Federal law has a major impact on the health and well-being of communities across the West. For almost 150 years, the General Mining Act of 1872 has protected mining claims on public lands.
And while there may have been a time and place for the law in the 19th century, today, more often than not, it puts the interests of those with mining claims over the interests of the communities and people most impacted by those claims. The current law opens public lands to new mining, does not hold industry accountable for cleanup, and requires no federal royalties from mining. Since 1872, mining companies have left the public with billions of dollars in cleanup costs at abandoned hardrock mines, which have polluted 40 percent of the headwaters of Western watersheds.
The Tererro Mine in New Mexico is one particularly egregious example.
In June 2019, Comexico LLC, a Colorado subsidiary of Australian mining company New World Cobalt Ltd., applied to begin exploratory drilling for copper, gold, and zinc in the Santa Fe National Forest just a few miles south of the Pecos Wilderness and within a few miles from the beloved Pecos River and some of New Mexico’s most spectacular hiking, hunting, and fishing sites.
The area is still recovering from a legacy of mining dating back to the 1880s. It became a Superfund site in the 1990s after polluted runoff caused massive contamination and a massive fish kill. While Comexico’s proposal would be subject to review under the National Environmental Policy Act and other regulations, Santa Fe National Forest officials have said that under the 1872 mining law and general practice, mining is an allowable activity, and the agency does not have the authority to prohibit the exploration and development of mineral resources.
A Devastating History
According to the Albuquerque Journal, gold, silver, zinc, and lead mining occurred in the area from the 1880s to the 1930s, and continued in some form until the 1990s. Large-scale mining occurred between 1927-1939 in the same area in which Comexico plans to begin exploratory drilling. When the Pecos Mine was closed, the lack of regulation and oversight led to long-lasting contamination of the soil, 5-10 acres of wetlands, Willow Creek, and the Pecos River.
The legacy of that pollution was also the cause of a massive fish kill in 1991. More than 90,000 died at the Lisboa Springs Fish Hatchery alone after unusually heavy spring runoff into the nearby creeks. The company that owned the mining rights at the time paid $28 million for the cleanup, and New Mexico taxpayers were on the hook for 20% of the cost.
The community, which relies on outdoor tourism, still feels the impact of the 1991 mine accident.
A Threat to the Community
The proposed mining exploration, and the potential for a new mining operation near the Tererro mine site threaten the health of the Pecos Wilderness and the Pecos River, the wildlife they support, and the local businesses and communities that depend on them.
The new industrial traffic and impact of large-scale mining operations would increase noise pollution, disrupt wildlife, and dissuade tourists from visiting the Pecos area. Further contamination of the watershed as a result of mining operations could harm the Pecos businesses that depend on a healthy ecosystem, clean waterways, and thriving fisheries to sustain their livelihoods and preserve the quality of life that allows them to call Pecos home.
The proposed exploration and development also threaten historically and culturally important areas for Pueblo people and could damage or destroy sites that are sacred for the people of the Pueblos of Tesuque and Jemez.
A Promising Future
Community members, business owners, acequia and land grant owners, tribes, elected officials, anglers, and hunters are all stepping up to prevent the Tererro mine from becoming a reality.
It’s time to change this outdated and backward-thinking law so we can protect people and communities like those who would be impacted by the Tererro Mine. Right now, our federal lawmakers have the opportunity to pass the Hardrock Leasing and Reclamation Act of 2019 to update this obsolete system and ensure that polluters – and not taxpayers – pay for environmental damage from mining activities. Help WRA protect people and communities across the West by adding your name to the long list of people who support reforming the antiquated General Mining Act of 1872.
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