At the Legislative Finance Committee meeting in Silver City last week, the Wednesday afternoon session on Copper Rules, after presentations, was opened up to legislators' questions.
Sen. Carroll H. Leavell asked Tannis Fox of the attorney general's office in what administration the current copper rules were passed.
Fox said the permitting was changed in 1977, but aside from amendments, the rule in substance had been in place since then.
"In 2009, to promulgate the rules, it required the Water Quality Control Commission to agree, and it allowed for specific rules for copper mining and dairies," Fox said.
Leavell said in the dairy industry the rule changes will shut down any new permitting. "What concerns me is that we are resisting making rules to encourage industry."
Rep. Don Tripp asked what the average income in Grant County was. No one on the panel knew, but Tony Trujillo of Freeport McMoRan Copper & Gold Inc. said the average wages at the mines are $65,000 including benefits.
Sen. John Arthur Smith said the surrounding counties are provided jobs by mining. "My concern is the way the pendulum is swinging. The perception is that the past administration wanted to wipe out mining and the perception on this one is that it wants to wipe out the environment."
"Neither is correct," Smith said. "I don't know how we do provide protection for industries. As a kid in Deming, when the mines closed, it impacted jobs. We find people maligning the deficiencies of New Mexico, but those who malign are reluctant to run for office. They are quick to malign, but not willing to open themselves to criticism. The almighty maker gave this nation and state phenomenal resources to use the best way we can. It seems to me we would be deficient if we don't strike a balance. The rhetoric becomes emotional, but we need to look at what is best for future generations. No new mines have been permitted since 1994. We would have reserves to pay for schools.
"I suspect your 401ks are in these corporations," Smith continued. "I hope we can find middle ground, so we are not divided by extreme arguments. I would like to see stability in state government."
Sen. Howie Morales said knowing the industry and what it means to the state, he appreciates Smith's comments. "We have to realize natural resources are important to the state." He asked if there had been communication between the sides to look for medium ground.
Tim Eastep, Freeport Chino and Tyrone operations manager, said an advisory and technical committee, made up of stakeholders, including from the New Mexico Environment Department, industry, non-governmental organizations, academics and the Forest Service, met for eight months and developed rules. "It went through several drafts to the current rules proposed by the Environment Department."
T. J. Trujillo, Freeport counsel, said closing arguments would be presented at the Water Quality Control Commission in August. "More than the majority of the rule was agreed to by the parties. About 10 or 15 percent involves significant issues, but a lot of the rest is timelines and framework. There have been multiple opportunities to talk to the commission, in addition to the stakeholder process, which was an advisory group."
Harry Browne, Gila Resources Information Project co-founder, said Eastep had described about 95 percent of the process. "There is no content connection. The draft was almost completely discarded, and the Environment Department developed a new draft."
Morales asked Rebecca de Neri Zagal, Office of Natural Resources Trustee executive director, if there were damage to an area, who would do the assessment.
"An assessment is done through our office," de Neri Zagal said. "I oversee the work with contractors. We have technical people both representing the trustees and the responsible parties to come up with a fair settlement."
To Fox, Morales said an emergency supplemental to the attorney general's office was supposed to go to Grant County instead. "My understanding it was $1.5 million, which has now been set aside for litigation with Texas over water issues." Fox said the issue was not in her area.
Morales said settlement money from Freeport was to mitigate, not to litigate. "I hope it will be used for the purpose for which it was intended."
"My understanding was that it was used as the legislation directed," Fox said.
Sen. Ron Griggs said he was not familiar with the new copper rules. "I have been hearing today about the cost of health care. This industry provides revenues to the state to pay for things like health care. There are a couple of gas wells shut in in Otero County, and we can't figure out how to develop them. If someone were starting a mine today, he couldn't do it. Oh, and being from Alamogordo, water is more than $1 a gallon. I understand the issues between the environment and industry. I hope we can work to find balance. Economic opportunities are important to the state."
LFC Chairman Luciano "Lucky" Varela asked Fox a question to which she replied that she is with the water, environmental and utilities division of the attorney general's office. "We do water rights work for the state, as well as environmental and utilities work. We issue permits for mining, and we have responsibility over reclamation."
De Neri Zagal answered Varela's question by saying the trustee's office has four people, including the secretary of the Environment Department, working independently from his department.
To a question about recent changes in the pit rule, de Neri Zagal said the trustee offices does not get involved in regulatory rules, just natural resources damage.
Eastep answered Varela's question about the Environmental Protection Act rule. "The EPA has primacy on the Clean Water Act, on storm water, for instance."
Varela said the scars from copper, potash, molybdenum and "now uranium, are noticeable. That is the reason the public is so concerned. The Native Americans are not happy. We need to work together for balance. Resources are abundant: we should not have litigation to keep from developing them. So we don't have to mandate through legislation, I ask you to work together for prevention."
De Neri Zagal said her office does not look at prevention. "We come in after the fact. The NMED is preventative. We work under the Superfund Rule and it works very well."
Reap. William Gray asked how many superfund sites are in New Mexico. "I don't know," de Neri Zagal said. "We are in the process of resolving the issue with Chevron in Questa, and a couple in Albuquerque and one in Clovis were settled a while ago."
Gray asked if the rule impacted the area of the mine itself.
Eastep said the rule relates to all parts of the process, including the tailings, the plants and the pipelines.
Varela said the state has about 20 superfund sites.
Rep. Larry Larrañaga said he is baffled at how people look at things. "If you took the 14,000 acre-feet of Arizona Water Settlements Act water, which is 32,000 gallons a year per acre-foot and charged $1 each, it would bring $4.6 billion to the state and would solve all our problems. Let's bring common sense to the process."
The next article will address the Tourism portion of the LFC meetings.