The life and times of a mining town

  • DOWNWIND: The ball field at Questa High

    Michael P. Berman photo
  • PRESCRIPTION FOR DISASTER: Slurry pipe along the Red River

    Michael P. Berman photo

Note: This article is a sidebar to this issue's feature story.

1921 Molybdenum Corp. of America (later abbreviated to Molycorp) begins underground mining in the Red River Canyon east of Questa, milling 50 tons of ore per day. Miners and their families live on site in a self-contained company town.

1964-5 As high-grade veins of ore run out, Molycorp spends $40 million on an open pit and new mill to process lower-grade material. The pit yields up to 10,000 tons of ore and 30,000 tons of overburden waste rock per day. Slurry pipes leak into the Red River, killing trout.

1966 On the Fourth of July weekend, a burst pipeline floods a campground - and angry campers' tents - with several inches of tailings slurry.

1968 Naming one of its tailings ponds "Turquoise Lake," Molycorp stocks it with 2,000 pounds of trout and plans its formal dedication as a lake open to the public. Hundreds of dead fish are scooped out of the pond on the morning of the July 4 dedication, after which the lake is permanently closed.

1970 The New Mexico Department of Game and Fish reports 50 tailings pipeline breaks in the previous five years.

1971 Molycorp lays off 251 employees, a third of its workforce.

1973 Molycorp lays off 100 more workers.

1975 The State of New Mexico fines Molycorp for unreported tailings spills, which again flood a campground and pour into the Red River, killing nearly 300 trout.

1977 Union Oil of California (Unocal), the ninth largest oil company in the world, buys Molycorp. The following month, 60 workers are permanently laid off. By December, 340 workers strike, pointing out that full-time employees still qualify for food stamps. Three months later, workers settle with Molycorp.

The company donates well and water rights to Questa for a new water system.

1979-81 Winds kick up thick clouds of metal-laden dust from dried tailings ponds, causing widespread respiratory problems. A dust storm engulfs nearby Questa High School, shutting down a state championship baseball game. Students march on the mine in protest.

1982 Molycorp proposes a controversial new tailings disposal site on BLM-owned Guadalupe Mountain just west of Questa. Mine employment peaks for the next three years at over 600.

1983 With the open pit no longer profitable, mining returns underground with a new "block caving" technique. It produces up to 18,000 tons of ore per day.

1985 One ton of tailings spills into a Questa acequia. Two days later 1.7 tons spills into the Red River.

Molycorp donates over $40,000 for a new village administration building.

Molycorp lays off 150 miners, 20 percent of the workforce.

1986-88 The price of molybdenum plummets from $30 to $4 a pound, forcing a shutdown that puts 475 employees out of work. A dispute rages over the proposed Guadalupe Mountain tailings site as Molycorp threatens not to reopen the mine until the new tailings site is approved.

1989 The mine reopens with a 28 percent wage cut for the 230 rehired workers, while Unocal reports second-quarter earnings at $120 million. To move students farther from tailings dust, Questa builds a new high school on property purchased from Molycorp at below-market value. The Guadalupe Mountain tailings site is conditionally approved by BLM.

1990-91 Molycorp is fined $125,000 after a series of pipeline spills pour thousands of gallons of tailings down acequias and inundate at least eight acres of farmland. A subsequent spill, one of the largest in Molycorp's history, pours water down a mile and a half of acequia while 14 farmers are out irrigating. The White House tells BLM that its environmental impact statement on the Guadalupe Mountain tailings proposal is inadequate, while locals successfully appeal the proposal to the Interior Department.

Unocal puts the mine up for sale. No takers.

1992 Molybdenum drops to $2.15 a pound, forcing another shutdown that puts 200 employees out of work.

Molycorp donates a park and ballfield to the village of Questa.

1994 The New Mexico Water Quality Control Commission reports the mine "has rendered (the Red River) dead for at least eight miles."

1995 Amigos Bravos and New Mexico Citizens for Clean Air and Water (NMCCAW) file a lawsuit against the mine claiming violation of the Clean Water Act. Molybdenum rebounds to $16 a pound.

1996 The New Mexico Environment Department releases a report documenting pollution of the Red River from Molycorp's waste rock. BLM retires Molycorp's mining claims on Guadalupe Mountain, putting the tailings dispute to rest.

1997 Molycorp posts warnings about beryllium contamination on mine restrooms and drinking fountains, and begins trucking in drinking water. The mine temporarily lays off 68 workers due to equipment failure. Amigos Bravos and NMCCAW lose their Clean Water Act lawsuit against the mine.

1998 EPA releases report documenting pollution of the Red River from Molycorp's waste rock. Molybdenum hits a low of $2 a pound.

1999 Molycorp starts the year by laying off 155 employees, 60 percent of its workforce. Pressure mounts as the mine loses its appeal of a groundwater discharge permit requirement for 328 million tons of waste rock.

2000 After mining over 100 million tons of ore with an estimated 70 million tons still in the ground, the mine limps along with molybdenum at $2.55 a pound and a skeleton crew of 150. Molycorp's negotiations with the state over mine cleanup break down, and New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson approves EPA's draft listing as a Superfund site.

Sources: The Taos News and Amigos Bravos Molycorp Watch Web site, with assistance from Hope Buechler.

Copyright © 2000 HCN and Ernest Atencio

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