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

November 11, 2017 GMT

In the summer of 2014, Chevron gathered employees of its molybdenum mine in Questa and announced the mine would close, leaving 300 people without a job. Now, more than three years later, the federal government has approved job training, health insurance tax credits and other assistance for former miners who saw their jobs disappear.

But Questa is no longer home to many of those people. While some have stayed in the community, working for contractors on the mine cleanup project or switching to other types of work in nearby towns such as Taos, others left their homes and headed for mines in Southern New Mexico or elsewhere in the West.

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Village leaders praised the announcement this week of the federal aid money, called trade adjustment assistance, from the U.S. Department of Labor, but said the impact seems questionable at this point.

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

The miners had applied for the assistance — meant to help workers whose jobs had moved to other countries — when the mine shut down.

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 the assistance for former Questa miners.

“It was because we were denied the program that people moved or left the state,” said Questa Mayor Mark Gallegos, who also is a Taos County commissioner. “Only time will tell if the announcement was too late.”

But Gallegos seemed more optimistic than Rael, saying, “This is great for our miners, community and our county as whole. Opening up this program … will only help what possible economic development comes in the area in the years to come.”

Miners who lost their job are now eligible for benefits to help them get into new industries — jobs that could improve the outlook for Northern New Mexico’s economy.

They can apply for 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.

Nicholas Maestas, the recently hired Questa village administrator, said the program provides former miners “an opportunity to come back home to their families, which is ultimately where they want to be.”

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

He said he 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.”

The mayor said the village plans to reach out to former miners about the program. “It might be just the shot in the arm to help save our village,” Gallegos said.

Though agriculture and housing are industries that could potentially offer an economic lifeline to Questa, Rael said, people are going to have to “get creative” when it comes to jobs.

“A post-mining economy lends itself to the entrepreneurial spirit,” he said.

But ultimately, Rael said, the future of Questa will come down to a bitterly simple question: “How bad do you want to stay in Questa?”