[Editor's Note: This is part 3 of a multi-article series on the Grant County Commission work session of June 8, 2021, and the regular meeting on June 10, 2021. This article reports the presentation by Freeport-McMoRan.]
By Mary Alice Murphy
Tom Shelly, Freeport McMoRan reclamation manager for New Mexico operations, and Laura Phelps, Freeport-McMoRan community development manager, attended the Tuesday, June 8, 2021, work session to talk about the company's operations in Grant County in response to issues raised by residents and the potential for a county ordinance.
Shelley said he had a letter for commissioners as a response to a letter to commissioners from Mr. Stewart and Mr. O'Keefe, who are concerned about mine expansion at Tyrone Mine. "I appreciated the presentation by the Forest Service [which can be viewed at https://www.grantcountybeat.com/news/news-articles/65548-grant-county-commission-hears-gila-national-forest-update-060821-part-2 ]. For those of us who have lived all our lives in Grant County, you know the history. The Catwalk started out as a mining project, and now it's a destination. Mining and recreation can be compatible."
"We at the mine have an open-door policy," Shelley said. "I appreciate the letter from Mr. Stewart and Mr. O'Keefe. I especially appreciate Mr. Stewart because he is an example of how residents help us in our consideration of projects to make sure we address neighbors' concerns. I will focus today on the Emma Project. We understood that was the impetus of that letter. The Tyrone Mine is a geographic location and a mining area. Tyrone is a company, but it is much more than that. It is an amazing team and family of employees proud of the product we provide to the world and proud of the responsible manner we provide it. Tyrone is a part of the team that cares about the environment and safety. It is important to everyone. We are residents and neighbors, too."
He said the primary mine area is about 5,000 acres. The Apache Mound community and the Burro Mountain Homestead are to the south and west of the mine. To the north is Oak Grove, which is accessible on Mangas Valley Road, which can be accessed from Highway 90 or 180.
District 2 Commissioner Javier "Harvey" Salas asked if Emma would affect access to Burro Mountain Homestead.
"Yes," Shelley replied. "We are proposing to reroute that road. I'll talk a bit more about that in a second.
"We are in the process of designing and permitting Emma right now," he continued. "I say designing, because as we do exploration, it may change some. It's about 125-130 acres right now. We will need a road from the Tyrone Mine to Emma for our heavy equipment to extract the ore and take it to Tyrone for processing. We've decided it would be best to reroute the road to Burro Mountain Homestead to prevent interaction with the heavy equipment and residents' vehicles. The pit will be about 500 feet deep, and we'll have a stockpile. It will be useful for post-mining reclamation. Another question we received was if the mining would intercept groundwater. When we first did drilling, none of the holes made water. It's a very tight structure. Since then, some water does come into the holes, but it is not a productive aquifer. And yes, we would intercept the water in the pit, so it didn't mix. For the design and permitting we have done the archaeological and wildlife studies."
Shelley noted that a number of issues were raised in the letter Freeport received. "All of the issues are addressed through regulations and the permitting process. Could the water supply be contaminated, or might there be loss of flow rate? These are addressed by robust regulations. They are also addressed in the Water Quality Act and the required permits from the New Mexico Environment Department. We have an ongoing study on the water that we have to do to get a permit from the Office of the State Engineer. If it will impact either quality or quantity, we don't get a permit or we have to do major mitigation."
He said another question asked about air quality and dust. "Under the New Mexico Environment Department, a study is required for Emma. We must protect the human environment and the natural environment. The health of our neighbors and employees is paramount. We want to work with our neighbors. We will do blasting. Assessments show that they will not cause damage to structures in Apache Mound, which is .6 mile away from Emma. It won't be a problem for us to manage the blasting. We do have to get county acceptance for changing the road, as well as New Mexico Department of Transportation permission."
Shelley said that with all the rigorous processes Freeport must go through and follow, "I don't see a need for a county ordinance to duplicate these processes. We are very confident that we can complete the project, meet all the environmental requirements and minimize inconvenience to our neighbors. We are proud of our approach to responsible mining, and we enjoy being involved with our community in a number of positive ways."
