Ralph Vigil, the chairman of the New Mexico Acequia Commission, stands at the edge of the fields of his acequia-irrigated organic farm, looking out on the national forest that stretches to the peaks of the Pecos Wilderness. It's a place where people spend weekends hiking, fishing and camping along the mountain road that also leads past the scar of the old Tererro mine. The spot is where 2 million tons of ore were excavated in the 1920s, leading to the contamination of nearby wetlands and $28 million in remediation and environmental clean-up costs partially paid by taxpayers.
Nearby, a new mining proposal threatens to repeat history.
Comexico LLC, a Colorado subsidiary of Australian mining company New World Cobalt Ltd, wants to start prospecting in the area for gold, copper and zinc. It has secured the rights to 20 federal mining claims on 400 acres in the Jones- Hill and Macho Canyon areas of the Pecos Ranger District in Santa Fe and San Miguel counties and has secured interest in 4,300 acres of surrounding national forest.
The potential consequences have Vigil and others raising red flags.
This season, the old Tererro site is a grassy hillside arrayed in wildflowers. But Vigil remembers when it was a mess of rocky debris, open mine shafts and abandoned buildings. He remembers when the Pecos River ran yellow with acidic mineral runoff after heavy spring rainstorms in 1991, killing the trout in the river and 90,000 fish at the Lisboa Springs Fish Hatchery downstream. Even today, though reclamation efforts have helped camouflage the damage, it is still a Superfund site leaching poisons into the surrounding watershed.
"We have to protect the right to clean and healthy water. I mean, that should be our most essential right other than the right to breathe, even before freedom of speech or any other freedom we should have the freedom to clean water because that's what sustains life for all of us," says Vigil, his brow furrowed as he gazes north towards the mountains where the streams that feed the Pecos acequia system originate. "It's not just about turning on a faucet, it's about where does that water come from when that fountain turns on? It's up there, it all starts up there. A lot of people don't understand that."
In June, Comexico submitted a plan of operations to the Santa Fe National Forest and the state Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department's Mining and Minerals Division. It also applied for an exploratory permit for core drilling operations on up to 2.2 acres on Jones Hill.
According to the investor page of New World Cobalt's website, the company hopes "that mine development [at Jones Hill] can be advanced as quickly as practicable," and has plans for "aggressively exploring" prospects in the surrounding area, including in Dalton Canyon and Doctor Creek.
The company states that drilling could begin as early as October. However, Santa Fe National Forest Service Geologist Larry Gore tells SFR by phone that's a highly unrealistic timeline, partly due to the complexities of the terrain and wildlife habitats of the area and public pushback, but also because Comexico "keeps changing their proposal," delaying the permitting process.
Julie Anne Overton, the Officer of Public Affairs for the Forest Service, is also quick to point out that the 1872 Mining Act prohibits the Forest Service from stopping any mining activity on federal land. Overton says the Forest Service is in the process of deciding what level of assessment will be required for the new Tererro mine site.
The Upper Pecos Watershed organization is leading a coalition in the hopes of stalling the process if not stopping it altogether by demanding the most rigorous environmental and cultural review assessments called for by law under the National Environmental Policy Act.
The coalition includes Pecos residents and business owners, environmental advocacy groups, and traditional land users such as Vigil and members of the Pecos, Tesuque, and Jemez pueblos whose lands could be affected by the mine.
At the proposed mine site on Jones Hill, Garrett VeneKlasen, the northern field coordinator for New Mexico Wild, points out the little pink prospecting flags that mark out the possible locations of 30 drill holes, each 500 to 4,000 feet deep, that the company will use to assess mineral deposits.
"I really could not think of a worse place for a mine," says VeneKlasen, explaining that the mountain is at the headwater for four distinct watersheds and is home to endangered and threatened species, including the spotted owl, Rio Grande cutthroat trout and the flowering Holy Ghost ipomopsis, a plant only found wild in the Holy Ghost Canyon of the Santa Fe National Forest.
Part of the problem, he says, is that Comexico is planning to contract third-party analysts to conduct required assessments.
"The Forest Service has no plans to conduct its own surveys and is relying on experts who are getting paid by a foreign company that stands to make millions if not billions of dollars," VeneKlasen says. "How can they not see this as a clear conflict of interest?"
Overton confirms that the agency often relies on biological and archaeological surveys done by third-party contractors when they "don't have the available staff to conduct surveys internally." However, both Overton and Gore say outside consultants, even if hired by the mining company, must be reviewed by the department and meet Forest Service standards.
Though counties have no jurisdiction over federal land, in June the Board of Commissioners of San Miguel County passed a resolution in opposition to Comexico's application. The Santa Fe County Commission is set to discuss it soon, a spokeswoman tells SFR.
Tribal concerns are geared more toward the possible disturbance of cultural sites of the Pecos and Tesuque pueblos located in the area, says Roger Fragua, a member of the Jemez Pueblo and a descendant of the Pecos Pueblo.
Fragua is careful to clarify that his role in the coalition is as a member of Climate Advocates/Voces Unidas (CAVU), an environmental media organization covering the mine, and not as an official representative of any of the impacted pueblos.
"This is an opportunity for the federal government and industry to do the right thing. We are still early enough in the process for proper [tribal] consultation to occur," he says.
The permit process going forward could take months, Forest Service officials tell SFR. The next step is scoping public opinion.