Environmental Emergency

As mines are abandoned, activists fear what will happen to Southern Arizona's water table

Fits of dust rise like ghosts behind Tom Weiskopf's green Ford Explorer as he sails across a vast and lifeless plain on the southern flanks of Bisbee. Marking more than a century of human ambition, this forlorn, square-mile of mine tailings gropes hungrily into desert, chastened only by berms and ditches lacing its outer ring.

Weiskopf crunches to a halt and climbs out of his truck. As manager of the Phelps Dodge Copper Queen Mine, his job is to put this site to rest in the least toxic way possible. He walks over to a slope where tough little grasses peek up through rock. "This is a test plot," he says. Grinning slightly, he kicks at squarish stones, baring wan soil beneath. "It's four years old at this point, and OK, maybe it's not a rainforest. But we are getting some growth."

Still, it's one thing to reclaim fragments of life that the eye can see; but beneath this scarred landscape resides another world, a 2,000-mile web of hard-rock tunnels, many pounded out by hand in territorial times. Now, Phoenix-based Phelps Dodge has finally quit pumping water out of the aged, subterranean network, and it's filling by anywhere from 2-10 feet each year. Depending upon whom you ask, that means the old mines will finally reach stasis--and the surrounding water table--in anywhere from 28 to 70 years.

With that come unknown dangers to local water supplies. The backdrop to this potential crisis is weak state oversight, and mining-power politics that ebb and flow as ore prices rise and fall. Despite regulations dating from the 1980s, the Copper Queen still doesn't have a water quality agreement--an Aquifer Protection Permit--from the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality. Nor does it have a financial bond or guarantee to cover cleanup should Phelps Dodge choose to simply walk away.

No one expects that to happen, least of all Weiskopf. "We've spent $10 million to date on water quality and reclamation," he says. "Why? Because it's the right thing to do."

But others worry that the state is not adequately protecting residents around the Copper Queen. Among them is Dick Kamp, executive director of the Border Ecology Project. He says that rising waters might not prove dangerous until the tunnels are full. "And any large-scale pumping at that time would create cones of depression (that) draw groundwater toward (them)," he writes, in an e-mail to the Tucson Weekly. "Certainly at a minimum, one would expect a dramatic rise in sulfates and total dissolved solids."

Unfortunately, the old Copper Queen has plenty of company: Western lands are thick with closed and abandoned mines. And while reclaiming the Queen may be a work in progress, other hard-rock operations are simply left to the limited ability or lackluster will of government officials to clean them up.

Roughly 500,000 closed or abandoned mines dot the nation, with the majority found here in the West. And Arizona has the most, with approximately 100,000. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, these mines have contaminated about 40 percent of all Western river headwaters and polluted plenty of groundwater. In many cases, they seep poisons such as mercury and cyanide, capable of wiping out wildlife ranging from plants and insects to fish.

It's also a dilemma with no quick or cheap fix, as cleanup costs often run into the hundreds of millions. And many abandoned mines suffer from long-dead or disappeared owners, leaving reclamation tabs for taxpayers and under-funded government programs.

Jurisdictional webs further complicate the landscape. Some Arizona mines, such as the Copper Queen, are primarily on private land; others inhabit state property. And from 1992 to 1999, a joint study by the Arizona State Mine Inspector and the U.S. Bureau of Land Management found more than 8,787 abandoned mines on federal land within state borders. Of those, 7,844 remained dangerous.

In 1998, the Arizona Legislature--noting the problem--created the Abandoned Mine Safety Fund. According to the statute, the fund addresses "actual abatement costs to fill, fence or plug shafts. ... "

But there's a catch: While the fund fixes physically dangerous mines where people can hurt themselves, that money doesn't pay for environmental cleanup. Besides, the fund is miniscule, arriving at a measly $15,000 in 2001 and wavering ever since.

Legal hurdles also slow cleanup; good Samaritans attempting reclamation can be held liable for additional contamination their efforts cause.

Simply measuring the problem is another challenge. "While there are obviously large public safety issues involved, we still don't know how many of those mines are causing groundwater pollution," says Lauren Pagel, legislative coordinator for the Mineral Policy Center, a Washington, D.C., mining watchdog group. "Only a few states have even done inventories, because most of the time, there's no funding for them."

Even when a problem mine is identified, there often isn't enough money or manpower for intensive monitoring. Case in point: Two decades after passage of the Arizona Groundwater Management Act--which requires aquifer protection permits, or APPs--the Copper Queen still hasn't gotten that permit. ("The APP process seems glacially slow," complains mine-closure expert Jim Kuipers.)

Steve Owens, director of the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality, admits that the permitting process has crept along. But he says that's starting to change under the administration of Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano. "One of things we've worked to do since we came into office is to get mining APPs all wrapped up--we've been going through the process of permitting all the old mines, and this is one of those sites."