He also touched on the Little Rock Mine, "which we have been working on for a number of years. The polygon around the area (he pointed to it on a map in the presentation) is what we are already permitted for. This design extends the life of Tyrone Mine. It's a modest expansion to finish the last couple of phases of the mine. One change that is important is because of mining on the west side, we need to change the haul road, because it will be mined out soon. It's all within the same area as the permitted pit development. We are proposing to do the same things under the same permitting."
Shelley said for the CLW waste (clear water waste), which is basically a rock stockpile, a construction of rock excavated during the mining. "There is already a leach area that has been reclaimed. We did a lot of clean up, from the mining operation in the 1970s, which had left some unacceptable conditions. The stockpile still has valuable ore in it that can be processed out. We may strip off the cover and save it for future reclamation, take the ore to Tyrone for processing. Actually rebuilding the stockpile would facilitate the reclamation of the site. It's an environmental improvement all around right there if we could do that. That stockpile was the cause of the some of the environmental impacts, so moving that will help. We would put clean, non-acid generating rock back at the site and reclaim it and reshape it. It's a win-win as I see it. We just want our community to know and our neighbors to know that we appreciate comments, negative and positive, about how we operate. We have a hotline."
Phelps said Shelley talked about the legal requirements of the formal engagement with our neighbors on the permitting process. "As a mining operation, we have signed onto a number of international standards voluntarily to have us engage with our neighbors and our community. We have a grievance process. That hotline he talked about, people think 'oh we have to do this massive process,' before we can call. It's available to everyone in the community at 1-877-329-2609. It's available 24/7 and the messages are forwarded to us so we can answer them. My preference is to engage directly with our neighbors. We've gone door to door at Apache Mound to hear their concerns. Covid challenged us, but I think we were able to make ourselves accessible. We have a quarterly meeting tomorrow to get information out and we want to engage in dialogue. In addition to the legal requirements, we want to be good neighbors."
District 3 Commissioner Alicia Edwards asked about the shape in the first map of Little Rock and the shape of the life of mine map not being the same.
Shelley said the shape of the whole mine has a small portion delineated, which is called Little Rock 6. "It's just a fragment, a phase of the mining planning. Most of the expansion activity will never be seen by the community."
Salas asked what the average depth of wells is at the Burro Mountain Homestead. "I know at Chino there are some very deep wells."
Shelley said he thought Salas might be talking about Apache Mound, because "I said the Emma pit would be about 500 feet deep. What we found is that many of the wells are 800-feet deep, some as much as 1,000 feet deep, and they were slowly making water. Mr. Stewart's makes only about 100 gallons a day. That's what we found, too, when we drilled. They didn't have any water in them when we drilled them, but if we let them sit for a couple of weeks, they slowly made water."
District 5 Commissioner Harry Browne said he recalled the "win-win for moving the old tailings and leach piles up to the Tyrone Mine for procession. What's in my head is the haul road problem. You've figured it out?"
"The original plan for Little Rock, when it was permitted in 1997 by the Forest Service and BLM and in 1998 by the Mining and Minerals Division of New Mexico, the first thing we would do, because there was already an existing haul road, we would mine it out and haul it to Tyrone," Shelley said. "The reason we didn't do it first, frankly, was there was an appeal by an environmental group against the project. The Bureau of Mine Appeals had a big backlog and couldn't make a decision for two years. As a result, we missed an opportunity and didn't start mining after that decision came out that supported our plan. We had to wait until later, because the stars have to align from an economic perspective, because of the millions of dollars in exploration and permitting. Eventually, the state demanded we reclaim that stockpile, so we reclaimed it in 2009, and we had made a substantial investment in reclaiming it, and we started mining it in 2010. So, our timing was just a little off. Now, it's still an opportunity. The access is through the pit. We need to build a little bit of a ramp to get up there, but it's not too big of a deal."
Browne said he appreciated "your frustration and your even tone." He said he has heard an issue with the grievance line is they don't ever find out the resolution of the grievance is. "Do you have a process of informing the folks?"
"If people are willing to talk to us directly or at least leave a name and number on the grievance line, because it can be anonymous, we will respond," Shelley said. "I'm guessing if they leave a grievance anonymously, we don't have someone to respond to. It's a very formal process and we prefer to have someone to respond to."
