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New Mexico puts old mine to solar use

Chevron's Questa mine Superfund site to become 1-megawatt solar farm, providing power to rural New Mexico communities in Taos, Colfax, and Rio Arriba counties.

Goat Hill North at Questa Mine in Taos County, New Mexico.
Mining and Minerals Division of the New Mexico Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department

Gov. Bill Richardson of New Mexico in conjunction with Chevron is breaking ground Thursday on a 1-megawatt solar farm on land owned by Chevron Mining near Questa, N.M.

The concentrator photovoltaic systems (CPVs) are being provided by Concentrix Solar. The solar farm, which was originally announced in February, will provide power to the Kit Carson Electric Cooperative through a power purchase agreement it signed with Chevron. Kit Carson is an electricity cooperative that supplies power to rural New Mexico communities in Taos, Colfax, and Rio Arriba counties. The solar farm is scheduled to be up and running by the end of 2010.

But this is not the typical corporate-sponsored solar project. The solar farm actually represents a classic tale of mining, pollution, and the next generation's attempt to clean up for past sins, only with an added green tech twist. The solar farm project is actually the result of decades of complaints, investigations, community meetings, and lawsuits concerning serious water and soil pollution from the mine, according to The Taos News.

The mine, a significant source of employment for the area since the 1920s, is currently owned by Chevron Mining, a subsidiary of Chevron. Chevron inherited the mine in 2005 after a merger with Unocal, which already owned Molycorp, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

The mine consists of an underground mine for the steel alloy molybdenum, which still operates today, as well as an open-pit mine that was in use between 1965 and 1983. After being accused by residents of polluting area soil and water, the mine eventually caught the notice of the EPA, which conducted a years-long investigation. The open-pit mining, which resulted in the "excavation and dumping of approximately 328 million tons of acid generating and potentially acid generating waste rock" into the environment, is thought to have contributed to the bulk of the pollution in the area, though insufficiently treated waste water from the molybdenum mine also contributed, according to the EPA.

The EPA issued a risk assessment report on "the Molycorp site" in August 2007 (PDF), and declared the area a Superfund site with a 122-page EPA plan for cleanup issued in December 2009 (PDF). The plan proposes a new water treatment plant for the existing molybdenum mine, as well as the removal of PCB-contaminated soil and collection of seepage-impacted ground water from the mine site; its tailing sites (land where the mine's slurry pipeline was laid and eventually leaked); and affected areas which include the Red River, a tributary of the Rio Grande.

As part of the cleanup effort proposed by the EPA, Chevron is installing a solar farm consisting of 175 solar panels across 20 acres on the tailing lands where contaminated soil and water is to be removed.