Mining needs constant vigilance

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By The Staff

Mining underpins our way of life. Nature may be the champion excavator, if one considers sculpted peaks and canyons. But with man-made mines like the Berkeley pit in Butte, Mont., man gets an “A” for effort. And then too, mines linger on, because they are frequently not adequately cleaned up afterward, even in violation of regulations and statutes.

The Jemez Mountains were mined until recently, partly because of national vanity. In the 1980s, when Don Johnson starred in “Miami Vice,” laundry pumice was used to stonewash denim clothing. In 1992, domestic laundry-pumice sales maxed out at an estimated $15,000,000.  

Because the mineral was “valuable,” the laundry-pumice mines took on the same legal status as gold – the formal term is “locatable” – under the 1872 Mining Law, which frustrates modern mining law and spawns bad actors. No royalties are paid by 1872-Law mines.

Times change. Putting rocks in washing machines was of dubious utility and enzymes beat out stonewashing. In the early ’90s, the 58,000-acre Jemez National Recreation Area (JNRA), consisting of riparian corridors within the Santa Fe National Forest, was sponsored by then-Rep. Bill Richardson. In this special district all new mines other than 1872-Law mines are prohibited.

In 2002, Copar Pumice, a local company with claims under the 1872 law, settled with the government, restricting its mining to laundry pumice, which is coarser than regular pumice. Copar’s (laundry-pumice, JNRA) El Cajete mine closed in November 2007, and, as will be seen, now we can all rest easier.

Today, there’s no mining in the JNRA. Most clothing is now imported, and a recent market analysis performed for the U.S. Forest Service indicates that laundry pumice yields negligible premium. This is why, in 2008, Copar provisionally lost the claims in the vicinity of El Cajete, pending an Interior Department hearing.

Thus, new 1872-Law pumice mines in the JNRA are unlikely, and all claims in the JNRA are accordingly un-mineable. Since 1994, 1872-Law land grabbing (“patenting”) has been suspended. The 1872 Law, itself, faces revocation, thanks to Rep. Rayhall (HR 699) and Sen. Jeff Bingaman (S 796).

Copar’s longstanding operations in the Jemez earned considerable odium, not least for causing a hazard with their contracted haul trucks that seemed to have trouble staying on their side of the double yellow lines. I experienced this firsthand, narrowly avoiding an unseen and unheard, oncoming pumice truck, barreling around a blind curve while straddling the double yellow line – only because I was on a Harley.

Safety issues continue to fall through the cracks, despite a notable effort by the Los Alamos County Council and a collaboration of the county public works department and state transportation department to provide better signage. It would be helpful if USFS tasked their patrolmen with enforcement of commercial traffic resulting from their permits (or arrange this with other agencies).

Non-1872-Law mines, such as common-variety pumice mines, are subject to modern mining laws. Such mines are permissible in the Santa Fe National Forest – excluding the JNRA. Unlike 1872-Law mines, these new mines “should not be detrimental to the public interest (U.S. Code),” aiming, for example, to bar questionable operators.

Two new, common-variety pumice mines were recently proposed on USFS, non-JNRA land near Ponderosa. Boone-Duran was proposed for the Utility Block Company, which is considered a scrupulous corporation.

The South-pit expansion was proposed for Copar. But at Copar’s El Cajete mine, for instance, the New Mexico Environmental Department assessed more than $200K of fines and there were numerous USFS Notices of Noncompliance, as well as intervention by the USFS criminal unit (4/07) and a morass of litigation.

In November 2007, public comments were recorded on the draft environmental study for the new mine proposed by Copar. Jemez Pueblo’s governor and elders weighed in against both proposals, based on their traditional land uses, and their sovereign-nation status has sidetracked these proposals.

In summary, we can expect more mining and logging proposals on public lands in the Jemez, and whenever asked, the public should weigh in. The National Environmental Protection Act process, for example, involves public commentary. This is where a detrimental proposal can be exposed, and the experience of the Pajarito group of the Sierra Club can be counted on to make a valuable contribution to public discussions.

We thank the USFS for going the extra mile for us, but the greater the public involvement, the better the outcome. One way to stay informed is to ask Mike Dechter of the Jemez Ranger District (mdechter@fs.fed.us) to add you to an email list for the Jemez.

David Torney is with the Pajarito Group of the Sierra Club.