Questa miners get federal assistance, but is it three years too late?

Juan Gonzales, a former miner in Questa, found out he was getting laid off in this Taos News file photo. The federal government just approved training and other assistance for miners who lost their jobs when the Chevron mine shuttered in 2014. (Taos News File Photo)

In the summer of 2014, Molycorp, Inc., a wholly-owned subsidiary of Chevron, gathered its employees together and announced the the molybdenum mine would close, leaving 300 people without a job. Three years later, the federal government has approved training and other assistance for former miners.

But Questa isn’t home to all of those 300 miners anymore. Some have stayed, working for contractors in the mine cleanup or finding different types of work in Taos. Others stayed in the industry but had to leave their home for mines in southern New Mexico or the rest of the West.

While village leaders roundly praised the announcement of federal money for training, the impact seems questionable.

“It was good news, but might be a little late,” said Malaquias Rael, the leader of Questa’s economic development organization.

“A good amount of people went [away in 2014]. Some of them stayed and are working with the contractors. The only thing is, the stability isn’t there. So it’s still sort of like mining — up and down, up and down,” Rael said.

The U.S. Dept. of Labor finally granted trade adjustment assistance for former miners, congressional representatives from New Mexico announced Tuesday (Nov. 7).

Miners applied in 2014 for the trade adjustment assistance. The program is supposed to help workers whose jobs move to other countries.

The federal government denied their first application. And their second.

It took a revision of the federal law that authorizes the program and two more applications before the labor department finally approved assistance for former miners in Questa.

Questa miners who lost their job are now eligible for benefits to help them get into new industries — jobs that will support the future of Northern New Mexico.

They can apply for benefits like employment services, weekly income support payments, wage insurance and health coverage tax credits. Benefits can be used for training “across the state, to pay for past services or services in other areas for those who have moved or taken mining jobs elsewhere,” according to a spokesperson for U.S. Sen. Tom Udall.

“This is great for our miners, community and our county as whole,” said Mark Gallegos, Questa mayor and a Taos County commissioner. “Opening up this program … will only help what possible economic development comes in the area in the years to come.”

Nicholas Maestas, the recently hired Questa village administrator and former staffer for U.S. Rep. Ben Ray Luján, thanked the Congressional delegation for their support in the application and said it provides former Molycorp miners “an opportunity to come back home to their families, which is ultimately where they want to be.”

Maestas said the village already has plans in place to help former miners take advantage of the federal assistance.

Maestas will work with the New Mexico Department of Workforce Solutions, the state-level office that administers the program, “to ensure we get all of the resources to our community members who have gone through this job displacement,” he said.

The mayor said the village will be reaching out to former miners with details of the assistance.

“It might be just the shot in the arm to help save our village,” Gallegos said.

But with plenty of miners already gone from Questa, just how much this will help the village and the miners who once anchored its economy seems hard to gauge.

“It was because we were denied the program that people moved or left the state. Only time will tell if the announcement was too late,” Gallegos said.

Though agriculture and housing are industries that could potentially offer an economic lifeline to Questa, people are going to have to “get creative” for their work, Rael said.

“A post-mining economy lends itself to the entrepreneurial spirit,” he said. Ultimately, the future of Questa will come down to a bitterly simple question — “How bad do you want to stay in Questa?”