Back at the tailings pile, Tom Weiskopf gazes out at the massive mine under his charge. Even without a permit, he says, engineers have been knee-deep in studying the Copper Queen's environmental legacy.

"We now have 10 years' worth of data to work with," he says, "and we expect to have our first APP within a few months."

Kuipers, in a March 2003 report for the Mineral Policy Center entitled Putting a Price on Pollution, writes: "American taxpayers today are potentially liable for $1 billion to more than $12 billion in cleanup costs for hard-rock mining sites--those designed to extract metals. Because mining companies are inadequately insured to pay for cleaning up their toxic pollution, the public is left with staggering costs for something as basic to human life as clean water."

From his Butte, Mont., office, Kuipers offers a dire assessment: "The West is a car wreck waiting to happen." An engineer who's made a career of gauging mine cleanups, Kuipers claims that many states--and Arizona in particular--are "not addressing all of this. They're putting things off, taking the approach of 'Let's wait and see for the next 50 to 100 years.' Well, most mining companies don't even exist that long.

"Even Nevada has gotten assessments on water quality" and how it will be impacted by mines in the future, he says. "But Arizona is in last place (among Western states). It's hardly begun there."

Much of that shortfall comes in monitoring activities, Kuipers says, calling the Mission Mine near Green Valley a perfect example. "That mine should have 50 to 100 wells. But instead, there are only three or four. And the state is arguing over where there should be a fifth."

On the whole, Kuipers' March 2003 pollution report is alarming. He notes that Arizona is 50 percent behind on financial assurance liability--the amount of insurance money mines must post to guarantee full cleanup. For example, while New Mexico holds $275,137,000 in financial assurance, or more than $14,000 per affected acre, Arizona holds only $146,456,779--a mere $1,858 per acre. At the same time, Arizona has nearly 79,000 acres disturbed by mining activity, compared with only 19,000 in New Mexico.

"States with the weakest reclamation and financial assurance requirements continue to be Arizona and Nevada," Kuipers' report concludes, "because they allow corporate self-guarantees and in some cases lack current site-specific reclamation plans."

Self-guarantees are controversial in cases such as the Chino copper mine, a Phelps Dodge subsidiary near Silver City, N.M. Instead of posting a bond for Chino, Phelps Dodge hoped to simply pledge--or guarantee--to pay any cleanup costs. But critics charged that such arrangements don't diversify the risk. In other words, if copper markets plummet, both Phelps Dodge and its subsidiary could get in a pinch. But money in a posted bond would be an investment--a guarantee--with integrity unrelated to copper prices.

While it's critical that mines fully bond cleanups, companies have been lax in posting guarantees. According to Kuipers' study, Phelps Dodge has posted only $14.3 million in financial assurance for southeast Arizona's Morenci Copper Mine--while full cleanup costs are estimated at $948.4 million. And the ASARCO mining company has only a $3 million cleanup fund for its Mission Mine near Green Valley. The actual price tag for reclaiming that copper mine? Nearly $418 million.

In some cases, lackadaisical financial commitment leads to what Kuipers calls the "walk-away scenario." That's when mine owners simply vacate after doing a minimum of cleanup--a bit of water channeling, bare-bones topsoil replacement, a thin reseeding and re-sloping to stop erosion.

Still, there are reasons for hope: Among Western states, New Mexico is emerging as a model for mixing regulatory muscle with political will. "I like to think of New Mexico's regulatory laws as progressive," says Harry Browne, executive director of the Silver City-based Gila Resources Information Project.

Both the New Mexico Environmental Project and the Mining and Natural Resources Department were given additional regulatory powers under the state's 1986 Water Quality Act, he says. Added oversight now means that "cleanup plans are put in place before the mines close. And my group encourages those agencies to get a good evaluation of what the true cost is going to be."

Shenanigans remain, however: One example is again the Chino Mine, where Phelps Dodge pushed a legislative measure allowing it to self-guarantee the estimated $460 million in cleanup costs. "Essentially, the Chino Mine said that if there are problems, PD in Phoenix will pay," says Browne.

In February 2002, Phelps Dodge spokesman Richard Peterson described the measure to the Albuquerque Journal as "a form of relief. ... " But environmentalists viewed things a bit differently. "The problem with Phelps Dodge doing this is they are in the same business (as their subsidiary)," New Mexico Environmental Law Center attorney Doug Wolf told reporters. "They're both in the cyclical copper market. If one gets a cold, they both sneeze."

In the end, regulators and environmentalists forced the bill to be quietly withdrawn.

But heavy-handedness didn't end there, says Browne. "Phelps Dodge also tried to carve out a portion of New Mexico that wouldn't be under the jurisdiction of the New Mexico Department of Environmental Quality." That measure would lower oversight of some Phelps Dodge mines.

