Cleaning the Creek

A mining company mucks out its own mess at Pinto Creek

"It was living on the edge for a long time, and everybody watched the incoming storms like hawks," says Stu Herkenhoff, a minerals specialist for the Forest Service.

To keep the heavy earth-moving machinery from foundering in the tailings, the engineers had to spread a layer of rock over it to serve as a road. Those machines have worked constantly since last fall, digging out and hauling away debris.

Below the semisolid mass, workers dug in the streambed with shovels and buckets to cart out pockets of tailings, and then they released water from the dam through the 36-inch pipe, literally washed the lower three quarters of a mile, and then captured the water downstream and pumped it up to the mine property to use as industrial water. Miraculously, that lower reach of water now shows little sign of the slimes that coated the banks and the river rocks.

By mid-April, the upper reaches had been rid of most of their heavy material. The embankments had been scoured and graded, and a revegetation consultant had sprayed them with a mixture of mulch and seed and compost.

"I was pretty impressed with what they've done with the mess they had," says Dan James of the consulting firm Western Sere, which handled the revegetation.

He proceeded to fashion a seed list of native grasses, forbs, wildflowers and woody plants.

"If you walk the hillsides, they're just loaded with species," James says. "We put in as many species as we could get within reason in the seed mix. I think we used 20 or 25 species."

The jobs that remained were to pull out the rock that had been laid as a road for the heavy equipment and then to scrape tailings down to the stream bottom's river rock. The larger boulders would be rearranged to approximate the falls and riffle pools of the original stream. The entire stream bottom would have to be washed. Finally, the workers will plant willows and other riparian trees.

"Our goal is the end of June," says Evelyn Bingham, BHP's environmental engineer.

When the EPA and the state Department of Environmental Quality are satisfied with the creek's water quality, the gabions can be removed. The big dam above will remain until after the summer monsoons to make sure that the new stream contours and the nascent vegetation are not washed away.

What is the future of Pinto Creek?
Don't count on a benevolent environment. For all its good work and responsible actions, BHP was forced to respond properly to the Pinto disaster because it had a statutory gun to its head. And it turned over its wallet smilingly, knowing that it was insured against such liabilities. No matter how well BHP succeeds in repairing its mile-and-a-half stretch of the creek, Pinto Creek will be changed forever, and because of the nature of mining, there is no guarantee that other disasters won't occur. Considering that a reach of the creek just upstream from the cleanup will soon have a new strip mine in it, the odds of Pinto Creek's survival diminish even more.

The 1993 flood that washed tailings out of the same impoundment was grounds for a federal lawsuit against Magma Copper, which had built and operated the impoundment. When BHP absorbed Magma in 1996, it took responsibility for the consent decree that Magma had signed with the EPA and the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality. Any further discharges from the impoundment would violate that consent decree. BHP is now paying $3,000 a day as the tailings are being removed, the fine stipulated in the consent decree.

Much of the $20 million that BHP has already spent to clean up the creek may be reimbursed by insurance.

"We're working with our insurance carriers and their representatives right now," says General Manager Dee Durazo. "It has yet to be determined how much will be covered and how much will not be covered."

Furthermore, BHP may be able to sue the Tucson firm that helped engineer the rock dumps to recover more money.

"I don't know if we're going to file a claim [against the engineering firm]," Durazo says. Managers of the engineering firm chose not to talk to New Times.

Incidentally, BHP has laid off 400-some workers because of the low price of copper in the marketplace.

The environmental damage to Pinto Creek is more difficult to gauge than the financial damage to BHP.

Before the 1993 flood, the creek was habitat for five species of fish; after the spill, it had just three, though it is impossible to determine that the die-offs are directly related to the spill.

The October spill took place when the stream was dry and consequently did not move very far. And its components are relatively nontoxic and do not have the kind of half-life that some chemical spills would have.

But regardless of how environmentally ethical BHP may claim to be, mining is hazardous to the environment.

BHP is also party to a $100 million federal court settlement last August with two other Arizona mining companies to clean up mining spills in Pinal Creek, which runs east of Pinto Creek. Admittedly, that is also a mess that BHP inherited from Magma. Last November, however, a pipe burst at another BHP facility near Globe, spilling 72,000 gallons of tailings into two washes that empty into Pinal Creek.

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