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Mountain of Copper Waste Looms Over Venerable New Mexico Church

Environment: Priest says parishioners fear piles of tailings eventually will bury them. But the mining firm says it doesn't intend to touch the 80-year-old house of worship.

April 07, 1996|MARTHA MENDOZA | ASSOCIATED PRESS

FIERRO, N.M. — The little adobe church, tucked in a valley just a few miles from the Continental Divide, is slowly losing its vast backdrop of sky.

Instead, huge piles of copper ore tailings, produced by the operations of Cobre Mining Co., tower ominously above Fierro's Roman Catholic Church of St. Anthony's.

In 10 years, say company officials, 500-foot-high piles of black, cruddy waste will be stacked within 100 feet of the adobe walls.

"The heap leach would come up fairly close to the church, but we're not going to touch the structure," said Eric Olin, project manager for Cobre's Continental Expansion project in Fierro.

Don't try telling that to Antonio Macias, one of about 40 elderly worshipers who take turns visiting the church throughout the week to wipe ore dust from its statues and shrines.

"The church is so good for us. We must protect it," Macias said.

Although the mine's leach heaps are still about a quarter of a mile away, parishioners say strong winds bring several pounds of dust into the church each day. When the piles eventually surround St. Anthony's, parishioners say there will be no way to dig their way out.

"They fear they will be buried," said the Rev. Paul Uskao of nearby Bayard.

Uskao passes Cobre Mining's huge open-pit copper mine each Saturday as he travels 10 miles from Bayard for Mass--his Sunday schedule is too busy for services at Fierro's small church, which can hold about 150 people.

Inside the beige adobe walls, a statue of the church's patron, St. Anthony, cradles baby Jesus in his arm. Candles tucked in spray-painted coffee cans line one wall.

The church is vibrant with art.

In the 1940s, the Rev. Roger Aull collected and fashioned yucca stalks into altars and lecterns. About 10 years later, the Rev. F.T. Smerke painted vivid murals on the apse.

Outside the church, a large white cross almost glows against the sage-covered hills. The ground is dotted with turquoise-colored rocks, glinting below thin layers of brown soil.

It's those rocks, loaded with copper, that spawned the town and the church. It's those same rocks that parishioners fear will lead to its demise.

Fierro, named after the Spanish word for iron, is one of the oldest mining districts in the Southwest. Historical records in the nearby Silver City museum show that Fierro mines were producing as early as 1858.

According to local legend, Confederate soldiers raided the camp in the 1860s and made off with tons of copper ingots to be used in munitions plants in the South.

The Church of St. Anthony's came later, built by miners in 1916 in the heart of a small but thriving community. Bit by bit, that town has disappeared.

The business district was wiped out by fire in 1922. The elementary school closed in 1960. The last store shut down in 1975. Today, the only business in Fierro is the mine.

Cobre Mining's chairman, Jeff Ward of Albuquerque, said the company produces about 2,200 tons of copper ore per day, but that should rise to 3,000 to 4,000 tons by the end of the year, thanks to good copper prices.

The company produced about 58 million pounds of copper ore last year at its underground and open-pit properties.

Ward also said exploration continues on the company's 11,000 acres. "We've just explored about 10% of our property," he said.

Uskao said his parishioners are adamant about saving the church.

"For me, personally, I feel no attachment to this church, but the people who live in the area have strong feelings for it," he said.

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