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University president is wrong on copper rules

By June 8, 2013Uncategorized
By Bernard Ewell | MyView | The Santa Fe New Mexican
In response to Dr. Joseph Shepard, president of Western New Mexico University, and his op-ed (“New copper rules work for New Mexico,” May 21), we challenge him to do as he says he teaches his students to do. While claiming to be an ardent proponent of strong environmental stewardship, he says he teaches his students “how to weigh options in order to make difficult, ethical decisions — decisions that have the potential to impact not only the future of an enterprise, but also that of employees, customers, the environment and the public.”
The proposed water quality rules for copper mining facilities violate the state’s 1978 Water Quality Act in the opinions of the New Mexico Environmental Law Center and the Attorney General’s Office, yet Shepard writes in support of them. Upper-level managers in the New Mexico Environment Department, in making the proposal, ignored the recommendations of their own technical staff and many stakeholders of their own Copper Rule Advisory Committee. Rather, they opted to reduce the cost of doing business for the polluting industry while transferring the costs of cleanup and all public health outcomes to New Mexico taxpayers.

Surely, Shepard cannot believe that the rules represent strong environmental stewardship. They would give the mining industry the right to pollute thousands of acres of groundwater under copper mining sites and would risk contamination of public water supplies surrounding mine sites for decades to come. This is a Martinez administration gift to the mining industry, which hands the public’s water quality to private companies. More specifically, it’s a gift to Freeport-McMoRan Copper & Gold Inc., the world’s largest publicly traded copper company, which owns the three copper mines in the state. The company has a well-documented history of polluting groundwater.
Since 2009, Freeport has had a major role in developing the proposed rules and has embarked on a high-profile public relations campaign. Shepard’s opinions, from the president of one of our state-owned universities, appear to be a part of their efforts.
The Attorney General’s Office stated that the draft rules “in essence wholly incorporates the comments of the mining industry and wholly rejects the comments of the environmental groups.” Remember, the former works for their shareholders and the latter works for the interests of all of the people.
This is especially frightening when one considers that the acceptance of the Proposed Water Quality Rules for copper mine facilities would almost certainly pave the way for other industries — dairies, waste-water treatment plants, other mining enterprises, nuclear weapons laboratories and storage facilities, and an estimated 900 others — to demand similar rollbacks of water standards and protections.
When Shepard writes, “I encourage the Water Quality Control Commission to approve the Environment Department’s proposed copper rules,” it is pretty clear for whom he speaks. It certainly isn’t the “employees, customers, the environment and the public,” or his students and others who must rely upon the quality of groundwater in the future. This is especially true when the current and projected drought will cause us to become more and more dependent on it.
I strongly urge that the proposed water quality rules for copper mine facilities be remanded back to the New Mexico Environment Department for revision. Because 90 percent of New Mexicans rely on groundwater for their drinking water, allowing mining companies to contaminate it directly threatens our public health.
Bernard Ewell is the vice president of the Conservation Voters New Mexico Education Fund Board.