By Charlie McKee

At a public meeting held on Jan. 30, the US Fish and Wildlife Service and the NM Office of Natural Resources Trustee introduced their "Draft Wildlife and Wildlife Habitat Restoration Plan/Environmental Assessment for the Chino, Cobre, and Tyrone Mine Facilities."

Rebecca Zagal, Executive Director of the NM Office of Natural Resources Trustee explained that the plan is the result of an extensive "cooperative damage assessment" begun in 2001 between Freeport-McMoRan Copper & Gold Inc. (FMI), the State of New Mexico, and the US Fish and Wildlife Service.  The team worked diligently to assess the injury and damages to the wildlife and environment caused by the three FMI mines of Chino, Cobre, and Tyrone.

Two portions of the negotiated settlement with FMI have already been undertaken: 1) Six projects began in 2011 to decontaminate groundwater; and 2) FMI transferred 714 acres of land, which contains an ecologically important natural cienaga and is viewed as compensation for injury to terrestrial resources, to the City of Rocks State Park.

Zagal then explained that this Restoration Plan addresses repairing wildlife habitats, primarily of waterfowl, and rectifying injury to wildlife and habitats caused by the mines.  The negotiated settlement with FMI awarded $5.5 million for restoration projects to "compensate the public for injuries to wildlife and wildlife habitat resources that resulted from the release of hazardous substances from the three mines."  The draft plan, which was begun in May 2012, incorporates 21 proposed and prioritized projects that were submitted and approved for possible implementation.  The plan also complies with the National Environmental Policy Act.

After Zagal's introduction, George Dennis, Branch Chief of the US Fish and Wildlife Ecological Services Field Office, detailed the methodology employed by the team to screen, select, and prioritize projects proposed for implementation in the Restoration Plan.  To be considered, a project had to meet the following criteria:
•    Is technically and administratively feasible;
•    Benefits wildlife or wildlife habitat affected by hazardous substance releases at the
Chino, Tyrone, or Cobre mines;
•    Provides an overall net environmental benefit;
•    Complies with applicable and relevant federal, state, local, and tribal laws and regulations; and
•    Is subject to Trustee management, control, and monitoring.

Dennis stated that, once accepted, the proposed projects were then prioritized and divided into three tiers, as outlined in the Restoration Plan.  The projects in Tier 1 are those believed to be feasible for implementation within the constraints of the $5.5 million allotted for the projects.  The projects in Tiers 2 and 3 are those that could be implemented were there to be reasons for eliminating any of the projects in Tier 1 or if monies remain after implementation of all Tier 1 projects.  Tier 1 includes the following projects totaling $4.36 million:
•    Burro Cienaga Side Channel, Floodplain, and Low Terrace Restoration - Repair severe erosion damage to the Burro Cienaga, improve water quality and storage, and restore critical habitat for plants and animals.
•    Double E Ranch Habitat - Protect native riparian habitat along Bear Creek through the purchase and conservation of the Double E Ranch.
•    Mimbres River Watershed - Restore and improve riparian and wetland habitats and modify at least one stock pond.
•    Redrock Property Habitat - Protect and restore native riparian habitat along the Gila River through the purchase and conservation of the Redrock property’s native riparian habitat along the Gila River.

When queried by members of the audience, Dennis replied that administrative overhead costs would be very small and potentially covered by interest currently being earned on the invested monies already received from FMI.  He also estimated that work could start on the projects as soon as six months from now.

The team is asking the public for written comments on the Restoration Plan, including any new proposals for projects, by March 4, 2013.  The plan can be accessed at http://onrt.nmenv.state.nm.us/documents/DraftRPEAChinoCobreTyroneMine012013.pdf.

Comments and new project proposals may be sent by mail or email to:
NM Office of Natural Resources Trustee
4910-A Alameda Blvd., NE
Albuquerque, NM 87113

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