(ALBUQUERQUE)---New Mexico Attorney General Gary King has filed comments critical of the “draft copper rule” issued by the New Mexico Environment Department, saying the draft rule proposals, issued September 13, would allow copper mining companies to pollute ground water underneath their mine sites, which would be at odds with state law and regulations that protect groundwater.
AG King, who was instrumental in enacting the state Mining Act in 1993, says, “These proposals would turn back the clock decades on groundwater protection in New Mexico. For the last 35 years, the state has tried to protect groundwater underneath discharge sites, and has not authorized violation of water quality standards underneath sites.”
In 2009, the legislature directed the state Water Quality Control Commission to pass rules for groundwater protection for the copper mining industry. The draft rules issued by NMED, to be eventually submitted to the Commission for consideration, are the result of a stakeholder process that included environmental and industry representatives. A discussion draft of the rule was put out in August. The August draft did not authorize pollution under a mine site. NMED received comments from industry and environmentalists on the August draft, and issued a revised draft September 13. In the September draft, NMED completely ignored comments from environmental groups and instead adopted industry comments.
In addition to allowing groundwater pollution under a site, the draft rule would allow new waste rock piles and new tailing impoundments to be constructed without synthetic liners that protect against groundwater contamination. Waste rock piles and tailing impoundments can cause groundwater contamination as a result of “acid rock drainage,” a process by which the mineral sulfides in the stockpiles and tailings generate acidic solutions when oxidized. The acidic solutions react with the minerals in the stockpiles and tailings, producing acid rock drainage and associated metals and sulfate contamination which can reach ground water. This contamination can continue for hundreds of years. Some groundwater under copper mine sites in New Mexico exceeds water quality standards by 10 times for total dissolved solids, sulfate, nickel, cobalt and copper, and by 1,000 times for aluminum, cadmium, manganese, iron, and zinc. Synthetic liners for new waste rock piles and tailing impoundments are in use and are effective in preventing acid rock drainage and the resulting groundwater pollution.
AG King adds, “Ninety percent of the state’s drinking water comes from groundwater. Now, more than ever, our state needs to protect this precious public resource.”
In the view of the Attorney General’s Office, the draft rules do not comport with the requirements of the state Water Quality Act and current Commission regulations that do not allow for contamination under sites without a variance from the Commission. The AGO comments state, “The variance/alternative abatement process is intended to protect the State’s ground water by ensuring that the Commission’s Regulations are not routinely or easily disregarded, while at the same time giving dischargers flexibility in their operations so they are not overly burdened. Mining companies have successfully used the variance/alternative abatement standards process before the Commission to obtain variances for current operations and alternative abatement standards after closure. This is a process that has worked over time, and strikes an appropriate balance between environmental protection and economic development.”
Attorney General King urges NMED to rethink its position, and revise the draft copper rule to reflect the requirements of the water quality protection statute and regulations prior to issuing its next draft, due October 26. The AGO is willing to participate in or facilitate discussions to try to come to consensus with industry, environmentalists, and the state agencies.
A copy of the AGO comments is attached.
A copy of NMED’s draft rule may be found at http://www.nmenv.state.nm.us/gwb/documents/20_6_7_NMAC_draft.pdf