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Up From the Earth

Up From the Earth

The legacy of mining runs deep in New Mexico. You might not even stumble across it. Hundreds of years of mining history are evidenced by towns and other geographical markers named after the industry – ever heard of Silver City or the Turquoise Trail? – and mines scattered across the state, an estimated 10,000 of them hazardous and not yet reclaimed.

It is an industry that has played a huge economic role in the area of the past 300 years and continues to do so with jobs and revenue.

Our history also reflects the dangers that were inherent in underground mining, with, for example, disaster at mines in Dawson southwest of Raton 10 years apart that claimed almost 400 lives. The state is still a leading producer in minerals, extracting more than $1.7 billion worth in 2009, generating $70.9 million in revenues to the state in the form of royalties, leases and taxes – a record – and more than $287.2 million in payroll with 207 registered active mining operations, according to the state Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department’s 2010 annual report. That’s mostly coal, potash and copper.

The state is “very rich in natural resources,” says Mike Bowen, the executive director of the New Mexico Mining Association.

By statehood, there was prospecting for gold in the Cerillos Mountains and turquoise being mined in the Silver City area.


Indeed, the history books speak of a long history of mining in New Mexico – of turquoise being mined by prehistoric Indians using primitive methods; of Spaniards looking – and failing – to find gold, although it was in the area; of copper being discovered in 1800—not far from Silver City; of gold being discovered in 1900 but have since become crumbling ghost towns; and many more stories.

One of the biggest milestones in the past century was the discovery of surface uranium in 1950 by Paddy Martinez, a Navajo resident of Grants, which brought the mineral to the attention of mining companies. That began more than 40 years of lucrative uranium production, which resulted in the employment of thousands of people working for high wages.

“These were really good jobs,” says Steve Owen, who worked in the mining industry for 20 years – five of them in Grants. “The best miners did really well over the long term.”

The jobs paid close to $50,000 a year – and that was 30 years ago. So Grants, like other mining towns, grew with the boom in mining, says Star Gonzales, the executive director of the New Mexico Mining Museum in Grants.

When demand by the federal government, the main purchaser of uranium, slowed and uranium mining came to a halt in the early 1980s it had a dramatic impact on the city, says Gonzales, who is also the director of the Grants/Cibola County Chamber of Commerce.

“We had a thriving community. People were being paid a lot,” she says. “When you do lose that kind of individual, and we lost them, it has a huge effect.”

New Mexico Mining Museum

They may have been good-paying jobs, but for many years, miners were subjected to hazardous health and safety conditions working in the mines.

“When I started on the ground, there were no regulations,” says Art Gebeau, who spent 30 years as a miner and is on the board of the New Mexico Mining Museum. “The state had no regulations.”

Many of his co-workers now have lung cancer, he says. Uranium mines need “enormous amounts of air” to go through the mine because of the radon gas uranium procedures, Gebeau says.

Jack Farley, another former miner and board member of the museum, says that when he came to Grants to work in a uranium mine in 1960, there were 35 fatalities that year – “a big number.”

When he became superintendent of the Sandstone Mine, he says, he started pushing safety. The mine won the Sentinels of Safety award in 1976. The trophy is displayed as part of the exhibit at the New Mexico Mining Museum.

Mines have also left an environmental impact. Federal law requires mining companies to do reclamation, but it was not until 1993 when the New Mexico Mining Act was passed that those requirements increased and game the state final oversight, says Virginia McLemore, a senior economist geologist at the New Mexico Bureau of Geology and Mineral Resources at New Mexico Tech.

The legislation also required a company to have a closure plan before a permit is issued, she says.

“It’s not stopped mining in the state,” Bowen says. “It certainly has cost the companies, but they are more than willing to do that. It’s the corporate thing to do.”

Today, coal remains the largest employer in the state’s mining industry, with about 1,500 employees in 2010, including contract and reclamation workers, according to the state.

Bowen says mining is bigger now than it was 100 years ago when New Mexico became a state.

“Certainly, all the extractive industries have been one of the driving forces behind the state; the state budget goes pretty much with it,” he says. “Today mining is the employer of 6,000 people with an average salary of $60,000 to $61,000 a year. It’s bigger than it was 100 years ago. It has been at the 6,000 figure for quite a number of years.”

The state ranks 12th in the nation for coal production, sixth for molybdenum, third for copper and first for potash production, which is concentrated in Carlsbad. The state has approved several permits for uranium mining, but there is none currently going on.

“Everything you use and see in this world is from mining,” Farley says. “People think mining companies don’t care about people. That it is just a way to make money, but that’s not true…The biggest problem is that people are not educated about it.”

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