By SUSAN MONTOYA BRYAN
ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) â¿¿ A battle is brewing over how to best protect groundwater at mining sites around New Mexico.
The state Environment Department said Tuesday the rules it has proposed would be the most stringent of any copper producing state in the West, including Arizona, Nevada and Utah. They include new engineering requirements for handling left-over rock, leach piles, tanks and pipelines.
"This idea that we've somehow lowered our standards or created a safe haven for polluters is completely untrue," said Ryan Flynn, general counsel for the department. "We've actually raised the bar."
The proposed rules have the support of New Mexico's copper mining industry, but environmentalists argue that the state stands to take a step back if the rules are approved by the state's Water Quality Control Commission.
Environmentalists accuse the department of giving in to the industry despite months of stakeholder meetings. Attorney General Gary King has also come out in opposition, saying the proposed rules would violate state water protection laws.
"For 35 years, the law of the land in New Mexico has been you protect groundwater quality. Now, what will be happening is mining companies get to use groundwater as essentially a dumping ground. They don't have to prevent pollution," said Allyson Siwik of the Silver City-based Gila Resources Information Project.
The water commission on Tuesday began what is expected to be a monthlong hearing. A final decision isn't likely until the summer, and experts say legal action will likely follow.
The proposed rules stem from legislation approved in 2009 that sought more consistent rules for regulating groundwater affected by copper mining. Last year, mining representatives, state environment officials and environmental groups attended nearly two dozen meetings to discuss the rules and the department hired an independent contractor to develop a draft.