“As communities throughout the state are confronted by the critical impacts of long-term drought, it is irresponsible to allow mining companies to pollute groundwater that is needed by everyone.”
Allyson Siwik, GRIP Executive Director.
SANTA FE, N.M. — In a case that will set precedent for how the State of New Mexico protects water at industrial sites, the state Supreme Court has scheduled oral arguments in the “Copper Rule” case for September 28, 2016.
The Copper Rule is a regulation adopted by the New Mexico Water Quality Control Commission (WQCC) to regulate groundwater contamination by the copper mining industry. It is the first regulation since the state’s adoption of its Water Quality Act in 1967 that allows an entire industry to intentionally pollute groundwater. The Copper Rule was largely written by mining giant Freeport McMoRan, and adopted in October 2013.
The state’s high court has been asked to set aside the Rule and require the WQCC to adopt a regulation that protects groundwater quality from copper mine contamination.
“As communities throughout the state are confronted by the critical impacts of long-term drought, it is irresponsible to allow mining companies to pollute groundwater that is needed by everyone,” says Allyson Siwik, Gila Resources Information Project (GRIP), Executive Director. “This is a precedent setting case and we look forward to presenting oral arguments before the New Mexico Supreme Court. It’s critical that the integrity of our Water Quality Act is restored in order to protect groundwater for all of us, now and in the future.”
With the Copper Rule in place, copper mines are written off by regulators as “sacrifice zones,” with mining companies like Freeport-McMoRan, Inc. no longer required to prevent metals and acids from leaking into and contaminating groundwater. (This pollution is similar to the waste spilled into the Animas River by the Gold King mine in 2015.) Once copper mine pollution is released into aquifers, mining companies will be relied upon to contain and “pump and treat” the contaminated water for centuries. (Please see chart of how the Copper Rule changed regulatory oversight and corporate compliance for water quality at copper mines.)
After a contentious 2 year process, public interest groups, along with the New Mexico Attorney General and others, appealed the WQCC ruling in late 2013. The Rule is being defended by private attorneys hired by the WQCC, as well as the New Mexico Environment Department (NMED) and Freeport-McMoRan, Inc.
If not overturned, the Copper Rule could set dangerous policy precedent for hundreds of other facilities that may pollute ground water in New Mexico, including wastewater treatment plants, national laboratories and manufacturing facilities. In fact, in a recently discovered document labeled “Hit list for Regulation Changes” produced by Ground Water Quality Bureau staffers at NMED, the Copper Rule was cited as a model for how to ease the permitting of polluting facilities and reduce opportunities for public participation.
“What the administration has done sets a very dangerous precedent. By gutting the historic (and correct) interpretation of the New Mexico Water Quality Act, it opens up the gates for other industries to seek similar ‘license to pollute,” says Joe Zupan, Executive Director of Amigos Bravos.
The Copper Rule has been challenged by several entities since it was proposed in 2013. The appellants in this case are:
The appellants are concerned about the unprecedented decision by the State to give an entire industry license to pollute groundwater – a water source on which more than 8 in 10 New Mexicans rely as a source of drinking water. The public-interest New Mexico Environmental Law Center is representing Amigos Bravos, GRIP and Turner Ranch Properties in the case before the Supreme Court.
“Water is constitutionally protected in New Mexico and belongs to the public,” says Douglas Meiklejohn, Executive Director of the New Mexico Environmental Law Center. “We are asking the Supreme Court Justices to tell state decision-makers in no uncertain terms that they do not have discretion to allow the wholesale sacrifice of the public’s water supply for any industry.”
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