- How do the Copper Rules benefit New Mexico and the environment?
- After a century of copper mining in the state, why are these regulations needed?
- What was the process for shaping the Copper Rules?
- What are the new requirements under the Copper Rules that ensure protection of ground water?
- Is drinking water at risk of being impacted by copper mining operations?
How do the Copper Rules benefit New Mexico and the environment?
The Copper Rules impose rigorous ground water protection requirements on the copper mining industry. In addition to protecting ground water, the Rules provide clear, consistent expectations of the industry. Ground water will be better protected, operators will be better equipped to plan and invest, and the State of New Mexico will benefit from the expansion of this critical industry.
The Rules impose scientifically based requirements for protecting ground water beneath mining operations, not drinking water. Impacts to drinking water are not and will not be permitted.
While not used for drinking, the State requires that groundwater impacted by mining operations be cleaned up to mandated standards throughout mining operations and after mining operations cease. The Copper Rules establish consistent, clear, and reliable methods to protect the quality of ground water in the vicinity of copper mining operations today and for years after operations cease, ultimately better protecting New Mexico’s water resources.
Furthermore, the Rules improve New Mexico’s ability to retain and attract new mining investment and create jobs in this critical industry. These transparent and consistent rules will allow mining companies to better plan and invest in future operations by providing a much clearer understanding of how the State expects them to design and operate mines in a manner that will protect water quality — a critical step for increasing economic expansion and job creation in New Mexico. (back to top)
The Copper Rules provide the necessary clarity to effectively design, construct, and operate a new copper mine or expand or extend the life of an existing mine. The Rules represent a stringent, balanced and consistent approach to ground water protection. The Rules require the industry to operate in a responsible way, while also providing operators the certainty they need to confidently expand and create jobs in the state.
In 2009, the New Mexico Legislature decided the previous framework for regulating ground water at copper mines was broken and needed to be fixed. It determined the system was arbitrary and inconsistent, and made planning very difficult for existing and future mining investments. Consequently, the Legislature passed Senate Bill 206 during the 2009 Regular Session, which was signed by Governor Bill Richardson. The law requires the State to adopt additional regulations to clearly set forth the appropriate technologies to prevent ground water pollution. The Environment Department implemented its legislative and gubernatorial mandate and began the arduous rulemaking process, culminating in the Copper Rule adopted by the WQCC. (back to top)
The Copper Rules were developed through an advisory committee process, followed by stakeholder negotiations under a schedule approved by the Water Quality Control Commission (WQCC).
An advisory committee, composed of representatives of the New Mexico Environment Department (NMED), New Mexico Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department (NMEMNRD), industry representatives (including Freeport-McMoRan and representatives of Copper Flats), several environmental groups, and experts from academic institutions (such as New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology) met monthly over a six-month period, beginning in January 2012. At the same time, a technical committee was created to provide important context to the advisory committee. The technical committee had similar representation as the advisory committee, but it also included the U.S. Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, and consultants from environmental companies with extensive mining experience and expertise.
The advisory committee process entailed extensive discussion and collaboration among a very diverse group of interests. The varied and diverse participants were actively involved in the advisory committee and provided the critical insight from all perspectives. While the advisory committee process resulted in a productive discussion, at the end of the process, committee members took different positions on several key points.
Based on input from the advisory and technical committees, NMED published its recommended draft of the Proposed Copper Rules on September 13, 2012. Following extensive public comment, the WQCC held a public hearing on the Proposed Copper Rules beginning on April 9, 2013 and concluding on April 30, 2013, in order to receive and consider technical evidence and additional public comments. Technical testimony included leading experts in the fields of hydrology, geology, engineering, geochemistry, and earth sciences. They described to the WQCC how copper mines are located, designed, developed, and operated. This included testimony regarding how copper mines can affect ground water, how various types of mine facilities can be designed to protect ground water quality, and how copper mines can be responsibly closed and reclaimed following the conclusion of operations. The WQCC also held a public meeting in Silver City on May 3, 2013 to take additional public comments from those who live in the communities where most of New Mexico’s copper mines are located.
Several academic representatives familiar with the mining industry have voiced their support of the Proposed Copper Rules as well as the adopted version in public forums. These experts include the President of New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology and the President of Western New Mexico University. In addition, the New Mexico Mining Association, New Mexico Mine Inspector, and the New Mexico Economic Development Department have also expressed public support for the Copper Rules. (back to top)
New design, construction and operation provisions under the proposed regulation require:
- New design features for new facilities and the expansion of existing facilities that are specifically intended to protect groundwater;
- New criteria for closing a mine, including re-grading land and installing groundcover to minimize infiltration of precipitation into and through mined materials that might otherwise reach ground water;
- New engineering design requirements for waste rock and leach stockpiles and impoundments; and
- Clear and specific design technology requirements for impoundments, tanks and pipelines.
Is drinking water at risk of being impacted by copper mining operations?
No. The Water Quality Act already requires the protection of drinking water. The Rules impose scientifically based requirements for protecting ground water beneath mining operations, not drinking water. Impacts to drinking water are not and will not be permitted. (back to top)
The Copper Rules require the use of liners where necessary and technically feasible, while acknowledging that liners are not always appropriate to protect ground water when other approved protective measures are already in place. (back to top)
The Rules end the arbitrary nature of the current groundwater protection process, allowing copper mining companies to more effectively plan and invest in new operations in the State. While more onerous than current requirements, replacing the ad hoc process with the scientifically-proven recommendations made by the NMED will provide certainty to the industry, strict guidelines for protecting groundwater, and encourage additional investment and job creation. (back to top)
Freeport-McMoRan operates the Chino and Tyrone mines, which are the only copper mines currently operating in New Mexico. The company also owns the Cobre mine, which is being evaluated for a possible re-start. All are located in Grant County. These mines contributed an estimated $444 million in direct and indirect spending to the New Mexico economy in 2014 and employ over 1,600 full-time workers and over 300 contractors at sites in Southwestern New Mexico.
Freeport-McMoRan and the previous operators of the Chino, Tyrone, and Cobre Mines have a strong track record of protecting drinking water and being good stewards of groundwater. In fact, reclamation efforts connected with these mines have been recognized for their excellence by the industry and State of New Mexico. In December of 2012, the NMEMRD nominated and awarded the Tyrone Mine for Excellence in Reclamation. The Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Forest Service have also recognized Freeport-McMoRan environmental programs and reclamation efforts as examples of good environmental stewardship.
In 2011, the Association of Commerce and Industry of New Mexico recognized Freeport-McMoRan’s operations in Silver City with their VIVA Award for the company’s investment in the community and commitment to making New Mexico a better place to live. (back to top)
Industry experts, including representatives of Freeport-McMoRan and the MAC Resources Group, owner of the proposed Copper Flats Mine, alongside environmental groups, government agencies and community organizations, were invited by NMED to participate in the public process. These industry experts were a part of the technical and advisory committees, facilitating expert presentations on existing New Mexico operations and mine facility designs used around the world, giving tours of our operations in Grant County, and speaking clearly on issues important to our operations, our 1,600 New Mexico employees, and the communities in which we operate. Our messages and written comments on various draft rule language have been consistent, and the regulatory measures suggested have been based on sound science and widely accepted practices for the industry. (back to top)