ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) - The Environment Department on Tuesday said the future of mining in the state will be hanging in the balance as New Mexico’s highest court reviews regulations that govern groundwater pollution by copper mines.
The court’s decision to take the case was made public Tuesday, almost a month after Attorney General Hector Balderas and environmentalists filed petitions asking the court to weigh in.
The rules were initially approved by state water regulators in September 2013. Opponents argued that the regulations violated the state Water Quality Control Act in addition to giving mining companies too much leeway to pollute groundwater.
The Environment Department has argued that the regulations are among the most stringent of any copper-producing state in the West and strike a balance between protecting water and allowing for economic development.
The department said it welcomed the court’s review.
“Make no mistake, the future of mining in New Mexico hangs in the balance,” the agency said in a statement. “If the positions of the extremist environmental groups and the attorney general were to be adopted, the mining industry would effectively die in New Mexico.”
The attorney general, environmental groups and a ranch owned by billionaire mogul Ted Turner challenged the regulations, but the state Court of Appeals rejected their claims in a ruling issued in April.
Doug Meiklejohn, executive director of the New Mexico Environmental Law Center, said it’s an important issue given that 9 out of 10 New Mexicans rely on groundwater sources for their drinking water. “The Supreme Court thinks enough of the issue that it wants to take a closer look at it,” he said.
Meiklejohn said his clients aren’t looking to stop copper mining but rather want to ensure that it does not pollute groundwater.
The Legislature amended the Water Quality Act in 2009 to allow the Water Quality Control Commission to adopt regulations for the copper industry to prevent water pollution and monitor water quality.
Supporters have said the commission expanded on what was previously a four-page rule governing the industry. The lengthy regulations now include engineering requirements for handling leftover rock, leach piles, tanks and pipelines.
The commission approved the regulations after hearing days of testimony, holding public meetings and reviewing volumes of information.
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