State officials tout Terrero Mine remediation as example to follow in Gold King cleanup

Waste left behind after the Terrero Mine closed contaminated the Pecos River, killed thousands of fish, buried Willow Creek and led federal environmental officials to declare the area a Superfund site. Staci Matlock/New Mexican file photo

State lawmakers heard an update Thursday on a local mine cleanup success story from an Environment Department official as they grapple with the aftermath of the Gold King Mine spill.

From 1927 to 1939, the Terrero Mine and its mill near the Pecos River were among the most productive lead and zinc operations in the United States. But, as was the case with other mines scattered around the state, a waste pile was left behind after the Terrero Mine closed. That waste contaminated the Pecos River, killed thousands of fish, buried Willow Creek and led federal environmental officials to declare the area a Superfund site.

The worst of the contaminants from the Terrero Mine were cleaned up and contained, Dennis McQuillan of the New Mexico Environment Department said during a presentation Thursday to state lawmakers on the Radioactive and Hazardous Waste Committee. But it took a few disasters — like the heavy snowmelt in 1991 that washed contaminants into the river and fish kills all the way to the Lisboa Springs hatchery 11 miles downstream — to make the cleanup happen.

The committee was seeking an update on Terrero and some insight into how the recent spill from the closed Gold King Mine in southwestern Colorado into the Animas and San Juan rivers might affect New Mexico in the years ahead. The lawmakers also were looking for possible options to protect the state’s resources.

It took decades and millions of dollars to clean up the Terrero Mine and the nearby El Molino mill, where the mined rock was processed. Terrero is just one of 15,000 mine “features” — mines, tunnels, waste piles and more — that the state or federal government has had to monitor, clean up and close.

A 2008 report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office estimated there are 161,000 abandoned hard-rock mine sites across 12 Western states and Alaska. About 33,000 of those mines and their waste are leaking toxic chemicals into surface or groundwater, according to the GAO. From 1997 to 2008, federal agencies spent $2.6 billion cleaning up abandoned mines and their spills.

Only a handful of mines in New Mexico present the kind of expensive, toxic environmental risk of Terrero or the Gold King mine, say state officials. The other features, such as mine shafts, present ongoing risks to people tempted to explore them.

High levels of lead and zinc from the mine waste at Terrero made its way into fish and small wildlife. Their tissue tested near the limit above which it would be unsafe for people to eat them, McQuillan said. The flow of anglers, campers and other outdoor recreationists dried up — a downfall for the village of Pecos.

New Mexico bought the Terrero Mine and El Molino sites decades ago.

Local residents and the state were reluctant to embrace the Superfund designation. McQuillan told the committee that a report at the time found the community wanted a Superfund level of cleanup without the perceived costs and delays of a Superfund site.

The mining company signed a consent order with the state in 1992. While the company, Cyprus Amax Minerals Co., and its successors, Phelps Dodge and then Freeport-McMoRan, have paid 80 percent of the cleanup costs, the state has been on the hook for the other 20 percent.

In 2006, the federal Environmental Protection Agency settled a lawsuit with Cyprus Amax over the Terrero Mine and collected $212,000 in cleanup costs.

While mine companies sometimes help with a cleanup — as in the case of the Terrero Mine — in other cases, the state or federal government has been left with the hefty price tag and responsibility for the cleanup — as is the case with Colorado’s Gold King Mine. While Environmental Protection Agency employees were conducting work at the mine in August, it spilled more than 3 million gallons of a contaminated water into a creek feeding into the Animas River. The mine had been abandoned in the 1920s. It was left to the federal government to monitor and clean up the mine, but in 2012, reports said local residents, like those near Terrero, didn’t support turning it into a Superfund site.

In other cases, as mines change ownership, taxpayers can sometimes end up facing a liability they didn’t know existed. Energy Future Holdings Corp., the biggest power company in Texas, is arguing with the federal government in bankruptcy court over how to restructure the company’s debt. The company’s plan includes abandoning the cleanup of abandoned uranium mines in Northwestern New Mexico owned by a subsidiary, according to a recent story in the Texas Tribune. The U.S. Department of Justice has objected to the plan on behalf of the EPA.

With regard to the Terrero Mine, state Rep. Nick Salazar, D-Ohkay Owingeh, told McQuillan that “it is taking an awfully long time to clean this up.”

McQuillan acknowledged it takes decades to clean up mine sites. Still, he said, “Contamination from the mine site has been drastically reduced since remediation.”

Those actions included digging out and stabilizing the mill tailings. Mine waste that spilled into Willow Creek was removed and the streambed reconstructed. Mine shafts were closed, and the old mine waste pile was reclaimed with vegetation.

Water tests in 2010 showed almost no instances where water in Willow Creek near the Pecos River exceeded water quality standards for zinc or cadmium, according to McQuillan. No fish deaths attributable to the Terrero Mine have happened since 1991, he told the committee.

Contact Staci Matlock at 986-3055 or smatlock@sfnewmexican.com. Follow her on Twitter @StaciMatlock.

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