From Dust to ... Golf?

Phelps Dodge wants to turn a dusty plain of toxic mine tailings into what it says is an environment-friendly golf course near the Verde River. No one can be sure whether the unprecedented plan will work. But that hasn't stopped anyone from fighting abo

Jerry Wiley, outgoing town mayor and volunteer librarian, checks out books the old-fashioned way, by stamping dates onto inside covers.

The library in Clarkdale, a north-central Arizona town of 2,500 cloistered at the base of Mingus Mountain, is a busy place on this springlike afternoon. Middle-aged hippies wait in line to check out classic-film videos; a mother stands patiently with an armful of children's books.

Wiley is familiar with the books lining the stacks, having spent many afternoons here. He is especially familiar with a row of public documents pertaining to Phelps Dodge Corporation's proposed 1,700-unit housing development, Verde Valley Ranch.

For several years, the merits of Verde Valley Ranch have been vigorously debated in Clarkdale.

The reason: The project will be constructed around a golf course created atop four million tons of copper-mining tailings--tailings containing elevated levels of cadmium, copper, lead, mercury, silver and zinc, which can cause serious health problems. Phelps Dodge and the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality have repeatedly asserted that the metals in the tailings will be "contained" by a system of complicated environmental checks and balances that will prevent humans from being exposed to the toxins.

For years, the 116-acre tailings pile in Clarkdale has been an environmental embarrassment to Phelps Dodge. The tailings have already contaminated groundwater with metals and salts; the site has been assessed for possible inclusion on the federal Superfund list.

In 1990, Phelps Dodge was cited for violating the Clean Water Act because tailings-contaminated groundwater had oozed out of the earth, forming acidic "rusty-red" seeps with high concentrations of sulfates and metals. The seeps continuously leaked into the Verde River.

Clarkdale itself has not escaped the scrutiny of federal environmental regulators.

The town had been dumping its treated sewage on the tailings for at least a decade. The effluent had percolated through the tailings and was thought to be one of the primary causes of the contaminated seeps. Clarkdale needed--still needs--anew sewage-treatment plant.

Phelps Dodge offered to pay for the $5 million plant in exchange for Clarkdale's annexation of Verde Valley Ranch property and--perhaps more important--the town's cooperation in the environmental permitting process for the development.

The treatment plant became a hot issue in recent local elections.
Wiley, who was running for reelection to the town council, which selects the mayor, lost. He had supported accepting Phelps Dodge's offer to build the plant; he contends that deal was the town's only reasonable option. Clarkdale's bonding capacity is limited to $2.3 million, too little to build the plant on its own.

But Michael Bluff, who defeated Wiley in the council race, says the town should not rely on Phelps Dodge, but should take control of the plant. Bluff says his family company builds sewage plants and, yes, his family would bid on the facility should Clarkdale reject Phelps Dodge's offer.

The town should build the plant, Bluff says, because of the environmental brouhaha that has enveloped the Verde Valley Ranch proposal.

"This litigation could go on for a long time," he says.
The permitting process has already taken five years.
Six months ago, Clarkdale and Phelps Dodge finally obtained from DEQ the necessary "aquifer-protection permits" required by state law to protect underground water reserves, or aquifers. The permits had to be obtained before the development could go forward.

Nothing's going forward, however.
In fact, the project is indefinitely stalled.
The short-term fate of Verde Valley Ranch hinges on an administrative protest lodged in February by a coalition of the Sierra Club, the Audubon Society and a handful of local citizen-activists that has long opposed the project. The protesters have appealed the two essential aquifer-protection permits. The state Water Quality Appeals Board is expected to rule on the appeals this month.

The environmentalists, who claim the permits are scientifically and legally flawed, say they won't be happy until more tests are conducted to ensure the project won't be an environmental calamity. Should they lose their appeal, they vow, they'll take their fight to Superior Court. The strategy is to buy time, sway public opinion, force the company to negotiate on the infrastructure of the development and to guarantee further environmental studies.

Phelps Dodge, which would not comment for this article, has portrayed the protesters as antidevelopment obstructionists who want to drive the company out of the community by focusing on frivolous issues that have nothing to do with the environment. The company continues to promote Verde Valley Ranch as a fail-safe, "win win" for the environment, Clarkdale and the mining company.

Phelps Dodge and DEQ say the tailings and a reserve of groundwater that has been polluted by the tailings sit in a geological bathtub called the Verde Formation. The bathtub consists of layers of sandstone, siltstone and limestone.

The argument boils down to this: Phelps Dodge and the state contend that with minor technological tweaking, the bathtub will not leak its polluted groundwater into either the drinking-water supply for the town, which lies underneath the bathtub, or the Verde River, which runs right alongside it.

Environmentalists, however, contend the bathtub might very well leak and that there simply have not been enough studies to satisfy them that the Verde Formation will, indeed, protect drinking water from the tailings.

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