Albion Monitor /News

Copper Mining Threatens Revered New Mexico Mountain

by Danielle Knight

One of the world's largest copper mines threatens
(IPS) WASHINGTON -- For hundreds of years, legends and myths have swirled around "Kneeling Nun" mountain in the southwest area of the state of New Mexico.

Local Native Americans, Anglos and the descendants of Aztec and Mayan groups who fled the Spanish Conquistadors have a fierce pride in the mountain that resembles a nun kneeling in prayer -- New Mexico's oldest identifiable landmark.

Today, however, local residents and environmentalists are fearful that plans to expand one of the world's largest copper mines threatens the survival of the revered mountain. They say that the multi-billion dollar Chino Mine, owned by the Arizona-based multinational mining giant Phelps Dodge and Heisei Minerals (a subsidiary of the Tokyo-based Mitsubishi), is rapidly encroaching upon Kneeling Nun Mountain.

"We support the mining industry, in fact many of those speaking out in support of Kneeling Nun Mountain are miners," Vic Topmiller, spokesman for a local environmental and labor coalition against the mine told IPS. "Though the Chino Mine has brought jobs to the surrounding communities, its huge waste dumps also have caused environmental destruction in the area."

Exchanging less than a square mile of wilderness for about 8 sq miles of mineral-rich federally owned land
Until now, federal and state authorities have kept a 300-meter buffer zone been the mountain and the operations of the company - - which also operates mines in South America, West Africa and Indonesia.

But now the company wants to be allowed to blast 180 meters from the Nun monolith, which many locals say is too close.

Environmentalists, including the Washington-based National Wildlife Federation, say that persistent blasting and other mining operations close to the mountain may weaken its slopes and increase the risk of a collapse. They also are concerned that ground water will be contaminated by toxic waste from the mine and that the view of the mountain will be blocked as rocks from the mine are heaped higher and higher.

Arizona-based Phelps Dodge, which owns two-thirds of the mine, is trying to expand the mining operation by exchanging less than a square mile of wilderness land owned by the company for about 8 sq miles of mineral-rich federally owned land next to the mountain.

If the multinational company succeeds in this land swap, it could avoid otherwise applicable environmental regulations governing mining on public land and be able to blast much closer to the mountain, say environmentalists. But, the company insists that expansion of the mine will not harm the geological wonder.

"We are taking every available measure to not harm the Kneeling Nun," Thomas Foster, vice president and treasurer of Phelps Dodge told IPS. "We understand the concern over the mountain and are keeping our expansion plans very open to the public through public hearings and environmental impact statements."

Still, local activists are bent on halting any expansion of the mine that would harm the mountain. "The best way to prevent the destruction of the Kneeling Nun is to stop the land swap," says Don Manning, president of the local United Steelworkers of America union. "If the land swap goes through, subsequent mining damage will destroy this natural rock formation."

"Nothing is sacred to Phelps Dodge but profits," he added.

According to local legend, a nun who was native to the region nursed a wounded Spanish soldier back to health. Despite good intentions, she fell in love with him, forsaking her religious vows. She was cast out from her convent and turned to stone, destined to spend eternity kneeling atop the mountain in prayer.

Many locals believe the Nun is a guardian of the miners working below. In fact, in the past some workers, fearing for their well-being, have refused to work in the mining pit close to the mountain unless they did so within her comforting view.

"I remember seeing miners look up at her, cross themselves and say a prayer, thanking her for another safe shift," remembers Ramon Carillo, a retired mining foreman from the site.

Miners have joined with the National Congress of American Indians, the Santa Fe-based New Mexico Environmental Law Center, and the Mexicano-Chicano Chamber of Commerce in forming a coalition against the mine expansion and are demanding that the mining company not harm the mountainside or obstruct the view of Kneeling Nun.

The coalition is calling on President Bill Clinton and federal government agencies to declare the site a national monument so that the corporation is forced to stay much farther away from the mountain.

When the EPA ordered Phelps Dodge to clean up the mess, the corporation suggested building a golf course and housing development over the pile of mine waste
The groups say that expansion of the mine could further contaminate groundwater. The site has had numerous toxic spills and releases of acidic wastewater containing toxic metals including lead, arsenic and cadmium. The largest known spill at Chino occurred in 1988 when Phelps Dodge dumped 185 million gallons (740 million liters) of wastewater, says the coalition.

The waste and leaching piles, through which acids are trickled to capture metals, already are contaminating groundwater below, says the coalition.

Given the company's past environmental record at Chino and elsewhere, opponents to the mine say that Phelps Dodge should hardly be allowed to expand. The federal government holds the company responsible for about 50 toxic waste sites across the country. This reputation caused the Washington-based Mineral Policy Center, an environmental group, to say the company was an "environmental laggard" that often used its considerable political influence to pressure local regulatory agencies.

In Arizona, for example, a 47-hectare pile of four million tons of toxic mine waste, including mercury, lead and cadmium, from another one of the company's copper mines, contaminated groundwater and the nearby river. When the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency ordered Phelps Dodge to clean up the mess, the corporation -- trying to avoid a $30 million clean-up fee -- suggested building a golf course and housing development over the pile of mine waste without a thought to possible adverse human health affects.

The company's gold mining activities in Montana turned the Blackfoot River, once renowned for its trout fishing, into a muddy concoction of heavy metals and silt. The river is now so polluted that when Hollywood's Robert Redford came to Montana to produce a movie based on a historic novel about the river, he chose to use a river elsewhere in the state.

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Albion Monitor March 16, 1998 (

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