about 6,000 acre-feet, roughly 2 billion gallons of water per year to process the ore. It would expand the 102-acre open-pit mine to 169 acres and deposit up to 25 million gallons of waste per day into a tailings storage facility.
Retired Sierra County resident Velma Boone said her family has owned property on Las Animas Creek for over 70 years. Boone said she’s worried about the tailings accidentally contaminating groundwater and how the mine’s water needs would impact her water well and endanger her Arizona sycamore trees and quarter horses.
“Poison from those mine tailings, lack of water, lack of quality water affects our horses. That’s only one part of agriculture and what’s below us is the Caballo Lake, which is the Rio Grande river, which is the agriculture valley, rich agriculture valley of Hatch, Las Cruces all the way down into south Texas. This mine in our perspective has a very dire impact on our whole area. Not just our family, not just the Animas Creek, not just the beautiful sycamore trees. So we’re very opposed to this mine," Boone said.
New Mexico Copper Chief Operating Officer Jeffrey Smith said the company is taking action to limit the mine’s risk to the environment.
“We’re going to have liners that we will utilize in all of our process areas to contain the process water and prevent it from getting into the groundwater," Smith said. "We will have air dust control systems that will prevent fugitive dust emissions from occurring. We have containment for all of our fuel tanks and our reagent storage areas are all in contained areas that will prevent the release of these contaminants into the groundwater.”
Sierra County Manager Bruce Swingle spoke in favor of granting the company the permit, citing a declining county population and so-called “brain drain” of young professionals leaving the state due to a lack of jobs. Swingle said the mine is an opportunity for the county to earn revenue to build infrastructure for future projects like renewable energy.
“You know it’s over $175 million in revenue and taxes. It’s over $6.5 million in property taxes alone. Those are huge numbers in a small, impoverished community like ours. In this county we collect approximately $8.3 million a year so that is a huge increase in revenue for the community," Swingle said.
Combined data from a 2012 economic impact study by New Mexico State University’s Arrowhead Center and the company’s feasibility study estimates the $360 million mine would generate 370 to 400 jobs during operations and employ 270 people full-time.
Boone said those jobs won’t make enough of an impact to warrant potential long-term harm to the environment. While De Saillan said his clients are sympathetic to the need for jobs in the community, the ranches also employ many people and there’s a potential for those jobs to be lost.
“The other thing is that the mine is going to last for maybe 10 or 12 years, it could be quite a bit less than that also. So those jobs are not long-term jobs," de Saillan said. "The jobs at the ranch on the other hand have the potential to last in perpetuity. As long as these areas can be preserved and as long as they’re attractive to sportsmen and sportswomen and to ecotourists, they can last for a long time.”
The public comment period is officially closed. A hearing officer will submit a summary report of public comments to the state’s Mining and Minerals Division Director, who will either approve or deny the permit request.