SILVER CITY — The New Mexico Environment Department is seeking public input for possible amendments to water quality standards in Grant County.

The amendments in question would change the water quality standards for five drainages within the Chino Mine Investigation Area in Grant County. At present, the drainages' status is as default unclassified nonperennial waters. If the amendments are applied, the status would be changed to unclassified ephemeral waters.

Unclassified nonperennial waters are areas designated as directly contacting wildlife, either as habitat, housing aquatic wildlife or as livestock watering. The change to unclassified ephemeral waters would mean that certain areas of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's Clean Water Act — namely those protecting aquatic wildlife and their habitats — would not apply to the drainages, allowing looser restrictions on the mines that use the area to drain away some waste from the mining process.

The amendments are based on a report given to the Environment Department by the Chino Mines Company entitled "Application of the Hydrology Protocol to Smelter Tailings Soils Investigation Unit Drainages." In the report, Chino Mines includes a Use Attainability Analysis based on the Environment Department's "Hydrology Protocol." Their report finds that rather than the "marginal aquatic wildlife" and "primary contact" necessary to define the drainage as an unclassified perennial water, there is only "limited aquatic wildlife" and "secondary contact.


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When the Department receives a report that could eventually affect an area's designation, it is required to release the report for a 30 day public review period. It has done so. That period runs from now until Feb. 14, when the Department will consider public comments and may proceed to submit the report and its response to the comments to the EPA.

If the EPA grants approval, the amendments may be made and the waters will be held to the standards of their new designation.

Given the reaction of area environmental groups after a similar change last fall when the Environmental Department proposed new water quality rules for copper mines based on a report from the Freeport-McMoRan, Inc. the Environment Department will again receive plenty feedback. In one comment, Rachel Conn — of Amigos Bravos, a wild river proponent organization who collaborated with local Gila Resources Information Project for the response — called that change to water quality rules "pollution by rule".

The report from Chino Mines is available on the Environmental Department's website at www.nmenv.state.nm.us/swqb/Standards under "Essentials".

Comments may be submitted by mail to Kris Pintado at the New Mexico Environment Department, Surface Water Quality Bureau, P.o. Box 5469, Santa Fe, NM 87502 or by e-mail to kristine.pintado@state.nm.us.

Benjamin Fisher can be reached at (575) 538-5893 ext. 5803.