GRIP, Freeport show collaboration at mine plan hearing

Written by on July 26, 2019

At a public hearing Wednesday on the Chino Mine Closure/Closeout Plan, staff from the Mining and Minerals Division of the New Mexico Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department were visibly surprised to find a large contingent of mining advocates dressed in “Make/Keep America Great Again” gear waiting to make public comment. The hearing was the first on the Chino plan since 2001, according to Allyson Siwik, executive director of the Gila Resources Information Project — or GRIP — which requested it.

The hearing was turned into an event with an outsized audience largely by a local right-wing political group that organizes through Facebook. The Grant County Patriots group has shown up to promote their views at other events since forming in February of this year. For example, the group helped organize supporters in February when the Grant County Commission — at a meeting attended by more than 700 people — considered a resolution to declare Grant County a “Second Amendment sanctuary county” and oppose gun legislation that was being considered by legislators in Santa Fe.

Group founder and chief administrator Mary Walker took time ahead of the meeting to tell the Daily Press about the group’s mission. 

“We’ve got 970 members,” she said, “in 32 of 33 New Mexico counties.” 

She said the group takes a stand against abortion, too. 

Gavin Clarkson, a New Mexico State University business professor and former Trump official who wants to take over U.S. Sen. Tom Udall’s seat when Udall retires after the 2020 election, jumped into the conversation, speaking for the group. 

“We want to combat the false narrative that miners are polluting the planet,” he said. “Mining jobs are good jobs — soon the only jobs left are going to be window-washing solar panels. And we’ve got to stop allowing abortions up to the day of birth.”

Grant County Commissioners Harry Browne and Billy Billings attended the event, as did local Republican Party member Luis Terrazas. Terrazas has declared his intention to run against District 39 state Rep. Rudy Martinez in the 2020 election. 

“Currently, the mine is not heading for closure,” Terrazas told the Daily Press. “This is a process where people can express their feelings and their concerns. I support transparency and discussion.”

After a presentation by Chino Mine operator Freeport-McMoRan — in which the company specifically told the assembled audience “this is not a plan to close the mine” — some in the audience began to drift out of the room and even leave altogether, despite many having signed up to testify during public comment. 

Those who stuck around heard both Freeport representatives and Jim Kuipers, an expert on mine reclamation who spoke on behalf of GRIP, talk of the collaborative effort they had made in order to come up with a mutually satisfying closure/closeout plan for Chino. It appeared that many in the audience were surprised to hear that Freeport-McMoRan and GRIP were working together.

The reclamation plan now allows Freeport to provide a portion of the guaranteed cleanup cost in cash, but the rest is simply a “corporate guarantee” by the company — essentially a promise by the company to pay. GRIP has repeatedly warned that a corporate guarantee would fail the community if the company that runs the mine were to go bankrupt, leaving local, state and federal governments on the hook for the cleanup. 

That was the main issue at stake for Wednesday’s hearing, although some on social media tried to refocus attention on a factually inaccurate claim that GRIP wanted to “close the mine.” 

“We hope they mine every scrap of copper out of the mine,” Siwik said during a heated series of questions from a hostile audience. 

GRIP has long advocated for more stringent regulations on mining in Grant County, such as ending the Copper Rule that eases water quality standards; GRIP also strongly advocates for forcing mine operator Freeport-McMoRan to provide a cash surety as a guarantee for mine cleanup when the mine closes. 

“If they don’t adopt our recommendation on the financial assurance, we’re not going to protest it,” Siwik said.

GRIP helped include increased protections for groundwater, air quality, wildlife and area quality of life in the closeout plan. Based on Freeport’s statements at the meeting, the company appreciated the input of the environmental group, and adopted many of GRIP’s suggestions.

After a short break, during which even more of the audience left, a series of increasingly radical viewpoints were espoused by speakers, all of whom had to swear an oath to “tell the truth, the whole truth, so help you God.”

Some of the speakers led their testimony by giving their generational standing, i.e., how many generations back they could trace their lineage in Grant County. One man told those on the side of GRIP (presumably, since testimony was supposed to be directed at the hearing officer) to “stop trying to help us.” Another said, “Go back to California, or back East — where you came from.”

One older woman, wearing a MAGA hat, testified that “alcohol and cigarettes make people sick, the mine doesn’t make people sick. I used to play in the tailings piles when I was a kid — and I’m alive — I’m fine.”

Frances Gonzales, a Native American and resident of Bayard who often provides input at public meetings, took exception to the above comment. Gonzales gave her perspective on the updated closure/closeout plan during her testimony.

“My father worked in copper mining for over 45 years and died of metastatic lung cancer,” she began. “There is no need to be divisive. But in the not-too-distant past, the Whitewater Creek cleanup was approved — to be cleaned in 1984. Finally — now, in 2019 — it’s being cleaned up,” she said. “My point is the need for regulations. And let’s not forget the town of Hurley having to have their dirt cleaned because of the smokestacks.

“The financial assurance needs to be in cash, not a third-party, corporate guarantee. There shouldn’t be a brand of crisis like seen earlier this year, when Freeport-McMoRan acted like they were going to go broke over [state] legislation requiring other than a third-party guarantee,” Gonzales continued. “In the end, our communities deserve clean water, land and good community stewardship. Let’s continue to work together.”

Mining and Minerals Division staff declined to speak to the Daily Press on the record, but said such hearings are usually sparsely attended and are “fairly routine.” At its height, attendance during the combination open house and public hearing swelled to roughly 200 people, many of whom intended to testify during the public comment portion of the hearing. One member of the staff was heard to say there were “probably about 10 people” in the audience at the last hearing held by the agency.

The question as to whether Freeport would accept the recommendation by GRIP to include a cash surety as the entire financial assurance in the closeout plan hung in the air as the meeting drew to a close. Since the Mining and Minerals Division only makes sure the plan adheres to what’s mandated in the 1993 New Mexico Mining Act — which allows for a portion of the financial assurance to be in the form of a corporate guarantee — it would be up to Freeport to institute an entirely cash-based guarantee.

Dalva Moellenberg, an attorney for Freeport, told the Daily Press, “There’s already $130 million in a trust fund as part of the financial assurance — compare that to the $212 million proposed by GRIP.” 

Moellenberg wouldn’t say whether Freeport would increase the cash portion to the amount GRIP suggested. 

“The agency will decide that — and don’t forget that the [New Mexico] Environment Department also has a say — but the company will make a proposal on the guarantee,” he said. “Hopefully the plan will be approved before the end of the year.”

—GEOFFREY PLANT

(Press Staff Photo by Geoffrey Plant)  Mary Walker (center) is the chief administrator and founder of the Grant County Patriots, a conservative group that supports mining and Second Amendment rights and opposes abortion. The group came out in force to show their support for mining mega corporation Freeport-McMoRan during a public hearing on the reclamation plan that has to be in place to address the eventual closure of the chino mine.

(Press Staff Photo by Geoffrey Plant)
Mary Walker (center) is the chief administrator and founder of the Grant County Patriots, a conservative group that supports mining and Second Amendment rights and opposes abortion. The group came out in force to show their support for mining mega corporation Freeport-McMoRan during a public hearing on the reclamation plan that has to be in place to address the eventual closure of the chino mine.

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