Toxic waste looms over village

by Joshua Zaffos

While a toxic waste heap inches toward a northern New Mexico village, a mining company and the state crawl toward a reclamation plan.

In the 1960s, the mining company Molycorp dumped wasterock from an open-pit molybdenum mine, leaving a 1.6 million-cubic-yard toxic pile above the small town of Questa (HCN, 8/28/00: The mine that turned the Red River blue).

Three years ago, engineers concluded that the dump was stable, and Leroy Apodaca, manager of administration for Molycorp, calls the mine a “good neighbor.”

But consultants for Amigos Bravos, a Taos-based environmental group, say that neighbor poses “an imminent danger to human safety.” And in June, an independent review board of three mining experts — jointly selected by Molycorp, Amigos Bravos and New Mexico state officials — found that the wasterock pile is moving at a rate of two inches per month. The board’s report also says heavy rain or runoff could trigger a cataclysmic slide down the gulch, across the Red River and into Questa.

Molycorp is designing a plan to reclaim the rock pile, and the state Office of Emergency Management is creating an emergency action plan for Questa. But a July memo from the independent review board says Molycorp is downplaying the danger. “We still don’t have any kind of warning or detection system in place,” says Brian Shields, director of Amigos Bravos. “I don’t understand what about ‘imminent’ they don’t understand.” © High Country News