Chevron Closed Mine, Now New Mexico Town Faces Daunting Recovery

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By Brenna Goth

Chevron Mining Inc. shook the village of Questa, N.M., when it closed the molybdenum mine that anchored the rural community in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains.

Local leaders are still hunting for a new identity and economic driver for its roughly 1,770 residents more than three years after Chevron laid off hundreds of workers. The company expects to remediate for decades the remaining Superfund site that a century of mining in the area left behind.

The turning point for Questa may come in 2018, as millions of dollars in Chevron settlement money and government grants aim to attract new industries and improve degraded natural resources. Some close to the community are hopeful for a new start, although others question whether it’s enough to help a village that for decades relied on one employer.

Upcoming initiatives in Questa address concerns seen in towns throughout the southwest after the mines they depend on shut down. Many of them are remote, clouded by environmental risks, and offer residents few other job prospects.

Those factors are the focus of a new restoration plan to improve Questa’s water quality and the nearby Red River, which was once a premier fishing destination. The projects fit the vision of attracting new companies and marketing the village as a recreational destination, said Malaquias Rael, former mayor and chairman of the board of the Questa Economic Development Fund, which was started by Chevron.

“The worst thing that happens in a mining town is the stigma that remains when the mine is closed,” Rael told Bloomberg Environment.

Estimated $1 Billion Cleanup Moves Forward

Nearly a century of open-pit and underground molybdenum mining near Questa contaminated soil, groundwater, and the Red River, according to criteria the EPA used to put the site on its National Priority List in 2011. Heavy metals and other hazardous substances found there are a risk to people, a fish hatchery downstream, and the environment, it said.

Molycorp Inc. started mining molybdenum, a metal often used as an alloy to strengthen steel, in the early 1900s. It later became the last operating mine owned by multinational energy company Chevron.

Chevron closed the mine when molybdenum prices dropped and is on the hook for much of the remediation, some of which is already completed. The federal government is also partly liable for the estimated $1 billion in cleanup costs, because it provided land and financing for the mine, according to a July decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit.

Work is moving forward under a roughly $143 million settlement with Chevron formally approved in May. It was the largest agreement of its kind in the Environmental Protection Agency’s south central region, an agency spokesperson told Bloomberg Environment in an email.

The company is responsible for a pilot project to cover and revegetate an area where mine waste is stored, among other initiatives. A water treatment plant intended to prevent further contamination of the Red River is operational and in the final stages of commissioning, Chevron Spokesman Tommy Lyles told Bloomberg Environment.

The plant captures surface water and water pumped out of the mine to treat it before it enters the river, he said. Chevron must treat the contaminated groundwater in perpetuity.

New Well, Sewer System to Quell Water Concerns

Restoration projects proposed by community agencies will also soon receive funding from a $4 million settlement between Chevron and the site’s Natural Resource Damage Assessment trustees.

A draft plan recommends funding several proposals, including improvements to the Red River for the benefit of wildlife like trout. Also slated for approval is a project to hook up nearby houses that rely on private septic systems to village sewer lines and build a new municipal well.

Trustees aim to release the final plan in February in hopes of launching the projects next summer, Trais Kliphuis, executive director of the New Mexico Office of Natural Resources Trustee, told Bloomberg Environment. The results could help the village overcome concerns about its water, she said.

Businesses need an adequate and clean water supply to locate there, she said. Residents are also concerned about groundwater contamination from mine tailing seepage and septic leaks, according to the draft plan.

“This helps with that in a big way,” Kliphuis said.

Residents ‘Starting to Get Desperate’

Questa has so far failed to attract major economic development since the mine closed, Mayor Mark Gallegos told Bloomberg Environment. Many former miners have left the community, spent down their savings, or taken temporary remediation work, he said.

“We’re hitting the bottom of the whole Chevron shutdown,” said Gallegos, who became mayor a few months before the company’s announcement. “People are starting to get desperate.”

Village leaders have to balance economic development with holding government agencies and Chevron accountable for the environmental remediation that will affect residents for the rest of their lives, Gallegos said. Questa is expecting more of them, he said.

The village has seen some movement toward a new vision, though, led in part by the Questa Economic Development Fund. Chevron started the nonprofit years before the mine closed to help diversify the village’s economy and contributes to it annually, Christian Isely, Chevron economic development adviser, told Bloomberg Environment.

The company also donated about 30 acres of land to build a new business park that now includes the Taos Mountain Energy Bar factory. A $1.2 million U.S. Economic Development Administration grant announced in September could bolster efforts to attract new companies.

And conservation groups like Trout Unlimited are working to establish Questa as a hub for fishing trips and other recreation, Toner Mitchell, New Mexico water and habitat coordinator for the organization, told Bloomberg Environment. The focus is restoring the channelized Red River to a more natural course that helps fish thrive, he said.

‘Community of Survivors’

New support from the Department of Labor could also help former miners in the coming year, Isely said. The workers recently became eligible for its Trade Adjustment Assistance program after their applications were previously denied.

The program helps workers, who lost jobs because of increased imports, with training and other re-employment services. It’s unclear, though, how many people will use the assistance considering the mine closed years ago, Gallegos said.

And for people who do go to school or gain job skills in the community, local leaders want to keep them there to power a new workforce. It’s a challenge to reinforce the mindset that Questa can no longer be a mining town, Rael from the economic development fund said.

“We are a community of survivors anyway,” Rael said. “How to turn survivors into thrivers is another thing.”

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