[Editor's Note: This is likely to be the first of a multi-part series of articles on the May 11, 2021, work session and May 13, 2021, regular meeting.]
By Mary Alice Murphy
When it came time for public input at the Grant County Commission work session on May 11, 2021, three residents of subdivisions near the Tyrone Mine had comments for the commissioners on a planned Freeport-McMoRan expansion of the mine.
The residents of subdivisions near the mine were informed recently that a new open pit mine, Emma, would be opened to the north of their homes and the Little Rock Mine would be expanding to south of some of their homes.
In a letter to the commissioners, they asked the Grant County Commission to consider several issues that the residents feel will severely impact their physical and financial health once work begins on the pit. They also presented at the work session.
Ronald Perry, a resident of the Oak Grove community, spoke in public input. His background is in the physical and biological sciences. "We support a resolution to establish an ordinance to ensure that the health, safety and property values of Grant County residents are protected from mining operations." He said three neighbors would also be speaking in a presentation.
Perry's concerns include the impacts of artificial lighting on wildlife. "There is little artificial light in the Tyrone area except for that produced by the mine." He said studies show that artificial lighting interferes with animal and prey interactions and interrupts insect and bird migrations. Perry noted that animal, insect and bird populations are in serious decline, so measures should be taken by the mine to mitigate the impacts.
Corky Stewart, a resident of the Apache Mound subdivision south of Tyrone, spoke next. "We are here to discuss our concerns with the development of the new Emma Pit and the expansion of the Little Rock Mine by Freeport-McMoran. We realize the price of copper is going up, and we can foresee an increase in mining. There are gaps in state and federal law that address public concerns. We are asking for a possible ordinance to help protect the health and safety of residents as the expansion of mining goes forward. I'm not trying to shut down mining or curtail mining. I want to thank the Freeport employees, Laura Phelps, Ty Bays and Lee Nix. They have been forthcoming with any information I requested. I do think the residents need protections not currently being provided to us. One of the biggest concerns is property values. A pit opening up a half mile from my house will make it hard to sell my house. I am hesitant to move forward with improvements to the property because I don't know if the pit will make the house worthless. We have been told it is just a five-year project, but that can be a long five years. The water issue is a critical one, as it is everywhere in Grant County where we're just a dry spell away from our wells going dry."
He said the subdivision is on a good well that provides 20-30 gallons a minute. "Last year there was surface water in Cherry Creek Valley in the spring and again until November. We have a concern about our aquifer with the Emma Pit. Freeport has offered to test our aquifer to give us a baseline. That's generous of them, and it's important to me."
Stewart said the next biggest concern was dust. The pits are dug in granite, which will create a lot of silica dust making a threat of silicosis a possibility. "I don't want to have to wear a respirator at the house while they're blasting. It's critical for me and my wife's health as well as our neighbor's health. Noise will be another big issue. At night we can hear the big trucks at the mine two miles away. When it's half a mile away, it will be bad. Anything they can do to mitigate the noise will be appreciated. I've felt vibrations from the Tyrone blasts. Lighting is another concern. It will cut down on our appreciation of night skies. We would also appreciate mitigation of light pollution."
"We are asking for a county ordinance pertaining to everyone in Grant County who might have a mine expanded nearby," Stewart said.
Carol Martin, a resident of Oak Grove Subdivision off Red Rock Road, noted Freeport will also be expanding the Little Rock Mine to the northwest of the current pit. "It will be closer to us and just south of our subdivision. We ask the county to include us in the ordinance. We have concerns about the impact on our health and our financial wellbeing. This issue is not covered in the Mining Act. Our concerns are about water, noise, blasting, air quality, light pollution and traffic."
She said their subdivision depends on a well. "Without dependable water, we, our livestock, pets and the wildlife cannot remain here. Our springs and creeks could be depleted. The noise of heavy equipment and blasting will have a negative impact on our quality of life. The blasting makes our pets and livestock nervous and startles wildlife. It can also potentially cause cracks in our houses. People and animals can feel the concussions of blasting. Dust creates an unhealthy environment. It infiltrates our homes and structures. We will experience health risks. Excessive dust is a physical trespass on the residents. Light pollution will impact our ability to appreciate the dark skies. Lights in the mine could be projected downward and turned off when not in use. Vehicles regularly speed on Mangas Valley Road, which increases the dust. Trash is a problem. Perhaps all the mines could adopt access roads to pick up the trash. It's not only our subdivision, but Hanover and the Cobre Mine that can cause problems. Thank you for listening to us."
Hal Rosenthal, an Oak Grove resident, requested a county ordinance that protects Grant County residents' property values near mines. He said that Santa Fe has a land use code that could be looked at. "We know electronics depend on copper so they will demand more copper. We need mechanisms to protect us. We've heard from the mine, and they want to be good neighbors. If that is so, they should welcome our suggestions."
District 5 Commissioner Harry Browne asked when the residents would find out about the aquifer.
Stewart said Freeport is drilling monitoring wells. "By the end of the year, we should have evidence of whether the Emma Mine connects to our aquifer or not. But blasting could create cracks that connect them. There needs to be an ongoing process of monitoring."
He said Freeport told the resident that the company would be "responsible, but they didn't give specifics. I, too, want an air quality baseline. I'll be talking to Freeport about that. If we can come up with an ordinance with an air quality baseline, that would be big for us."
Browne asked if the Santa Fe Land plan or the Pima County, Arizona, plans had been tested in court.
Rosenthal said they could find out.
District 3 Commissioner Alicia Edwards asked if the residents had talked to Freeport about their property values.
Stewart said that when he bought his property two-and-a-half years ago, evidently the Emma pit was already in process. "Had I been told by the previous owner that it was already underway, I might have had second thoughts."
Edwards said that a lot of the people in the subdivisions have had their property for years and might be expecting the values to go up.
Browne asked County Manager Charlene Webb if she knew of any ordinances that are enforceable.
"I'll do some research," Webb said.
District 1 Commissioner and Chairman Chris Ponce asked Webb if she could try to get Freeport to speak about the concerns at the May 25 work session. Webb said she would contact them.
The next article will get into county reports.