OROGRANDE, N.M. (AP) — Driving through this stark landscape south of Alamogordo, it’s easy to miss Orogrande with its one convenience store, post office and a closed-up mining museum.
Still, there are enough relics and beaten-down structures that one can picture the boom years of the 1900s, when men flooded the area, living in tents to seek out gold and turquoise. By 1905, the year after a 6 1/2-ounce gold nugget was discovered in a dry wash, the rush had spawned a railroad, a smelter, a 16-person real estate office, a barbershop, a hotel and nine saloons. “Rich ore poured out of the mines by the trainload,” reads an Otero County history blog.
By the 1940s, the area was largely mined out, and today the Orogrande Trading Post on U.S. 54 is the center of the community for its 50 residents. But when the sun is just right, the mineral left behind by those seeking easy money reflects in the hillsides. And if Santa Fe businessman Daniel Burrell is right, then Orogrande, in New Mexico’s Jicarra Mountains, will soon be known for having the largest reserve of garnet in the United States.
Gemstone-quality garnet is rare and largely found in places such as Madagascar and South Africa. What Orogrande offers is an industrial garnet increasingly needed by manufacturers for cleaning, cutting and air blasting. One of the hardest materials, garnet is cleaner than sand and silica, but 90 percent of the garnet purchased in the United States is imported.
The domestic production of garnet in the U.S. — in New York, Montana and Idaho — now stands at 35,000 tons a year. Within three years, if all goes as planned, the Orogrande mine owned by Burrell Western Resources may be producing 100,000 tons a year.
“In the United States there is no deposit as significant as this,” said Burrell, a former White House staffer and Democratic campaign adviser who moved to Santa Fe to head Rosemont Realty, a privately held company that owns commercial property in 24 states.
What it means for Burrell is not just a personal business challenge, but jobs and economic development for a rural stretch of the state, 50 miles north of El Paso. He is prepared to invest $25 million of family money in the initial phase of the project, which will bring 50 jobs at first and more later when a processing plant opens in Anthony, N.M. Eventually, the number of jobs might double or triple as the 2.5-million-ton reserve of andradite garnet is mined over the next two decades, injecting $1 billion into the state’s economy.
“It’s such a ridiculous opportunity,” Burrell said during an interview in his Santa Fe home. “Twenty years ago, if you stumbled on this, you’d probably have to pass — there was no market.”
The find is an amazing coincidence of climate and geology, said Peter Harbin, a Las Cruces-based consultant who advises mineral companies and has been working with Burrell. Garnet, he said, is fairly common, but is often eroded and washed away with concentrations too thin to economically extract. And many areas that have the mineral — there are garnet reserves in the San Pedro Mountains of Santa Fe County, for instance — are isolated, meaning transportation and labor costs are very high.
The rocks in the Orogrande mine are 75 to 90 percent pure garnet, “one of the highest (concentrations) that I’ve come across in my career,” said Harbin, who has been working in minerals for 30 years. That means that every rock taken will be mostly garnet, so there is less waste. “I wouldn’t say it’s unique, but it’s certainly special,” he said. And the fact that the mineral is within 2 miles of a major highway and close to the surface makes the project more viable. “It’s at the surface,” he said. “You can go and see and pick out the garnet.”
Burrell admits this is an opportunity that has come his way at the right time — when the manufacturing economy is recovering and demand for clean industrial materials is rising. It also comes when he can afford to leave his job at Rosemont to embark on something less certain, but with different challenges and rewards.
The Osogrande mine came Burrell’s way when a member of a Texas family called him asking if Rosemont was interested in its small real estate holdings around the El Paso airport. Rosemont passed on the opportunity, but the family also asked about some old mining claims in Otero County — 2,400 acres that had been in the family dating back to the 1872 mining law, a measure passed by the federal government that gave land to pioneers seeking to expand the nation west.
Burrell formed Burrell Western Resources and purchased the property. He and his father-in-law are the sole investors and are funding phase one of the business with $25 million, though they might seek outside capital in the future.
Arnand Van Heerden with Tetra Tech Mining & Minerals in Golden, Colo., is the lead geologist on the project. When walking the site in November, Heerden pointed to the limestone and monzoniterocks. The mix, along with some moisture and high temperatures, creates a sponge-like sediment magma that results in garnet. Add a few hundred years of percolation, and Orogrande seems to be the perfect stewpot.
Heerden called it “a perfect storm of events. For something like this, you really have to have it cooked in all directions,” he said. “Why garnet has not been mined here before I cannot tell you.”