Trouble on the Turquoise Trail
Proposed mine draws ire of local residents
Mountains are well known for harboring secrets—a snippet of folklore that Bill Henderson is well aware of, considering that he comes from a long line of mountain dwellers, six generations worth, to be exact. Henderson's tie to the San Pedro Mountains began when his great-grandfather settled in Golden, N.M., along the Turquoise Trail between Sandia Park and Madrid, as a coal miner in the late 1800s. He had a succession of sons, who, one by one, followed him into the mines; and who, like him, offered their lives over to the mountain.
In fact, Henderson is the only male in his family since his great-great-grandfather who hasn't devoted his life to the mines—and the only one who hasn't died or suffered severe injuries as a result of his occupation. Henderson's great-grandfather died from black lung, a disease caused from working long hours in coal mines, while his grandfather was killed in a rock fall in a mine, and his father from heart and lung problems as a result of years of exposure to breathing coal dust. Henderson, however, narrowly escaped his fate when he was shipped overseas during World War II. When his service ended he returned to his hometown, but with a slightly different career path.
Today, Henderson helps run his wife's store along Highway 14 in Golden, which has been in the family for nearly 87 years. The couple has seen their town change as families have moved out and local mining has diminished; but now, Henderson says, there is an even bigger change in store—and it is one that they are certainly not embracing.
The change that Henderson speaks of is the proposal by A&M Rock company to build a quarry just over a mile away from town. The San Pedro Rock Quarry would also be located within two-and-a-half miles of the Turquoise Trail Scenic Byway—a nationally recognized road that attracts over 100,000 tourists every year. Because of its proximity to the national landmark as well as a number of local neighborhoods, the proposal is stirring up a great deal of local concern—and a lot of community action.
The Turquoise Trail Preservation Trust (TTPT) is the main association spearheading the efforts to prevent the new rock quarry from being built. Founded just this last year by three women who live along the byway—Elizabeth Prosapio, Karen Yank and Sharon Berg—TTPT's mission is "to preserve the environmental integrity and economic vitality of The Turquoise Trail," which, to its members, in part means making sure that the San Pedro Rock Quarry is never built.
Their efforts began about a year ago, immediately after they learned of A&M's plans to develop the land. The quarry proposal came as a surprise to the community primarily because just a few years earlier the San Pedro Neighborhood Association (a residential enclave buttressed by federal land where the women live) had worked with Santa Fe County to rewrite a land use code which had expressly prohibited the development of mines in the area. However, A&M proposed to build on federal land, rather than private land, that lies within the neighborhood association boundaries. And so, even though the proposed site still technically resided within the San Pedro neighborhood, county codes no longer had control over whether or not the company could build.
The original plan for the quarry proposed that it would stretch over 92 acres on a 127 acre site, and would have a lifespan of 31 years. Mining 400,000 tons of rock annually, the narrow two-lane byway would provide passage for 24-ton trucks five days a week, one every eight minutes, says Prosapio. The quarry would also need to consume more than 1 million gallons of water every year in order to mitigate air pollution.
When folks in the San Pedro neighborhood, along with other Turquoise Trail residents, learned about the plans, there was great public outcry, and as a result the Bureau of Land Management canceled their contract with A&M. The Environmental Assessment (EA) for the project was thrown out, and research for a new one began. The new EA is currently in the review process and is scheduled to come out any week now, at which point a public comment meeting will be held to introduce the EA's findings as well as the new site plan, and address the concerns of the community.
What impact the proposal would have on the local water supply, not surprisingly, is one of the major concerns. Bob Clancy, a 10-year San Pedro neighborhood resident, remembers when another mine was built in the area. "One day my well started running red. It turned out that there was some seismic tremor or something, and the red turned out to be sediment. After about a week it cleared up. [But] it shows that it doesn't take much of a shock or seismic disturbance to affect our water." Clancy also mentioned that at the same time a neighbor's well dropped 40 feet and started smelling like sulfur.
Clancy worries that the quarry would evoke even larger consequences for the water in the area. The original proposal included blasting rock two times a week—a process which could compromise the quality and accessibility of local water, he says. Henderson shares this concern, and says that through his many years of living in a mining community, and being a miner himself at times, that no one ever dared mine in the area where the new quarry is proposed. "The people that were very knowledgeable that had been in this area for years—well drillers, geologists, copper miners—they all told me don't ever fool with the Madera lime," Henderson recalls.
Henderson says that the water for Golden comes through the limestone that the quarry would be blasting into—which means that fractures in the rock could drastically lower wells. Additionally, he explains that, unlike other areas, there isn't a natural layer of gravel below the site to filter out surface pollutants before entering the water supply. And so whenever it rained there would be nothing to keep spilled diesel fuel, oil, and other toxins from seeping into Golden's water. Henderson emphasizes that he's not against mining in general—in fact, he rather supports it (note, his extensive family history)—but that he is against the quarry.
There are still other concerns in the community, ranging from environmental degradation, to property devaluation, to traffic safety. Air, dust and noise pollution is another fear—at least on the part of Karen Yank, one of the three TTPT founders. Yank says that studies have shown that schools located near industrial sites have a higher incidence of respiratory health problems. And with a 3-and-a-half year old daughter, Yank says that's a risk that she's just not willing to take.
Sharon Berg, another TTPT founder, says that she's worried about the effects that the quarry would have on tourism. Local shopkeepers receive 20-30 percent of their business from tourists, she says, and if the Turquoise Trail is congested with diesel-spewing trucks hauling rock, posing both a safety hazard and detracting from the natural beauty of the area, tourists are going to stop frequenting the byway.
Campbell Corporation, a residential development company in the area, is also getting involved in the matter, as well as government officials such as Gov. Bill Richardson and U.S. Rep. Tom Udall, whose offices say that they support doing further research on the environmental impact before any quarry development is considered. Bill Hume, director of policy and issues at the governor's office, says that they are now working with the State Land Office on the possibility of moving the proposed site to another location.
In response to the public outcry, Paul Parker, one of two men proposing the mine, believes that the quarry will be good for the community in that it will bring jobs to the area, as well as furnish materials for local roads and construction. "Where would be a better place to have a pit than three miles from the nearest neighbor, and hidden in a canyon that's not visible," says Parker. He also believes that there aren't that many people who are against the quarry: "I think that there's a lot that want it, and there's a handful that don't—that are just against mining of any sort." Yet Yank says that based on the number of people who have signed petitions against the quarry, that there are as many as 2,000 people who don't want it to be built.
Danita Burns, public affairs officer with BLM, says that it hasn't yet been decided whether the proposal for the quarry will pass, but that she hopes that everyone will be able to come to a compromise. "The reason the Turquoise Trail is there is because it is a historic mining district—it is the second oldest mining district in the nation," says Burns, who believes that a balance needs to be struck between the rights of those living in the community and the rights of businesses to develop on land where they have mining claims.
Still, a number of area residents don't see things that way—and although they recognize that the Turquoise Trail used to be a mining district, they say times have changed. "You might as well put an amusement park in the center of the Plaza in Santa Fe. It's the same thing to me—putting a quarry on top of a national scenic byway," says Berg.
To find out more about the project, and stay tuned to updates, check out www.spquarry.org.