Cleaning the Creek

A mining company mucks out its own mess at Pinto Creek

And if Pinto Creek isn't already reeling enough from the ecological disturbances of the October spill, it will be disturbed even more when the Carlota mine is built just upstream.

In 1995, the EPA gave the Carlota Mine's draft environmental impact statement its lowest possible rating, meaning that the agency found both the plan and the document that described it to be inadequate. Local environmentalists, the Forest Service and the EPA raised so many issues about the draft EIS that Cambior, the Canadian mining company that owns the rights to Carlota, was forced back to the drawing board ("No Miner Consideration," September 7, 1995). Three years and $60 million later, the Carlota Mine is one federal permit away from reality.

Carlota originally planned to reroute Pinto Creek into a concrete chute around the mine's main pit. The current plan will require Carlota to carve a shelf out of a mountainside, gouge a trough in it, spray soil cement on the bottom and then dump six to eight feet of the creek's original sediment in it.

"It's obviously different [from the original creek]," says the Forest Service's Paul Stewart. "The question is how well you can get it back to something that serves as habitat as reasonably close as you can get it."

It will look terrible, but trying to make an aesthetically pleasing stream that runs between a mine pit and a tailings impoundment is like putting makeup on a pig.

"You can't stop a mine because of aesthetics in the United States," says the EPA's James Hillenbrand, "unless you get the president involved like they did in Yellowstone."

Arizona congressmen have gotten involved, but on the side of the miners, beating the jobs drum and failing to see the irony in elected U.S. representatives trying to give U.S. lands to a Canadian company.

Congressman J.D. Hayworth convened a "mining summit" in early April. In his initial letters to constituents, Hayworth claimed he would bring together mining representatives, city, state and federal officials and environmentalists. But when the invitations went out, the environmentalists were forgotten.

"When I called J.D.'s office to find out the details, they said that environmentalists weren't invited and that basically I wasn't welcome to show up," says Sandy Bahr of the Sierra Club.

Bahr went anyway and reports that Hayworth's main concerns were over how long it was taking Carlota to secure all of the necessary federal permits.

"I think they were trying to intimidate us," the EPA's Laura Gentile says of Hayworth and his mining constituents. "Look in the mirror, fellows: You've had major spills. If you would start giving us projects that are better designed, it would go a lot faster."

Last December, an environmental group that calls itself Citizens for the Protection of Powers Gulch filed suit against the U.S. Forest Service for approving the Carlota mining plan and asked for an injunction against the mine, citing water quality and quality-of-life issues and pointing to the BHP spill as evidence of the environmental damage that mining can cause.

But the BHP spill may be cleaned up too quickly to remain much of an example of the environmental irresponsibilities of mining.

By last week, the water had been drawn down behind the big dam built to keep Pinto Creek out of its recovering bed, and the 36-inch pipe that ran the length of the spill had been removed.

Green shoots blanketed the revegetated gulley that the spill had followed on its way downhill from the tailings dam to the stream.

Earth-moving equipment with shovels on telescoping arms had started pulling out the last of the tailings material from the northernmost reaches of the spill. They were working their way out like painters on a floor painting their way toward the door.

Workmen with shovels and hand trowels dug tailings out of the canyon walls.
Backhoes had positioned big boulders in lines behind which sediment can build up when the stream finally flows freely.

At the far end of the canyon, a man in rubber boots trained a firehose on the ground. Under its stream, fine stones and sands, the reds and browns of natural alluvium, the real streambed, were miraculously reappearing, and the sandy gray tailings slime was washing down into a pool to be pumped away forever.

Contact Michael Kiefer at his online address:

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