Lode Warriors

A Denver mining company is looking for copper. All it's found so far is a rich vein of environmentalists.

"There were seventy people in the room, and approximately fifty of them were Anglos," he recalls. "The people who recently came here from somewhere else were the most vocal opponents."

The widespread opposition to mining on Copper Hill also surprised public officials in New Mexico. "I've yet to have one person in northern New Mexico come to me and say they support the mine," says Mike Ford, the BLM's district manager in Albuquerque.

The objections to the mine in New Mexico were many. Along with the Indians and the ranchers, environmentalists weighed in, noting that Copper Hill hosts several endangered species, including the spotted owl. The locals also were turned off by the experience of Questa, a village 75 miles to the north, where acid runoff from a molybdenum mine has harmed a river that runs through town.

The public outcry didn't go unnoticed. At a public meeting in Taos last March, Ford startled Summo by publicly announcing that mining in the area was incompatible with the BLM's long-range plans. The BLM manager told the audience, "We are operating under the assumption that there is not going to be a mine."

Hahn says he was taken aback by Ford's unexpectedly bold statement. "I took exception to that," he says. "They shouldn't have approved our drilling if we could never be afforded the opportunity to mine in the area."

But the BLM didn't want to get into a fight with Summo over the proposal. What Ford didn't tell the Taos audience was that he'd already been negotiating with Hahn for several months, hoping to arrive at an agreement that would allow him to keep mining out of Copper Hill. During those negotiations, Summo proposed that in return for giving up its claim to Copper Hill, the company be given ownership of more than 1,000 acres in the Lisbon Valley. The proposed land swap didn't become public until May, after the National Wildlife Federation obtained documents outlining the discussion through a Freedom of Information Act request.

The NWF was alarmed by what it found, especially because the BLM had conducted the negotiations with Summo in private. "I think it's totally inappropriate they did that," says Jay Tutchton. "They're free to discuss swapping land--what's illegal is if they're considering that in secret."

Ford says the discussions with Summo were held behind closed doors because they involved a company in the private sector, and he insists there was no conspiracy to deal away public lands. "It's very offensive to me to be accused of this kind of behavior," he says, adding that any potential land swap would have to be voted on in Congress. "I couldn't make a secret deal even if I wanted to, because it requires congressional approval," he says.

But the land swap isn't the only issue that bothers the wildlife federation. Tutchton says he was also appalled by what he sees as a lack of environmental safeguards in the Lisbon Valley mining permit approved by Utah BLM officials last March. The Lisbon Valley mine was okayed without any requirement that Summo post a long-term bond to protect groundwater and without calling for reclamation of the pits the company would dig on the property. Tutchton says he believes the Utah BLM approved an environmentally reckless proposal under pressure from Ford in New Mexico.

As evidence, Tutchton points to the fact that Ford flew to Salt Lake City last January to discuss the Summo proposal with Moab's Kitchell. Tutchton theorizes that Ford made the trip to impress on his BLM colleague how important it was that Summo get what it wanted. "They deny there was a link, but they met and communicated," he says.

Ford, however, denies pressuring Kitchell to approve Summo's application. And Kitchell laughs when asked about Tutchton's theory, which she refers to as "the conspiracy." It's ridiculous to think that she and Ford somehow colluded to okay the Summo proposal, says Kitchell, who insists that Ford simply presented the idea of a land exchange between New Mexico and Utah. She says she told him it wasn't appropriate for her to even discuss that until her office's environmental assessment of the mine proposal was complete.

Kitchell adds that despite the suspicions of the mine's opponents, the Lisbon Valley is actually a good place for a mine. The valley already contains small, abandoned mines that cover about 85 acres, she says, and the area isn't close to any of the national parks and monuments that draw thousands of tourists to Utah.

But when Kitchell's office approved the Summo mine, it drew more fire from Tutchton, who noted that the decision was made just days before new regulations went into effect requiring all mines to post bonds protecting groundwater. The attorney cites this as proof of the BLM's eagerness to provide Summo with a sweetheart deal. "They tried to beat the gun," he says. "That's an example of the lunacy of this." In the event of massive contamination of the aquifer beneath the Lisbon Valley, he says, Summo might be tempted to simply declare bankruptcy and walk away from the mine, leaving the taxpayers with the cleanup bill. "These are future Superfund sites the public will have to pay for," Tutchton claims.

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