The proposal went nowhere, suggesting to Browne that Phelps Dodge is losing its legendary political bite. "The advent of our progressive closure plan shows they don't have the clout they once did," he says.

Here at home, Arizona officials are doing their best to ride herd over the vast number of closed and abandoned mines under their jurisdiction, says Hector Lovemore, deputy inspector with the State Mine Inspector's Department. For a success story, he points to the San Manuel Mine, north of the Santa Catalina Mountains, where 4,000-foot-deep tunnels began flooding with water as BHP Copper closed down in summer of 2002. The company left about 40 workers on the site to conduct the cleanup, expected to take three to five years.

Among other things, Lovemore says that BHP is spending "tens of millions" to remediate old rock dumps, tailings piles and landfills. "The company has been aggressively transparent, and it's really something to watch. Truly, without any B.S., this is an absolutely first-class operation."

That's a good thing, too, because when BHP finishes the cleanup, Lovemore is the guy who signs off on it. He's not worried. "They're still a number of years from that," he says. "But they're spending tens of millions of dollars on this. It's a major capital project. If you go to the mine site two years from now, you won't recognize it."

To monitor water quality around the San Manuel Mine, Lovemore says the state uses a series of wells, under standards set by the ADEQ. "This is worked out ahead of time with hydrologists, regulators and mining companies as to what is adequate and what isn't. And it's always a contentious situation. But you always end up obeying what ADEQ wants."

Jim Kuipers doesn't share Lovemore's exuberance. He says the San Manuel Mine has a $33.5 million cleanup bond--the largest in the state--but wonders whether that's enough. "I'm very, very skeptical. I think at the very most, that might cover the minimal surface reclamation."

He uses the Chino Mine near Silver City for comparison. "Instead of $33.5 million, you're talking about $300 to $350 million," he says. "That's what remediation at that similar-sized mine in New Mexico is expected to cost."

As grizzled mining towns go, Bisbee has witnessed its share of boom and bust. In boom times, the burg was home to Wobblies and prostitutes, hard-rock miners and an endless supply of saloons. By the early 1900s, it was the largest city between St. Louis and San Francisco, with a population nearing 20,000.

By the time it fell silent in 1975, Bisbee's legendary Copper Queen Mine had pumped out some 355 million pounds of zinc, 324 million pounds of lead, 11 million pounds of manganese, 2.7 million ounces of gold, 100 million ounces of silver and 7.7 billion pounds of copper.

That's a lot of rock. But these days, Bisbee mostly mines the tourist trade, with restaurants, galleries and hotels for visitors drawn by an eccentric blend of blue-collar bohemia and California-boutique culture. The town's plodding, fitful rebirth has occurred in the Copper Queen's massive shadow, even as the Queen itself endures languid paroxysms of death.

But even in decline, the mine's Byzantine tendrils forever pierce the earth, snaking for mile upon ancient mile beneath these border badlands. And that intrigues historians such as Boyd Nicholl, curator of the Bisbee Mining and Historical Museum, which is stationed inside the handsome brick building once head-quartering Phelps Dodge.

A map of those underground mines fills a glass case, and it's a thick cluster of red, lavender and blue lines metastasizing outward. "More than 2,000 miles of them," says Nicholl, an amiable man with a beard and ponytail. His finger rests over an area of particular mine concentration. "That's where we're talking 20 years of operation, starting in 1901. And there are hundreds of miles of mines there, all done by hand.

"It's really incredible," he chuckles. "We could go down into the Copper Queen, and probably go all the way through the maze from that point." Then he turns to help another visitor, as winter sunlight pours through the museum's high windows.

Kamp and Kuipers may worry about a potential crisis in those profoundly interconnected catacombs. But the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality is already taking protective steps, says Director Steve Owens. "ADEQ is working with Phelps Dodge on the APP permit, in this case precluding closing the site down."

Still, Owens admits that issuing a permit this late in the game is bit topsy-turvy. "Typically, you have an APP when you have an ongoing operation," he says. But at the Copper Queen, "it has worked a little backward. They're required to close the site and do something about the contamination there. And in order to close the site, they have to go through the APP process. In this case, (the APP) will set up cleanup requirements and things like that."

The permit will also require Phelps Dodge to post financial assurance for the Copper Queen cleanup. But even without a bond already in place, Owens isn't worried. "If for some reason, (Phelps Dodge) were to walk away, we have a number of things we could do, from issuing a cleanup order to using state Superfund to clean it up and then pursuing cost recovery.

"But," he emphasizes, "we have no reason to believe that they won't do the appropriate thing."

Kuipers hopes the appropriate thing starts occurring sooner rather than later--and certainly before mine companies pack-up and move on. "I think the state should be looking at this a little differently, and a lot more proactively," he says. "Don't wait for the (the mining companies) to be gone, because then we know for sure who's going to pay for it."

Meaning you and me.