Tales Of Our Times: Old Mines Tell Candid Stories

Tales of Our Times

New Mexico Citizens
for Clean Air & Water


The story below is one I wrote in 1993 for New Mexico Citizens for Clean Air & Water. In 1997, I submitted the article to Governor Gary Johnson as part of my technical credentials, from which he nominated me to serve five years as a public member of the New Mexico Mining Commission.
In 2015, a three million-gallon spill of waste water from the old Gold King Mine near Silverton in western Colorado made national news by coloring some 100 miles of the Animas River an eerie orange. The spill broke loose during work by the federal EPA and a Missouri company, which sought to curtail the ongoing loss of fish due to acid waters and heavy metals draining from many old mines into natural water systems. Damage claims from the Gold King spill totaled over a billion dollars. The national cost of old mine wastes is a persistent story.      
The story as of 1993:
Ever since the conquistadores’ doomed search for Cibola’s seven cities of gold, the pursuit of mineral resources has left many a harsh mark on New Mexico. This month, control of hard-rock mines stands high among issues facing the New Mexico Legislature. Mining bills first and foremost must promote the economic health of our state and its citizens.
If “economics first” sounds strange coming from the green side, consider a recent piece of state news. The Albuquerque headline read: “State To Seek $2.5 million for Pecos Waste Cleanup.” The story goes on to describe the environmental problems created by mine wastes left dumped in a canyon by an abandoned mine on the Pecos River and Willow Creek near the tiny town of Terrero, deep in the Pecos recreation area.
Mine waste—that is, rock taken from underground, broken and left on the surface—creates problems through the chemistry of nature. Over years, air and water change the rock’s mineral elements into acid. Acid leaches native metals from the rock, forming streamlets of color or toxins to move menacingly down mountain water paths and into groundwater.
This year the New Mexico Legislature is asked to spend $2.5 million of taxpayers’ money for studies, plans, and a small first step to fix the Pecos problems. Through 1996, the charge to New Mexico taxpayers for reclamation of Pecos is expected to amount to $10 million. And this is only a fifth of the tab. The other 80 percent will be paid by AMAX Resource Conservation Co., successor to the company that mined at Pecos early this century. Total expected cost of the reclamation: $50 million.
To spend $50 million will cut the losses from one abandoned mine. The state has 7000 others, ranging from very small to large. The estimated cost to control damage at all 7000 old mines exceeds $300 million. Meanwhile, the villagers of Pecos worry about how much damage the Terrero mine wastes will come to do to their water supply, property values, and tourist business. More broadly, what is an aquifer worth?
This is the afterpage in mining’s economic ledger that is addressed by bills now before the Legislature….
Problems that persisted for decades at the Gold King Mine in Colorado sent a river starkly orange with over 400 tons of heavy metals across the state line 22 years later in 2015. Politicking on the national scene had spent the time focused on the wrongs of defunct mining companies, wrongs of new corporate plans and wrongs of government, in Republican terms and Democratic terms alike. The 2015 spill refocused concerns on the billion dollars in claims of economic damages.
On June 26 of this year, the U.S. Supreme Court rejected New Mexico’s subsequent lawsuit against Colorado. A related New Mexico lawsuit for $130 million in damages is still pending in federal court. Imagine working towards better, faster, cheaper ways to cut these economic losses.