By Amy Silverman
By Olivia LaVecchia
By Monica Alonzo and Stephen Lemons
By Chris Parker
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By Weston Phippen
"I have 20 years of doing landslide investigation," he says, "and after dealing with it on a daily basis, I know what a landslide looks like and what its characteristics are."
The USGS disagreed with Inman's report--but not completely. It didn't think the big pit would cave in, but it urged caution and constant monitoring. The Pinto Creek diversion channel, the USGS posited, was also relatively safe from landslide.
The potential for a landslide closing off the Powers Gulch diversion channel was still very real, but in the opinion of the USGS geologists, it was not cause for denying the mine's operation.
"We obviously wouldn't build a plant in an area that is prone to landslide," says Jock McGregor. "Our business is obviously to get a mine running, make a profit, and do it in an environmentally sound way."
However, accidents do happen. Cambior has had its share.
On August 19, the Omai gold mine in the South American nation of Guyana--of which Cambior is 65 percent owner--had one such accident.
A retaining pond gave way in a rainstorm and dumped 800 million gallons of cyanide-tainted wastewater into the Essequibo River. At least two people died of poisoning. The river ran thick with dead fish and wild hogs. It took Cambior five days to plug the leak. It was the second such spill in a matter of months.
Jock McGregor is quick to point out that the sulfuric acid leach pad proposed by Carlota is different. Because the ore is not ground into fine tailings, such as in the Guyana gold mine or like the copper tailings next door at Pinto Valley, they are nowhere near as mobile.
Besides, he stresses, there is no large water catchment area above the proposed mine that could funnel such massive water flows into the gulch or the creek. Local residents, on the other hand, say the area is very prone to flash flood.
Still, the Guyana accident gives pause, and so does an earlier cyanide spill at a mine owned by Westmont, the company that Cambior bought out to acquire the Carlota Mine and Jock McGregor.
In October 1990, Westmont's Brewer Mine in South Carolina saw a dam failure that washed ten million gallons of cyanide wastewater into Little Fork Creek.
Bob Walish, who was the Brewer Mine's general manager, and is now the general manager for Carlota, recently told a newspaper reporter that that incident happened during a "once in a 21 century flood."
What is the chance of a once-in-a-lifetime incident at Carlota? Are the Cambior folks careless and accident-prone, or is mining simply an industry prone to environmental disaster?
Donna Goodale pulls her big truck up to the original Carlota Mine, a 1940s-vintage headworks and shaft, a reminder of the days when copper was mined by gouging out underground ore veins.
Such antiquated methods were inefficient. Nowadays, mining companies get at the copper ore by removing the entire landscape, and if they leave a gaping scar when they're done, well, that's the cost of progress. Copper has to come from somewhere.
Turquoise-green rocks on the ground bear testament to the rich copper ore that lies below the surface; even the stones in the chimney and fireplace of the long-burned-down miner's shack shine blue with copper oxide.
Goodale came here often as a child.
"My father was a prospector," she says. "This was my playground."
She studies the red dusty earth, the juniper trees, as if trying to hold them in her mind. They'll be nothing but memory soon.
The Carlota Mine's Environmental Impact Statement has not yet been finalized; the Forest Service expects to have a final document by the end of the year. There will be meetings among the participating regulatory agencies this month. Every problem will be "mitigated."
Everyone expects the mine to go through.