QUESTA, N.M. – The state has turned down Molycorp’s challenge to New Mexico’s authority to regulate ground water contamination beneath the company’s molybdenum mine here.
The Water Quality Control Commission on Tuesday ruled Molycorp missed – by four years – a deadline to oppose controls on the contamination.
The ruling means the state will move ahead with a plan to control ground water pollution at Molycorp. The discharge plan will require Molycorp to map the spread of toxins in its aquifer and estimate what portion is due to the mine. Molycorp would be responsible for cleaning up any mine-related contamination.
The company argued that contamination of the aquifer and the Red River at Questa is natural, due to erosion of the same volcanic rock the company mines for molybdenum, a substance used to harden steel.
“The river is as contaminated as it’s going to be before it reaches the mine,” Molycorp attorney Richard Schwartz told commissioners. “This natural contamination has been going on for a millenia.”
“In our view, there isn’t a public health hazard,” he said.
State water regulators and environmentalists contend Molycorp’s huge waste rock piles caused an acidic soup of metals to trickle into nearby ground water. Springs and seeps, they say, release the tainted ground water into the Red River.
State law exempts pollution from mine waste piles from clean water rules unless the state’s top environmental regulator finds it poses a health hazard.
In January 1995, former Environmental Secretary Mark Weidler found levels of fluoride and cadmium in Molycorp’s portion of the aquifer exceeded state drinking water standards.
Environmental Department spokesman Nathan Wade said similar levels of contamination persist today.
Molycorp did not oppose the 1995 finding because the mine was closed at the time, Schwartz said.
When the mine is closed, contaminated water could indeed collect in the bottom of the mine and perhaps seep into the aquifer, he said. But when the mine is open, pumps carry contaminated water to the surface, where Molycorp uses it to process ore.
The village of Questa, population 1,700, draws drinking water from elsewhere in the aquifer.
The river for miles downstream of Molycorp cannot sustain the natural trout population it once was known for.
“I’ve lived here all my life, and that river just gets murkier,” said former Molycorp worker Joe Cisneros, a critic of the company, told the water commission.
Since 1993, Molycorp wells have shown as much as 28 times the ground water standard for fluoride. The wells also show up to 47 times the standard for cadmium, a toxic metal whose long-term exposure is linked to kidney and heart disease, skeletal weakening and harm to the body’s ability to fight illness.