New federal claims to extract minerals, including oil, gas and metals, would be barred in the Pecos watershed under a bill introduced by a New Mexico senator.
Democratic U.S. Sen. Martin Heinrich said he seeks to avoid accidents in the area, such as a disastrous toxic waste spill from a closed mine in the 1990s that killed fish for 11 miles in the Pecos River.
“The people who live in the Pecos Valley don’t want to see new mines along the Pecos River because they’ve experienced firsthand what the devastation of a mine spill looks like,” Heinrich told the Senate Subcommittee on Public Lands, Forests and Mining at a Wednesday hearing.
Heinrich spoke at the hearing two days after introducing the bill.
The proposed legislation would prevent the leasing, patent and sale of all publicly owned minerals in the watershed, including oil and gas, gold, silver, copper and other hard-rock minerals.
The bill would not prevent people with existing claims to extract minerals, so residents could still see mining activity if it became law.
The difference is the claims would have to be proven valid under an 1872 mining law — something that isn’t currently required, a Heinrich spokesman said.
U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management officials attending the hearing said the Trump administration opposes the bill because it would halt most mineral extraction in the area.
Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, who chairs the subcommittee, asked how restrictions on mining minerals might conflict with the 1872 law.
Chris French, deputy director of national forest systems, said the government can’t deny those with claims to mine under the law, but it can regulate how they extract the minerals.
Some companies want to explore potential mineral deposits in the area, mainly metals, French said.
Heinrich asked French whether the Forest Service could deem the Pecos Valley unsuitable for mining and halt it altogether.
French reiterated that existing mining claims can be denied.
Heinrich said he doesn’t dispute people’s right to use established claims.
But he argued that people who reside in the valley don’t make a living at hard-rock mining. Outside corporate interests are the main mineral extractors, he said.
Area residents work as farmers, fly-fishing guides and recreational vendors, Heinrich said, adding that some are afraid they’ll lose their livelihoods if mining degrades or ruins the watershed.
“So the only way those folks can protect their watershed from new mines is this kind of legislation,” Heinrich said. “And that’s why we’re here today.”
Some regional leaders and conservation advocates expressed support for the bill.
“The Pecos River is a clean, pristine mountain water source supporting not only the wildlife, flora and fauna in our area, but is the source of some of the cleanest water in the state,” said Lela McFerrin, vice president of the Upper Pecos Watershed Association, in a statement. “Unfortunately, the legacy of hard-rock mining from the old Tererro mine is a sad commentary on the effects of mineral extraction in the entire western United States.”
San Miguel County Commissioner Janice Varela called the 1872 mining law antiquated and destructive to the area.
“The protections will benefit people, wildlife and our economic future,” Varela said.