Freeport-McMoran Fined $276,000 for Million-Gallon 2007 Chino Acid Spill
by Allyson Siwik, GRIP Executive Director
The New Mexico Environment Department (NMED) has fined Freeport-McMoRan $276,000 for violations of the New Mexico Water Quality Act and Water Quality Control Commission regulations. The action follows discharge of an estimated one million gallons of highly acidic pregnant leach solution into a tributary of Lampbright Draw during the summer of 2007. The liquid, which contained a solution of copper and heavy metal-laden sulfuric acid, flowed more than 2 ½ miles down the creek, contaminating surface and groundwater in its path.
According to NMED, the company’s four violations included: “allowing the acidic mine waters to move into groundwater without a discharge permit; failing to report the spill on time; degrading groundwater quality with that discharge by allowing the spill to flow into a clean storm water diversion ditch; and failing to lessen impacts from that contamination on time.”
As part of the company’s corrective action, Chino removed 16,000 cubic yards of contaminated sediment and installed three wells to monitor groundwater contamination. According to NMED, this was the third occurrence of a spill at the same sump within two years.
Although the risk of accidents is inherent to the mining industry, plans are put in place to prevent accidents, as well as to respond to them should they occur. However, in this case the company did not follow its own plans (see GetAGRIP, Winter 2008) due to an apparent lack of sufficient employee training. Strong enforcement by NMED is critical to holding Freeport-McMoRan’s feet to the fire in complying with environmental regulations. GRIP hopes that the penalty payment, in conjunction with a settlement-stipulated corrective action proposal and staff training, will help prevent future spills.