July 14-20, 2005State: Molycorp’s plans inadequate for toxic spill cleanup
By Bobby Magill
The Taos News
QUESTA — The state put Molycorp on notice July 6 for inadequately containing two toxic water spills totaling 65,500 gallons at the company’s Questa molybdenum mine. The agency is concerned that the spill and others like it could leach into the groundwater.
Molycorp employees discovered May 4 that a water containment pond in Capulín Canyon was overflowing with acidic water, according to a July 6 letter the New Mexico Environment Department sent to Molycorp.
The pond, which has overflowed four times since 2003, contained acidic water leaching into it from the mine’s waste rock piles and from recent precipitation.
Even though a 10-horsepower pump was extracting water from the pond, it couldn’t handle the volume of water flowing into the pond, causing the water to overflow for 91 hours.
The NMED is concerned because the water in the spill had a pH of 3.12, slightly less acidic than lemon juice, said NMED geologist Mike Reed. Water with an acidity of less than 4 on the pH scale will leach metals out of rock, he said.
To prevent another spill, Molycorp replaced the original pump with a 25-horsepower pump and installed a second 10-horsepower pump. The company submitted a plan to the NMED outlining upgrades to the pumping system to be completed in 120 days.
But NMED Ground Water Quality Bureau Chief William C. Olson wrote in his letter that Molycorp’s timeframe for permanently correcting the problem is too long.
The pond is too small and needs to be upgraded, he wrote, adding that Molycorp has 15 days to submit revised plans to fix the problem. The pond should be large enough to contain rainwater and runoff from a “100-year 24-hour storm event,” Olson wrote.
If the groundwater is contaminated, he wrote, Molycorp may be required to take more drastic measures to clean up the mess. If Molycorp fails to comply, it could be fined.
Scott Honan, supervisor of environmental compliance for Molycorp at its Mountain Pass, Calif., headquarters, said the spill will not impact groundwater, and Molycorp workers did all they could to contain the spill.
“We had people working on that system every day,” he said, adding that the pond is located in “very steep topography.”
Brian Shields, executive director of Taos Molycorp watchdog and environmental group Amigos Bravos, called the letter “interesting,” but said he doesn’t yet know what the spills could mean for the environment.
“There’s a number of different spills that have been taking place over the last few years and they don’t have an adequate system in place to stop the spills from taking place,” Shields said.
© 2005, The Taos News. Reprinted with permission.