Chevron Questa Mine (legacy)
Welcome to the Amigos Bravos Molycorp Watch Project!
The environmental and health issues surrounding the Molycorp mine in northern New Mexico are extremely varied and complex. Consequently, this web site is also relatively large and complex. Our goal, however, is to present these issues in a manner that is both comprehensive and easy to understand. Public understanding of the issues, despite their complexity, has proven to be essential in the progress made so far to hold Molycorp accountable.
Molycorp, Inc., a wholly-owned subsidiary of Chevron, mines molybdenum ("moly") a few miles east of Questa, New Mexico. Molybdenum is a metal found in various oxidation states within minerals. The free element, which is a silvery metal with a gray cast, has the sixth-highest melting point of any element. It readily forms hard, stable carbides in alloys, and for this reason most of world production of the element is in making many types of steel alloys, including high strength alloys and superalloys.
The mine dates back to the 1920's. In 1965, Molycorp began open pit operations. In 1983, it returned to underground mining. The mine was permanently closed in 2014. The pit, and 360 millions tons of acid-generating waste rock excavated from it, now scar more than a thousand acres of the landscape between Questa and the town of Red River.
Due to environmentally reckless operations, the Molycorp molybdenum mine was placed on the National Priorities List (Superfund) by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in May 2000.
The pit and the waste rock dumps (WRDs) were left un-reclaimed when open pit operations ceased. These sites continue to release huge quantities of heavy metals and other minerals which are dissolved when the rock is exposed to rain and snow. This acidic mine drainage percolates through the rock and infiltrates both surface and groundwater, thus contaminating drinking water wells in the area and overwhelming the ability of the Red River to maintain a viable ecosystem.†
Mining waste that remains after extraction of molybdenum ore is mixed with water to create a slurry and transported via a tailings pipeline to tailings ponds in Questa. The pipeline runs approximately 8 miles, crossing the Red River in several places. It also crosses through or near private farming land and residential property on its way to the tailings ponds. This pipeline has ruptured over 100 times, spilling its toxins into the river and onto farmland and residential property, resulting in the killing of aquatic plants and animals, damage to agriculture, and possible contamination of drinking water wells. Toxic tailings deposits, the result of pipeline breaks, remain throughout the Red River valley.
The pipeline eventually deposits waste slurry from the mine in the tailing ponds. Water from the tailings ponds percolate into the groundwater. As a result, drinking water wells located below the ponds have been contaminated. By its own admission, Molycorp cannot control the groundwater contamination from its tailings ponds.
The dry tailings sediment is so fine that wind easily picks it up and distributes tailings dust over large areas of Questa.
These are the major environmental and health issues now confronting the mine, the people of Questa, the New Mexico Environment Department (NMED) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Amigos Bravos is working with federal and state regulatory agencies, community and other public interest organizations, and concerned individuals to hold the mine accountable for its pollution of the environment and to restore a healthy ecology to the Red River watershed.
* The mine has had a tumultuous history of closures due to union strikes and, particularly, the volatile economics of the molybdenum market.
†According to a recent New Mexico Water Quality Control Commission Report to the US Congress: "For several miles at and below Molycorp, the sheer volume of steady-state metal-loaded drainage seeping out of mine waste dumps and old underground workings overwhelms the river and has rendered it dead for at least eight miles."
Amigos Bravos developed the Molycorp Watch Project as a long-term extension and expansion of its 1995 Clean Water Act lawsuit against the Molycorp molybdenum mine. Molycorp Watch brings the combined power of citizen action and expert testimony to state and federal regulatory negotiations and public hearings regarding the mine. Amigos Bravos has developed a long-term strategy which includes both Outreach and Technical initiatives:
The Outreach Initiative has consisted of a series of meetings and workshops to develop a community vision of a healthy Red River, identify action steps to accomplish that vision, and train citizen activists to present technical testimony and conduct cross-examination at public hearings. This initiative has provided community members with a sense of authority and ownership of the struggle to protect their environment. While Molycorp Watch does rely on professional technical expertise, as described below, it is the people who live by the river who are in the best position to fight for its protection over the long haul. By developing the knowledge and expertise of its own members on a variety of topics pertinent to the hearing processes, Amigos Bravos is also building a living library of information that the community can continue to access in the years ahead.
