After years of perseverance, Chino mine is now required to treat mine effluent at closure rather than diluting it to meet water quality standards, saving thousands of acre-feet per year of Grant County’s precious groundwater. This victory was a long-time in coming and the result of years of pressure by GRIP and community members on state agencies and Freeport-McMoRan to develop a viable water treatment methodology to remove toxic contaminants from mine-impacted water when the mine closes.
GRIP appealed the Chino supplemental discharge permit for closure back in 2003, arguing that using 9,000 acre-feet per year of clean groundwater — more than three times the amount of water Silver City uses annually — to dilute contaminated mine effluent to meet water quality standards was wasteful and not a beneficial use of the state’s water resources. Groundwater belongs to the people of New Mexico. Although its water rights allow Freeport to put the water to beneficial use, the rights do not permit them to unnecessarily waste our water when reasonable treatment alternatives are available.
Freeport finally came to the table and agreed to develop a water treatment proposal modelled after a similar methodology approved at the Tyrone mine. After demonstration by the company that its water treatment proposal would achieve standards without dilution, GRIP settled its appeal with the Water Quality Control Commission in 2008 in return for the company’s commitment to implementing water treatment when the mine eventually plays out and is closed.
But it took another 12 years before water treatment became mandatory as part of an enforceable permit for the Chino mine. Renewal of reclamation plans and permits at all three of Freeport’s mines dragged on for years, well beyond the five-year renewal period specified by state law. Although Chino’s permits should have been renewed in 2008, Freeport’s legal and legislative efforts to roll back water quality safeguards, such as the Tyrone appeal and the Copper Rule, held up the permit renewals for more than a decade.
GRIP’s advocacy with regulatory agencies and the company came to a head in 2018 with the reopening of the Cobre mine. In April 2018, we signed a Memorandum of Agreement with Freeport to resolve permitting issues related to reopening Cobre and the unacceptable delays in permit renewals. GRIP and Freeport agreed to meet quarterly to address issues with permit applications early on before a permit is drafted. We also agreed to confer on closure-closeout plans and reclamation cost estimates in order to more efficiently renew the outdated plans, permits and financial assurance.
It’s been a long battle, but the Chino permits were finalized a few months ago and now require that Freeport implement water treatment at closure, and as a result, extending the life of valuable groundwater supplies for Grant County residents. Community participation was a critical factor in achieving this outcome. Our combined voices, along with legal muscle and technical support, created the power to force state agencies and Freeport to do the right thing and conserve our precious water resources. Thanks everyone!