October 13, 2022

Mining expansion proposal draws concerns about water

Laura Paskus

Gila River near Turkey Creek in New Mexico

Advocates say an expansion of a copper mine in Grant County could impact water and they have asked state agencies reviewing permit applications to require additional safeguards from the mining company Freeport-McMoRan.

Freeport-McMoRan has filed permit applications with the Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources’ Mining and Minerals Division and the Office of the State Engineer as it works toward constructing a new mine pit at the Tyrone Mine, known as the Emma Expansion Project.

Gila Resources Information Project, or GRIP, is asking for more assurances that the community will not face environmental devastation as a result of the mining expansion. The organization has filed protests asking for permits to be denied, including the permit for an additional point of water diversion in the Mimbres underground basin that is pending before the OSE. GRIP included various recommendations for the EMNRD Mining and Mineral Division if the state grants the permit.

GRIP is also part of the Initiative for Responsible Mining Assurance, which advocates for what it describes as responsible mining practices. IRMA also certifies mines so manufacturers know the metal they are getting was mined in a responsible manner.

“We are not opposed to mining,” GRIP Executive Director Allyson Siwik told NM Political Report. “We are not trying to shut the mine down at all. We want them to do a better job.”

In addition to concerns about water quality, GRIP expressed concerns about financial assurances, dust mitigation, light pollution, impacts on views and noise.

The project comes as the copper market has faced volatility over the past year. The price of copper declined from $4.69 per pound at the end of March to $3.54 per pound at the end of July.

While the price of copper fell during the second quarter of 2022, Freeport-McMoRan was still able to turn a profit and is optimistic about the future, according to filings with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission.

“We believe the actions we have taken in recent years to build a strong balance sheet, successfully expand low cost operations, and maintain flexible growth options while maintaining sufficient liquidity will allow us to continue to execute our business plans in a prudent manner, despite current economic uncertainty, while preserving substantial future asset values,” the company’s quarterly statement says.

Additionally, Freeport-McMoRan points to studies that show demand for copper could double in the next 15 years amid the transition to clean energy sources. 

The company says the energy transition will require substantial new mine supply development. 

The Emma Expansion Project is in a dry climate where evaporation often exceeds precipitation, according to a hydrogeologic report conducted for Freeport-McMoRan. It is situated between two water drainages—Upper Oak Grove Creek in the north and Cherry Creek in the south.

Because the pit itself will be below the groundwater level, Siwik said it will need constant dewatering. GRIP’s two technical consultants evaluated Freeport-McMoRan’s proposal and applications. 

The groundwater that flows into the pit will become contaminated and, if for some reason pumping water out of the pit stopped, it would take 40 to 50 years before the contaminated water began to flow out, Siwik said. That could impact the aquifer that Grant County relies on for drinking water, she said.

While the water will need to be pumped out of the mining pit in perpetuity, Siwik said the water rights permit application with the OSE is for 10 years of use. Freeport-McMoRan anticipates the Emma pit will be operated for three to five years.

While the permit more than covers the anticipated operating timeframe for the Emma pit, the continued dewatering will mean that the OSE would need to renew the permit every 10 years, Siwik said.

While Freeport-McMoRan conducted a hydrogeologic report, Siwik said that it contains flawed assumptions about the groundwater system. Siwik said the area has fractured rock and water behaves differently in a fractured rock setting than in an alluvial groundwater system, which the report examined. While the report stated there were no springs, Siwik said there are two springs along Cherry Creek that could be impacted and the hydrogeologic report did not examine the impact on those two springs. Dewatering the pit could deplete the springs, GRIP argues.

All of this is important, she said, because the closest drinking water well is about half a mile away from the site.

GRIP has recommended requiring Freeport-McMoRan to prepare and implement a groundwater monitoring and mitigation plan. Siwik said if the operations do impact nearby residents who use well water, those people should be compensated. 

The hydrogeologic report states that the mining will lead to a 500- to 600-foot depression. The project includes a 130-acre pit. 

GRIP has also requested that Freeport-McMoRan release a dust control plan for public review.

If Freeport-McMoRan was to go bankrupt or otherwise abandon its mining operations, it could result in environmental contamination. 

Siwik said financial assurances are needed to make sure the community isn’t left with that burden and risk.

Freeport-McMoRan does have some assurances, but Siwik said it is a third-party guarantor and covers up to 75 percent of the reclamation costs. Siwik said instead Freeport McMoRan should use a cash trust.

“We know about mining companies going bankrupt and leaving the public with millions [of dollars], billions even, of environmental cleanup liability,” she said.

Siwik said responsible mining is necessary for the energy transition. At the same time, she said mining has inherent environmental impacts and that companies need to work to minimize those risks.

“We’re on the front lines of mining for the renewable energy transition,” Siwik said about New Mexico.