Dark Spot on the Enchanted Circle

You head north out of Taos, past the roads for the pueblo and the Rio Grande Gorge. You hit Route 522 and you’re on it—the Enchanted Circle, a road that loops around the area’s major mountains, including New Mexico’s tallest, Wheeler Peak. If you’re lucky, like I was last weekend, you set out in late September, when the aspens are starting to turn, painting the mountainsides yellow amidst the evergreens.

Aspens just outside of Questa

Aspens just outside of Questa

When you reach Questa, the circle curves east onto Route 38. To your right, more of the aspens shimmering in the still-emerging sunlight, with glimpses of the Red River along the way. And to the left—well, let’s just say a corporate presence has tainted that side of the circle.

New Mexico, the Land of Enchantment with its Enchanted Circle, relies on its natural beauty to attract tourists, who contribute greatly to the economy. And while some local folks might consider some of the outsiders a necessary evil—spend your money and then get the hell back to Texas—they don’t leave behind the kind of environmental devastation  Chevron has left in Questa.

Along the Red River, on the other side of the street.

Along the Red River, on the other side of the street.

I first learned about Questa earlier this year, when I read that Chevron’s molybdenum mine there was closing, costing the community about 300 much-needed jobs. That’s the reality in a poor state like New Mexico: extraction industries provide some of the best employment opportunities, even as they befoul the earth. Where will those 300 people go for work? How will lives be affected—perhaps even destroyed? I don’t have the answers, and I feel for those people, even as I hope that closing the mine will help restore the beauty on that side of the road, like the kind you can see on the other.

Chevron plans to tear down the mill.

Chevron plans to tear down the mill.

The first thing I noticed by the mining site was the color of the ground—yellow, in a chalky way, not like the almost golden-hued aspens. Then there was the sign announcing the site belonged to Chevron, followed by the empty mining mill close to the road.

What I didn’t see were the tailing ponds on the other side of Questa, where over the years Chevron dumped more than 100 million tons of tailings, or water and waste from the mining process. The tailings traveled through a nine-mile-long pipe, with some leaking out along the way. As the EPA put it, breaks in the pipe “resulted in the spilling of into and along the flood plains of the Red River, threatening [a] fishery and nearby endangered species habitats.” Other pollution from the mine has contaminated surface and ground water in the area. The principal pollutants, the EPA said, include arsenic, lead, molybdenum, and zinc.


A birds-eye view

The government put the Chevron site on the National Priorities List of Superfund Sites in 2011. The company began cleaning up waste the next year, and the work continues. This effort will “allow EPA to mitigate threats to public health and the environment from the release or potential release of hazardous substances, pollutants and contaminants.” But what about the damage already done? The mining in Questa started almost 100 years ago, and acid-generating waste rock has been sitting around the pit for several decades. Chevron admits it can’t control seepage from the tailing ponds, and the environmental group Amigos Bravos lists a number of problems the mining operation has caused over the years.

And let’s not forget the damage done to workers. In 2013 mining employee Isaac Garcia was killed, caught between two rail cars carrying ore. While human error doubtlessly played a part, the Mine Safety and Health Administration placed some blame on “management’s failure to ensure that established safe procedures were followed while Garcia worked between ore cars…. Additionally, the braking systems on the locomotive were not maintained in functional condition.”

While Chevron cleans up the site, the scars on the earth and the poisons in the water remain. By one estimate, this effort could cost up to $1 billion. Meanwhile, many out-of-work miners are still looking for jobs, though union rep David Trujillo said Chevron seemed to be doing the best it could, under the circumstances, to help out.

I knew only a little of this story as I passed the abandoned mine on my way around the Enchanted Circle. But I had a feeling that the mine was not a source of environmental good, even as it provided jobs and the company made contributions to local charities. Now, Chevron will move on. The pollution, at least for a time, will remain. And New Mexicans will continue to debate how to balance the economic good the extraction industries provide while trying to mitigate their environmental impact. At least I hope they will. Unfortunately, the prospect of four more years of a pro-business, anti-environment governor who feeds at the trough of the Koch brothers might color the debate.

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