Phelps said there is no set time frame for a response. "People should hear back in 24 hours, 48 if it's the weekend, but the resolution sometimes takes time. If someone is willing to talk to us, we will be happy to hear from them and respond."
Browne also said the issue of lighting at Little Rock is an issue at Oak Grove and has not been resolved.
"It was raised in the first quarter meeting," Phelps said. "Our electricians took measures. They turned some off, but that's only short term. We're working on a long-term solution. It hasn't been fully resolved."
"Some of the folks at Emma are concerned about the lighting," Browne said.
Phelps said some of the studies are ongoing. "We're probably a year out on Emma. Once we have full design, we will have resolutions."
Shelley said the lights that are mainly visible from Oak Grove are from the electro-winning plant. "We need those lights for 24-hour operations for safety of our employees. For example, a haul truck driver needs to be able to see the mining equipment that is in use at night. Those lights are permanent, but we are evaluating them. Those lights have been there since 1984. The lights at Emma will be temporary for about three years. We will be studying them to make them less of a nuisance for our neighbors."
Browne noted that noise and lighting are not really addressed by regulations, and that was what "I think about for a county ordinance."
Shelley said noise and lighting are usually left to local regulations. He said the noise studies have been done at Little Rock. "Standard practice at all our mine sites is to blast only during the day."
Browne said he is confused by air quality regulations. "I've seen dust rising from Tyrone, and I've heard that dust from Chino has been seen in the Mimbres. It has gotten a lot better. Where are they measuring the standards?"
Shelley said for years and years, air monitoring stations were required around the mines and were monitored regularly, with data sent to the state. "They studied them for many years and the state also operated their own monitoring stations. After decades of monitoring, they realized that if they issued a permit, that it would meet the air quality criteria. That's how it is being done today. There is modeling that is validated by those historic monitoring stations."
Browne said his last question was the road that the county would be considering for change. "Is the plan to return to the existing location or will it be a permanent reroute?"
"I think it will be a permanent reroute, because there will be a stockpile over the present road that will be reclaimed ultimately," Shelley said.
District 4 Commissioner Billy Billings said he basically had comments. "We own property across the road from Apache Mound that has been in my family since the 1960s, before the startup of the mine. We don't live right there, but we have sold land there and are concerned about property values. The point I would like to make is when people move into an area near a mine, I don't know where the responsibility lies. We didn't move into the area, the mine moved into us. Most of the people have moved in fairly recently." [A not very audible No was heard from the audience from behind this author.]
He said he was invited by Mr. Stewart to the meeting that took place with mine officials, and he thought the concerns had been resolved.
"So, for that reason, I think some of the requests for the mine are unreasonable," Billings said. 'I see lights and hear the noise and I think economic development and about the 350 jobs over there that did not exist before the mine. We would be a very poor county, without copper mining. The lights, as you said, have been there for decades. I think we should make sure that realtors make people aware that the mine is right there. There are a lot of beautiful places in Grant County that are not near a mine. It doesn't bother us. I thank you for coming today and for the amount of time you spent with Mr. Stewart. I was surprised by the letter we received like we had never been there. I was taken aback."
Salas asked, with the proposed expansion of Little Rock and the proposed Emma, how many years would that be.
Shelley replied that Little Rock has a couple of phases left that will be sequenced and can extend Tyrone by about 10 years. Emma will take about three years when it is developed. The present proposed expansion of Little Rock will take about a year to a year-and-a-half of additional mining. "We will do Little Rock first and then Emma. We are operating in the interior at the Mohawk pit, which when it is done, we should be able to go into the next phase of Little Rock and then Emma when it is permitted. They are not at the same time; they are sequential. We have 328 employees and contractors. It's a big deal to them and their families."
District 1 Commissioner and Chair Chris Ponce said that was not in the letter—the 328 employees and how many contractors. "That's a lot of people who depend on Freeport."
Billings said he realized from the presentation how close Emma is to the main part of the Tyrone Mine. "It's 135 acres, but in the big picture of the overall 5,000 acres of Tyrone, it's a very small expansion."
Shelley said it is about 1,000 feet from the edge of the mine, but that doesn't take into account the stockpile that it almost touches.
The next article will address the Community Wealth Building presentation by Edwards.