A unanimous decision Jan. 8 by the Water Quality Control Commission (WQCC) to maintain the so-called Copper Rule will allow Freeport-McMoRan Copper & Gold Inc. to pollute ground water within a nine-square-mile area of the Tyrone Mine, according to Bruce Frederick, staff attorney with the New Mexico Environmental Law Center.

"The Copper Rule makes a bad situation worse," Frederick said.

The Copper Rules was passed last year to amend the Water Quality Control Act of 1977, which prohibits groundwater pollution beyond water quality standards. For more than 30 years, this has kept New Mexico's ground water relatively safe to drink. That could soon change, advocates said.

"The whole state's water is at risk," conservationist group Amigos Bravos Projects Director Rachel Conn said. "Since the Copper Rule's been adopted, the dairy industry and other industries want to have the same ability to change ground water standards."

The mining and dairy industries began lobbying the New Mexico Legislature a few years ago to revise the rules, according to Conn. Under the Water Quality Control Act, in order to pollute the ground water, each company had to apply for a variance — a lengthy process with no certainty of success. In addition, every industry had to adhere to the same set of regulations, Conn said. The mining and dairy industries wanted industry-specific regulations and they wanted to streamline the permitting process.

The industry got what it wanted last year when the Copper Rule was adopted. A request to stay the rule was rejected last month.

Eric Kinneberg, external communications director for Freeport-McMoRan, praised the decision to maintain the Copper Rule, and contended it is more stringent that what was previously in place.

"Freeport-McMoRan is pleased that the WQCC unanimously denied the request to delay the implementation of the Copper Rules," Kinneberg said through an emailed statement. "The WQCC cleared the way for the New Mexico Environment Department to renew the existing discharge permits. We are prepared to implement the Copper Rules' more stringent water protection requirements and appreciate the predictability and consistency the new rules represent for potential expanded operations."

Kinneberg denied conservationists' claims that the Copper Rule will allow for greater pollution.

"The Copper Rules were crafted by the New Mexico Environment Department with input from an advisory committee that considered the views of other government agencies, academics, environmental groups, scientific experts and industry," he said. "The process allowed all viewpoints to be considered and the Environment Department ultimately balanced these differing viewpoints and carefully considered the scientific and technical evidence supplied by the participants in crafting the rule. The Copper Rules establish detailed construction, design, monitoring, and closure requirements for new mining facilities as well as for the expansion of existing facilities, which were not specified by previous regulations or in discharge permits. As a result, the new rules replace an unpredictable system of permitting with consistent, enforceable measures that are expected to reduce impacts to groundwater at all New Mexico copper mining facilities."

Conn agreed that the group originally formed in 2012 was well balanced, with experts on both sides. But that group was drastically changed before the final rule was adopted, she said.

"We were really pleasantly surprised," Conn said. "The advisory committee of NMED staff and experts recommended rules that were a step forward."

But according to Conn, the situation changed while the new rules were still being drafted.

"The rules were changed and gutted by political appointees in NMED," Conn said. "It became vastly different."

Source: Silver City Sun-News - see full article