In what some are calling a politically motivated decision, the New Mexico Environment Department green-lighted a uranium mine's permit despite unanswered questions about environmental contamination.

Rio Grande Resources Corp., which operates Mount Taylor Mine, near Grants, received frustrating news last September from the NMED: Its application for a five-year "standby" permit to keep the mine open wouldn't be approved because RGRC failed to rule out potential contamination from a waste rock pile on-site. At most, NMED stated, it could approve a two-year permit.

The waste rock pile is a vestige of the site's mining operations, which ceased in 1990. It consists of rock pieces that didn't have sufficient uranium to bother refining and were piled up on the mine property. Testing has already shown elevated levels of uranium in sediment below the mine site; NMED required RGRC to find out whether or not the waste rock pile is the source.

Those test results still aren't back. But in May, NMED reversed its position on the standby permit anyway, giving its blessing to a five-year permit. The final step in the process is approval by the state Mining and Minerals Division, which held a public hearing Aug. 17.

At that hearing, MMD said it will issue an opinion at the beginning of next month, but it can't revisit the environmental issues that NMED signed off on in May. That leaves the New Mexico Environmental Law Center, which at the hearing argued on behalf of two environmental groups that the standby permit should require RGRC to clean up its mess, questioning NMED's decision.

"Essentially nothing happened between September [2010] and May [2011] except the change in administration…I think the mining company went to the administration and said 'Make this happen,' and they did," NMELC attorney Eric Jantz says. "This administration is beholden to the interests that put [Susana Martinez] in the governor's mansion, and I think it's pretty clear that this was a political decision and not a technical or environmental or public health decision."

According to NMED's May 27 letter authorizing the five-year permit, two factors prompted the reversal. First, RGRC submitted a revised "abatement plan" for cleaning up the waste rock pile if it is determined to be a contamination source; second, the
company made a plan to clean up another toxic mess, a zone of uranium-laced groundwater near the site, by planting salt cedar trees (an invasive, nonnative species) to suck up the toxic water.

But Mount Taylor Mine Manager Joe Lister tells SFR that the tree plan was already in place, and approved by NMED, before last September's letter—so it's not clear why it was used as evidence for a reversal. In any case, when the NMED originally held up the permit, it asked for tests on the waste rock pile, not an abatement plan.

"Even though we didn't mention the abatement plan, it's kind of the same deal," Mary Anne Menetrey, program manager of the NMED Mining and Environmental Compliance Section, says, emphasizing that NMED can still require cleanup if the tests implicate the waste rock pile. The cleanup? Three feet of soil must cover the pile and be topped by vegetation, which NMED's Ground Water Quality Bureau acting Chief Jerry Schoeppner says is "fairly accepted methodology" in the mining industry.

Schoeppner tells SFR there was nothing magic about May 27 that necessitated NMED reverse its previous opinion before receiving the test results. NMED "could have" waited; in fact, according to both NMED and Lister, those tests are simply being "finalized" and will be ready within approximately two weeks. It's also not clear why this testing has been deferred until now on a site RGRC has owned since 1990, and which has been stagnant since then. Although this will be RGRC's second standby permit—it received one in 2005—the company doesn't claim to have done any cleanup so far.

In fact, Lister says, state and federal regulations have all but prevented it.

"Had we had our choice, we probably could have done something a lot quicker, but we don't operate a lot of times under our choices—we have to operate within the rules and guidelines set forth," Lister says. "I'm not using that as an excuse; I'm trying to tell you what that timeline is compiled of."