Help Save A Special Place in New Mexico

ABQjournal: Colo. Company Wants to Drill, but Locals Say Mining Would Hurt Area Resources By Tania Soussan, Journal Staff Writer
[mjh: this is a long excerpt from a long article — both are worth your time.]

MONTICELLO BOX — Ribbons of water meander across the narrow valley floor, joining Alamosa Creek and flowing between towering volcanic cliffs and into the Monticello Valley.

The water is so clean Joshua Cravens scoops it up to drink from his hands and, without a thought, munches on wild watercress growing along the bank.

The complex of perennial springs that feeds the creek in this remote corner of southwest New Mexico is at the center of a debate over proposed mining exploration.

A Colorado company wants to drill on a nearby ranch in search of bertrandite that could be mined for beryllium, a rare metallic element used in everything from nuclear reactors to golf clubs.

Farmers and ranchers in the area are worried the drilling could pollute or diminish the flow of water they rely on to irrigate their orchards and fields. They also have raised concerns for three rare species and archaeological resources found around the springs.

“This affects a community,” said Cravens, who grows produce and rare seeds on an organic farm near Monticello. “We cannot let it happen.”

State officials also have raised concerns about impacts drilling could have on Alamosa Creek. …

Great Western Exploration LLC of Windsor, Colo., … has applied for a “minimal impact” permit to drill five 2,000-foot-deep exploratory holes and test the core samples for bertrandite ore. …

Earlier this year, Great Western applied to the state for a permit to drill 30 6-inch diameter holes in the same area. The request was turned down in April because concerns raised by state environment and wildlife officials about water contamination and rare species meant it did not qualify for a minimal impact permit.

The company could have reapplied for a regular permit? which requires public notification and greater scrutiny? but changed its proposal to five 4-inch-diameter holes with a closed-loop drilling system to minimize water loss. …

[I]f ground-water flows were disrupted or erosion controls failed, the impact could be “very significant,” the department said.

“The drill holes are likely to intercept near-surface groundwater,” conservation services chief Lisa Kirkparick wrote. “Groundwater connections in this canyon are complex and not thoroughly understood.”

The Environment Department said surface-water flows could be affected but added that direct impacts to ground water are unlikely if the drill holes are properly sealed. …

The exploration holes could contaminate the ground-water supply if they hit beryllium, or could drain water from the aquifer if they punch through a fault in the bedrock, Mackenzie said.

“By drilling 2,000 feet, you’re really playing Russian roulette with what you’re going to hit down there,” he said.

Beryllium? which can be extracted from bertrandite ore? is used as a metal in nuclear weapons and reactors, x-ray machines and space vehicles. As a metal alloy, it is used in cars, computers, dental bridges and golf clubs.

When airborne, beryllium dust can cause lung damage, lung cancer and other health problems, especially to workers and people living near mines, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.

There is not much research available on its effects in water. Some beryllium compounds dissolve but others stick to particles and settle.

“The research that is there says don’t mess with it,” Cravens said.

If Great Western finds high-quality ore that is economically recoverable, it or another company could apply for a mining permit. …

Great Western has active exploration permits for two other locations nearby in Sierra County; one is for 14 holes and one for 10. …

At the top of a low hill near the springs, a collection of stones and small shards of flaked stone mark an old Indian site. Similar sites are scattered across the area, and the adobe ruins of Fort Harmony are visible across the valley.

A state archaeologist has said it’s possible there are unmarked burials in the area where the drilling is planned.

Harlyn Geronimo, great-grandson of Chiricahua Apache leader Geronimo, said the springs and surrounding area are spiritually important to his people and were used by his great-grandfather as a place of prayer.

“That’s ancestral land,” he said in a telephone interview from his home in Mescalero. “Those places are very sacred to us. … How would they like it if we go into their church and start disturbing their church?”

Geronimo said he is worried about water contamination as well.

The warm springs and Alamosa Creek also are important to animals. They support the only known population of the Alamosa springsnail, one of two known populations of the ovate vertigo snail and the best remaining habitat in New Mexico for the Chiricahua leopard frog. All three are listed by the state or federal government as threatened or endangered species.

I had never heard of New Mexico’s Monticello Box until Merri and I stumbled upon it less than a year ago. It is a magical, unexpected place I hesitate to mention because being overrun with visitors ruins a spot. But not like mining does — so go there, while you can, before it is destroyed by greed.

Note the disingenuity of applying for fewer exploratory holes so as to try to escape some scrutiny. And the whole, hey, we’re only looking charade — when something is found, then the true destruction can begin.

A lot of people are very upset over the recent Supreme Court decision on eminent domain; many defend personal property rights over all others. But this mine is clearly against the public good. Go see for yourself. mjh

mjh’s slides: the Monticello Box in New Mexico

A personal note from an area resident, Mary Katherine Ray (I added the bold and italics):

Brace yourself, the area at the mouth of the box is in the permit process for a proposed open pit Beryllium mine. Yes, let us dewater the box, have a giant tailings pile to silt in what is left and spread beryllium ore dust all over. Let us have truck traffic and blasting and despoil what is today a magnificent place. All to enrich a single private land owner and the mining company that leases from him. If you are shuddering in horror at this point, that is entirely appropriate.

As far as I know, the Alamosa River is the only perennially flowing stream in the entire San Mateo mountains. The water and land around the springs belongs to the Monticello Ditch Association, but the road through there is a county road and public use is allowed. The ditch association is actually a 150 year old acequia that today comprises about 30 farms downstream that depend on the water. The proposed mine site is on private land that starts about a third of a mile to the south of the box. Open pit mines are notorious for dewatering an area. Hydrology reports show ground water at only 50 feet. Once that gets punched through, it begins to drain away into the pit. There is another layer of ground water at 500 feet and somehow that gets mixed with deep geothermally hot water to come out warm. The ore that is present is Bertrandite. The deposit initially is appearing big enough and rich enough to be worth millions. Beryllium has become a strategic metal used in atomic bombs and nuclear reactors. It is also used in many electronic devices because it is lightweight and strong and an excellent conductor. I don’t know how toxic the mineral is, but the metal dust and many of its salts are deadly. There is a concern that ore dust might be problematic.

So I’m wondering if you might write a letter to the director of NM Minerals and Mining to protest the permitting of the mine including the exploratory core samples. (they are asking to drill several 2000 foot deep cores prior to starting the pit. Tourism is important in NM. … Here is the address:

Bill Brancard, Director (email:
Mining and Minerals Division
1220 South Saint Francis Drive
Santa Fe, NM 87505

mjh’s slides: the Monticello Box in New Mexico

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