SILVER CITY, N.M. (AP) – New Mexico’s attorney general and environmentalists want the state’s highest court to review an appellate court’s upholding of regulations that govern groundwater pollution by copper mines.
Attorney General Hector Balderas and several watchdog groups have filed a petition asking the state Supreme Court to weigh in on a previous ruling maintaining the “copper rule.” The regulations, which were approved in September 2013, allow mining companies to exceed water-quality standards at mining sites. This includes new engineering requirements for handling leftover rock, leach piles, tanks and pipelines.
The Supreme Court could decide any day whether to hear the case or dismiss the petition. If the panel reviews the case, a final decision could take years.
Clean-water advocates say the regulations give copper-producing companies too much leeway to pollute groundwater.
“The copper rule flies in the face of the Water Quality Act,” said Douglas Meiklejohn, a New Mexico Environmental Law Center attorney representing the advocacy groups. “(The act) says that the Water Quality Control Commission must make regulations ‘to prevent or abate’ water pollution. This doesn’t do that. This allows water pollution.”
The state Court of Appeals ruled in April that the regulations do not violate the state’s Water Quality Act. In its ruling, the court said the claims made by environmentalists and a ranch owned by billionaire media mogul Ted Turner were unfounded.
Supporters of the copper rule say overturning the rule at this point could threaten the state’s copper industry, the Albuquerque Journal reported (http://bit.ly/1edY6Ys). Copper mining is estimated to provide about 1,500 jobs and have an economic impact of $326 million in the state, according to an industry website.
New Mexico Environment Secretary Ryan Flynn, who serves as chairman of the Water Quality Control Commission, said the copper rule does not give mining companies free reign to pollute groundwater. He said, if anything, the copper rule is a “more practical approach.”
“You are going to have exceedances (of pollution) at discrete locations,” he said. “To take this overly formalistic interpretation that you can’t issue a permit if there are exceedances – then what that means is you can’t mine for copper in New Mexico.”
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.