With the availability of COVID vaccines and the positive outlook for copper, Chino mine reopened in early 2021 and Tyrone pushed forward with its expansion plans at Little Rock and the new Emma Project this past year. Proposals to explore for copper and other minerals in the area are moving forward in response to the projected increase in demand for critical minerals for renewable energy. Copper reached an all time high of $4.80/pound in May given stagnant supplies due to COVID. At press time, however, copper prices on the London Metal Exchange were down to $4.30/pound with news of the Omicron variant. Sustained high copper prices will fuel more exploration and expansion proposals in our area.
Chino, Cobre, Tyrone Updated Reclamation Plans and Financial Assurance Now Complete
With approval of the Tyrone reclamation plan and financial assurance in March, all three Grant County mines now have updated closure/closeout plans, permits, and financial assurance. These plans had been more than a decade out of date, and GRIP’s pressure campaign succeeded in pushing state agencies and Freeport along to complete the updates. There is now $435 million in financial assurance to cover the cost of cleanup and reclamation should Freeport go bankrupt. The financial assurance is held in cash trust, surety bonds, collateral, letters of credit and third party guarantees. Overall, approximately 30% of the total financial assurance is covered by third party guarantees by Freeport-McMoRan subsidiary, Freeport Minerals Corporation. Although the New Mexico Mining Act allows up to 75% of the reclamation cost to be covered by a third party guarantee, GRIP continues to oppose the corporation’s subsidiary as the third party guarantor as it amounts to risky self-bonding. If Freeport were to default, it is likely that the third party guarantee would be worthless and the public would need to pick up the tab for cleanup and reclamation.
Chino Mine Back Online; Expanding Tailings and Leaching Capacity
Chino Mine came back online in January at half capacity with 630 employees, down from 1100 pre-pandemic. Given high copper prices, Freeport can afford to operate at half capacity and take the time to do significant replacement of infrastructure in 2021-2022. Next year, Freeport will be applying for permits for a new 500-acre tailings pond on the northwest side of the existing Tailings Pond 7. The company has changed plans and instead of constructing the North Lampbright waste rock stockpile that was permitted in 2017 but never constructed, it will now build a new leach stockpile that will extend to the north from the existing Lampbright Leach Stockpile that can be seen from Hwy 152. The company plans to install a liner system to ensure that all leach solutions are captured for processing.
Little Rock Expansion Not Yet Approved
A Mining Act hearing was held in June for Freeport’s proposal to expand its Little Rock Mine in two phases over the next ten years. The 557-acre expansion has the potential to impact the environment, wildlife, public health and quality of life for neighboring residents. The draft discharge permit has not been released yet for public review, but is expected in December.
Copper Flat Discharge Permit Appeal and Water Rights Protest Still in Process
New Mexico Copper Corporation has proposed to reopen the Copper Flat Mine outside of Hillsboro. Quintana Minerals operated the mine for a few months in 1982, but it hasn’t been open since. GRIP, Turner Ranch Properties, and Hillsboro Pitchfork Ranch have appealed to the NM Court of Appeals the Water Quality Control Commission’s approval of the water quality discharge permit for the mine. GRIP, Sierra Club, Percha Animas Watershed Association and several water rights holders are protesting the water rights transfer from Santa Teresa to the Copper Flat Mine. The New Mexico Environmental Law Center is representing GRIP and others in these cases that are still in process.
Appeal of BLM Approval of American Magnesium Dolomite Mine Pending
In September 2020, a coalition of conservation groups including GRIP appealed the Bureau of Land Management’s approval of a dolomite exploration and mining project in the Florida Mountains outside Deming. The BLM did not adequately evaluate and make public the potential for significant environmental and community impact from the full mine proposal including processing. The appeal is moving forward, but is still pending.
Malone Bronco Exploration Project Approved by Gila National Forest and State
The Gila National Forest and New Mexico Mining and Minerals Division (MMD) approved in July the Malone Bronco exploration project in the Burro Mountains. Drilling for copper, lead, zinc, gold and silver is proposed to take place on the east and west sides of Knight Peak, a popular recreation area between Silver City and Lordsburg. The project is estimated to disturb approximately 4.2 acres. Based on public comments, the Forest Service and MMD modified Bronco Creek Exploration’s operating plan and moved proposed drill sites out of drainages and overland routes were kept to a minimum. The company will begin exploration in early 2022.