The peaceful slopes of Wind Mountain on Otero Mesa are gravely threatened by recent mining claims staked by Colorado-based Geovic Mining Corporation. Many of these are within an existing Area of Critical Environmental Concern (ACEC) and proposed wilderness. Not only would this pristine area be turned into a cratered landscape of pits and tailings–leaching chemicals from the mining and refinement processes could also irreversibly contaminate the large freshwater aquifer under Otero Mesa.
Exploratory drilling could begin sometime in July, when Geovic will take up to 10 core samples 50 to 200 feet deep in search of rare earth minerals. A 2010 study by the United States Geological Survey, followed up by a New Mexico Tech University report, indicate that Wind Mountain, Black Mountain and other areas in the Cornudas Range of Otero Mesa contain deposits of eudialyte, a substrate mineral which can be refined to yield rare earth elements (REE). The deposit is estimated at 10-30% of the rock that covers the mountains, promising enough to Geovic to prompt the company to dramatically increase its interest in the area.
The impact of this hardrock mining on the fragile grassland ecosystem of Otero Mesa would be devastating. As the largest intact Chihuahuan Desert grassland, the rich network of biodiversity that thrives here would have their habitats fragmented by roads and development necessary to make the mine operational. Potential mountaintop removal, soil compaction, erosion, loss of soil biota would be amplified throughout the ecosystem; there will be increased stress on wildlife through noise and other disruptions; reduced plant growth, penetration by spills to the groundwater and the introduction of noxious weeds are some of the cumulative effects that mining will have directly on site and on the larger surrounding areas.
Along with the devastation to the beauty of the land and the important role the Cornudas Mountains play in the Otero Mesa ecosystem, part of New Mexico’s cultural heritage would be destroyed as well. Wind Mountain is one of the “sky islands” on Otero Mesa considered sacred to both the Mescalero Apache and Yselta del Sur Tribes, and there is evidence of Native American use in the area dating back more than 1,000 years.
Geovic is presently avoiding the more extensive NEPA environmental impact analysis by staging the exploratory operations outside of the ACEC, but optimistically posted in a stockholder newsletter that “the Cornudas Mountain claims have the potential to host a large advanced metals resource capable of becoming a long-life small scale limited impact mining operation…” Rare earth elements are the hottest commodity in minerals right now, due to their role in electronics, medical imaging, high tech and even green industries. They are considered as vital to national security for their use in military weaponry and defense technologies. But rare earth elements are not rare: they can be found in plentiful deposits in China, the US, Malaysia, India, Brazil, Canada, Australia and Eastern Europe. It is the difficult and expensive extraction process that has limited mining in the US up to now. An abandoned mine in the Mohave Desert will recommence REE mining soon, its start-up pricetag, half a billion dollars.
China, the major source of rare earth elements, has undergone an environmental catastrophe through its REE mining operations. A PBS special in 2009 documented the wasteland spreading near the Baiyunebo mine in Inner Mongolia. Formerly rich agricultural fields have been poisoned by extensive ground and water contamination through the mining process use of toxic chemicals, acids, sulfates and ammonia. Air pollution from emissions of fluorine and sulfur have caused major health problems for workers, and the nearby water has been determined unfit to drink.
There is no doubt that other sources of REE’s will soon be feeding the world-wide demand, and that China’s tight hold on the supply will be loosened. The question is where the mining operations to exploit this resource will be located, and at what cost? REE mining is a “water-intensive, toxic process” (Popular Science Magazine, 3-10-11). Wind Mountain, and all of Otero Mesa, sits atop the largest fresh water aquifer in New Mexico, a state whose arid climate is only getting worse. If the “small-scale” mining operation Geovic envisions becomes reality, the Salt Basin Aquifer is the most likely source of water needed, a resource far more precious than metals that can be found elsewhere.
The mining operation on Wind Mountain would result in its total devastation, reduced to a network of open pits, stockpiles of waste and tailings, surface facilities including leach tanks, reaction vessels, solvent extraction plants, and a furnace. Roads for travel and distribution of product would lace the nearby grasslands causing irreparable damage to the fragile ecosystem. Although Geovic claims to have a remediation plan in place, typically the large open pits are not backfilled because of the huge cost.
There are substitutes being developed for REE’s. Toyota is working on REE-free motors for its hybrids and electric cars, and other industries, including the US military, are seeking these solutions. A bill being considered now in Congress would allocate low-cost loans for mining rare earth metals, and speed up the permitting process.
For Otero Mesa and Wind Mountain, this would be a disaster.