The Technical Initiative brought together a team of scientific and legal experts to provide critical technical support for citizen activists. This team is made up of several individuals Amigos Bravos has worked with before who have the professional expertise to:
- Conduct the necessary research and provide expert testimony at hearings
- Negotiate with Molycorp and regulatory agencies to advocate for the best possible reclamation plan
- Monitor ongoing mining impacts
- Develop a long-term strategy to hold Molycorp accountable for its impacts to the river and the community
Amigos Bravos envisions Molycorp Watch as a model program for other communities needing to become more sophisticated "players" in the corporate-bureaucratic permitting and hearing process. Providing community activists and concerned citizens with the training to develop and present their own technical testimony at hearings increases their ability to advocate on their own behalf and to challenge corporate stonewalling with scientific knowledge and a thorough understanding of the issues.
The degraded condition of the river has been documented by the New Mexico Environment Department (NMED) and other federal and state organizations for at least a decade. Acute levels of toxic metals including aluminum, copper, zinc, lead, cadmium, and silver have been recorded in the twenty-mile reach between the river's confluence with Placer Creek and its confluence with the Río Grande, a reach which includes the Molycorp mine. The mine has been cited and fined for point source pollution involving broken tailings pipes on numerous occasions. There may have been as many as 239 slurry spills into the Red River over the course of this thirty-year struggle.
However, the major source of pollution is not contaminated water emanating from broken pipes, the 'smoking gun' which has already produced sanctions against the mine, but the widespread seepage of acid mine drainage through hydrologic connections between the mountains of waste rock piles at the mine and the river. Molycorp's own consultants confirmed the existence of these connections in several reports submitted to NMED.
The purpose of Molycorp Watch has been to determine the exact degree of the mine's responsibility for the degradation of the Red River, to hold the mine accountable by organizing community opposition, to restore the river to its high quality trout fishery status, and to support local economic development through environmental restoration.
Over the years we have reached several milestones.
- In December 2010, EPA issued its Record of Decision regarding the Superfund cleanup strategy for the mine.
- During hearings for a state groundwater permit, Molycorp proposed to put up a restoration bond of only $15 million and vigorously contested its responsibility for pollution. The contrary evidence presented by the state Environment Department and Amigos Bravos was sufficiently strong that in settlement negotiations the mine agreed to bonds worth over $150 million and signed off on strong interim permits to protect groundwater from its site and tailings seepage.
- In November 2000 - as a result of Amigos Bravos' 1999 lawsuit - the EPA issued the mine with a NPDES surface water permit to control 15 million pounds of metals and other pollutants presently entering the Red River annually.
- Amigos Bravos took the lead in setting up a New Mexico Mining Act Network, to coordinate the work of grassroots mining advocacy groups and technical experts to assure the best application of the New Mexico Mining Act reclamation requirements.
- In May 2009, as part of the Superfund process, Chevron published risk assessments of Molycorp's ecological and human health impacts.
Our technical experts will continue to pursue critical issues such as re-vegetation of the Molycorp site to prevent pollution, geotechnical instability threatening public safety, and the restoration of a 'self-sustaining ecosystem'. Amigos Bravos has also engaged the Questa community to form an oversight group for mine restoration, a significant local economic development opportunity, and we have researched some of the economic and public health benefits of restoration. Amigos Bravos recently co-published a report with the Ecology & Law Institute entitled, "A Framework for Assessing The Economic Benefits of Mine Reclamation - A Case Study Addressing Reclamation of the Molycorp Mine, Questa, New Mexico".
New Mexico Environment Department (NMED)
The New Mexico Environment Department was established under the provisions set forth in the Department of the Environment Act by the 40th Legislature, enacted July 1, 1991. The Department's mission is to provide the highest quality of life throughout the state by promoting a safe, clean, and productive environment. Two major divisions within NMED are involved in regulating the Molycorp mine:
- Ground Water Quality Bureau: http://www.nmenv.state.nm.us/gwb/
- Surface Water Quality Bureau: http://www.nmenv.state.nm.us/swqb/
Mining and Minerals Division (MMD)
MMD is a division of the New Mexico Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department. MMD's mandate is to regulate New Mexico's coal and hard rock mines, reclaim abandoned mine lands, and work to advance economic development and educational initiatives related to mining in New Mexico. For more information: http://www.emnrd.state.nm.us/MMD/
Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)
The EPA is divided into 10 geographic regions. The EPA region responsible for New Mexico is Region 6, headquartered in Dallas, Texas. Aside from New Mexico, Region 6's territory includes Texas, Oklahoma, Louisiana, and Arkansas. EPA Region 6 is responsible for regulating Molycorp’s surface water discharges and overseeing the Superfund cleanup process. For more information: http://www2.epa.gov/aboutepa/epa-region-6-south-central
EPA Technical Assistance Grant Group
The Red River Restoration Group (R3G) is a community based public interest organization dedicated to be a conduit of information and resources for the public in order to promote and facilitate the restoration of the Red River Watershed. For more information: www.r3group.org/