Court upholds regulations for pollution from copper mines

Judges gavel

ALBUQUERQUE (AP) – The state Court of Appeals has upheld regulations that govern groundwater pollution by copper mines.

The regulations do not violate the state’s Water Quality Act as alleged by a former state attorney general, environmentalists and a ranch owned by billionaire mogul Ted Turner, the court wrote in a ruling this week.

New Mexico Environment Department Secretary Ryan Flynn has said the regulations are among the most stringent of any copper-producing state in the West and strike the right balance between protecting water and allowing for economic development. They include new engineering requirements for handling leftover rock, leach piles, tanks and pipelines.

“Our role as an agency is to make sure we’re protecting our natural resources and protecting our environment,” Flynn said in an interview. “It’s not to put people out of business.”

Watchdog groups and Turner’s Ladder Ranch had argued that the regulations give mining companies too much leeway to pollute groundwater. The appellate court said those claims are unfounded.

Rachel Conn with Amigos Bravos said the groups are weighing a challenge to the ruling. She said New Mexico’s groundwater should be better protected, especially in a time of prolonged drought.

“We think that the court got it wrong on a number of issues,” she said. “We think the rule does not protect New Mexico’s groundwater. It creates sacrifice zones. It’s an industry wish list.”

The appellate court rejected a bid last year to put the regulations on hold while it considered an appeal.

Former Attorney General Gary King had been among opponents of the rule. A spokesman for current Attorney General Hector Balderas, James Hallinan, said he is reviewing the ruling.

The Legislature amended the Water Quality Act in 2009 to allow a commission to adopt regulations in the copper industry to prevent water pollution and monitor water quality. Flynn said the Water Quality Control Commission, which is attached administratively to his department, greatly expanded on what was a four-page rule governing the industry.

The commission approved lengthy regulations in September 2013 after hearing days of testimony, holding public meetings and reviewing volumes of information.

Flynn said he’s confident the regulations will survive further court challenges.

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