Last year, in the Orogrande region of Otero County, a motorcyclist was killed when he found himself in an abandoned mine, according to Jerry Schoeppner, director of the Mines and Minerals division of the Department of New Mexico’s energy, minerals and natural resources.
Abandoned hard rock mine sites statewide can create dangerous conditions for people and the environment, but the funding the Division of Mines and Minerals relies on to clean up these sites is limited and will expire in September. In addition, the state does not know exactly how many mines are located in New Mexico.
Schoeppner is hopeful that the funding will be re-authorized and that New Mexico may even eventually see an increase in funding.
A $ 1 trillion federal infrastructure bill presented to Congress this week would, if passed, secure funding for mine clean-up for the next 15 years. In addition, it would provide the Abandoned Mine Recovery Fund with approximately $ 11.3 billion, which would be distributed among states and tribal nations.
After the motorcyclist’s death, the United States Bureau of Land Management and the state’s Division of Mines and Minerals installed fences and signs in the Orogrande area in an attempt, at least temporarily, to render the safer landscape for the people who recreate there.
Schoeppner said there are many mining features in New Mexico that are located in remote areas where people recreate themselves.
“We have a very good grasp of what’s out there in terms of uranium sites, but we don’t know hard rock as well, so that’s a huge data gap that we would like to fill,” he said.
Schoeppner said the mining division was also working on the inventory of hard rock mines in New Mexico, in the same way it had completed an inventory of uranium mines. This will give the division an idea of the extent of the work required across the state.
An inventory of existing sites in the state would help the Mines and Minerals Division create a prioritization system. Currently, he said, as the Mines and Minerals Division takes notice of mine sites, it prioritizes cleanup based on risks to human health and the environment, proximity to communities and possible impacts on them. groundwater or surface water.
Schoeppner said the Mines and Minerals Division would like to have a full list of mines in New Mexico, including the last owners of the mining concession and if they can provide funding for reclamation, he said. declared.
He said the BLM office in Las Cruces has started an inventory of abandoned sites but has run out of funding.
“We hope to get funding from the infrastructure bill to do some of this work,” he said. “We also have the potential to get money from the Youth Conservation Corps to do some of this work.”
The clean-up of abandoned mine sites requires a lot of upstream work in the Mines and Minerals Division, including identifying the sites and designing the type of protection that will be used. For example, in areas where bats use caves, bars are placed above entrances to allow bats to come and go while keeping people away from potentially dangerous structures. Additionally, Schoeppner said the division must also obtain the right to enter the property and must hold public meetings before taking any action.
Fortunately, he said, mining sites in New Mexico do not tend to contain puddles of groundwater and are not at risk from mine spills like the Gold King mine spill that s. was produced in 2015 in southern Colorado and had an impact on the Animas and San Juan. rivers of New Mexico.
Related: New Mexico delegation wants mining reform after Gold King mine spill
Instead, the main danger associated with mining sites in New Mexico is that people or wildlife could be injured or killed.
The Mines and Minerals Division and BLM signed a contract with four different companies starting in 2014 to complete six phases of work in the Cookes Peak region in southern New Mexico. Since the start of work, more than 300 mine openings have been processed. These mine openings were located on the north and east sides of the prominent mountain.
Schoeppner said crews have completed phase four of the project.
The discovery of silver and lead in 1876 in the Cookes Range led to large-scale mining. The mining of lead, zinc and silver ended in 1929, but the exploitation of fluorspar and the production of base metals continued until 1965, according to an EMRD press release. .
From 1876 to 1952, the extraction of zinc, lead, copper, gold and silver generated $ 4.2 million, according to the REMDD.
The summit of Cookes Peak is over 8,400 feet above sea level and the mountain is a prominent feature that can be seen from Silver City and Las Cruces.
“It’s a summit, so a lot of people go to the base of the summit and like to hike it,” Schoeppner said. “Unfortunately, the road to it on the east side of the mountain passes through several old features of the mine – galleries, holes in the ground, shafts – all of these things present a danger to passers-by.”
Schoeppner said he didn’t know how much it would cost to clean up all the abandoned hard rock mines in New Mexico.
“It’s really hard to come up with a number, all we can say is it’s going to be a big one,” he said.
As long as there are open pit mine shafts and other types of features, the legacy of mining will continue to pose a threat to people who are recreating themselves.
One of the reasons these features are dangerous is that people are curious and go inside.
Schoeppner said people should be careful when recreating near abandoned mining sites and, if they want to check out a mine, they should visit one like the Harding Pegmatite mine near Dixon, which is run by the University. of New Mexico and allows people to safely view the site.