MINE SHAFTEDTHE FOLKS IN MORRISTOWN MAY BE GETTING A NOT-SO-GRAND CANYON
All that remains of the mining town of Seymour is a dilapidated, one-room stone house and a turn-of-the-century millstone used to grind ore. They're on Ed Knipp's ranch south of Morristown, surrounded by cattle beneath the spreading shade of ancient tamarack trees that run down to the banks of the Hassayampa River. The river seems a mile-wide bed of sand mismatched yellow to the region's red dust; actually it slips underground a few miles north of here and only surfaces with the spring run-off, and then with a force that has carved canyons through the area's gold-laden mountains.
Knipp's a builder in Glendale and lives in Morristown only when his business permits, but he's hoping it will be his full-time home. The ghosts of the mining town have returned to haunt him, however. Knipp may soon be looking at a strip mine on the federally owned land across the river. When he first registered his shock, the mining company told him, "Well, you live in a mining area."
An Australian company called Newsboy Goldmining has bought mineral rights to 18,000 acres of Bureau of Land Management land along the Hassayampa. The company's plans call for lopping the tops off a couple of mountains and digging a pit 1,000 feet in diameter and 180 feet deep. On a nearby hilltop, it will build a mill to crush five million tons of ore and a processing plant that would use cyanide to extract the gold and silver. The cyanide-tainted tailings would then be sprayed into an impoundment area built in a natural wash. The operation would run 24 hours a day.
It's the kind of neighborhood project that can make an instant environmentalist out of the staunchest Republican, and the residents of this town ten miles south of Wickenburg have scrambled to form two activist groups with hopes of stopping, or at least riding herd on, the mine and its impact on their community.
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Like Knipp, many of the landowners closest to the proposed strip mine are part-time residents, folks who have sunk savings into land for vacation or retirement homes. Most of them missed the public meeting last May 28 when Newsboy Goldmining Company announced its plans. And those who attended were hooted down by the out-of-work local miners who hoped for jobs in the new mine. And so the landowners called their own public meeting to hear what Newsboy and the BLM had to say. "They literally laughed at us," says Melissa Poff, a longtime Morristown resident. And when BLM area manager John Christensen announced that the mine was "a done deal," says Linda Sanders, another landowner, "that made people go ballistic."
Newsboy dismisses the landowners as NIMBYs ("Not in my backyard"). "One woman who stood up at the meeting to speak was wearing three gold bracelets," says Greg Liller, special projects manager for Newsboy. "Her earrings swung back and forth as she spoke."
The landowners counter by pointing out what they consider a travesty: Under the 1872 General Mining Law, foreign companies such as Newsboy can extract minerals from lands owned by U.S. taxpayers without paying a penny of royalties to the U.S. Government. That law is currently under attack in Congress. But with gold prices above $350 an ounce, mining companies will get what they can while the law still lets them. By industry standards, Newsboy's mine will be a small hole in the ground. But for the people of Morristown, it may still be too big.
"I don't think aesthetics is too important here, is it?" Larry Stedman asks rhetorically as he looks down into the rocky gully that is the Newsboy gold mine. Stedman's retired, and keeps a few horses on land he leases along the river. His pinto horse nuzzles impatiently against his back as he nods toward the burro weed growing along the top edge of the scar. "The BLM points to that as an example of how quickly the vegetation comes back," he says. Down in the gully the soil is barren, though it has not been mined since the 1950s, and is cut and furrowed with erosion from recent rainstorms. The site was named "Newsboy" by the 19th-century prospector who first dug there. He hoped to spend his profits to rescue orphaned newsboys from the streets of New York City and transport them to the healthful climate of Arizona--where they could work his gold mine. This smallish pit was termed "extensive disturbance" in the draft environmental assessment. Still, the report Newsboy commissioned justifies the even greater disturbance to come, a pit that the mining company will not be required to backfill when it is finished.
The EA was written by a consultant from Denver. In order to more quickly expedite mining plans, the BLM allows mining companies to hire approved third party contractors to write environmental assessments. Newsboy picked up the tab for a masterfully written document that makes the mine seem a boon to the community. It's a slippery piece of work that on one page lauds the 30 or so jobs that will be added to the local economy, then pages later remarks that most of those jobs will have to be filled from outside the community. It downplays the effect on wildlife, though cyanide-laced retaining ponds have killed birds, insects and mammals all over the West.
"It's a multiple-choice document," says Don Atkinson, a Phoenix manufacturer who owns 120 acres across from the mine. "I think the BLM owes us a second look." Atkinson has gone so far as to hire his own consultants to look over the EA. Steven Carothers of SWCA Environmental Consultants wrote in his preliminary review, "This is one of the worst environmental assessments that we have seen in a long time."
The greatest concerns are over water. There's a local legend that once you have drunk water from the Hassayampa River, you can never tell the truth again. The landowners are wondering what the truth about water really is--how much there is and how clean it will be after mining stops.
Newsboy claims that its water needs are negligible; the residents worry that under the clauses in the Arizona Groundwater Code favorable to mining, Newsboy can legally pump groundwater out from under them.
Residents are also frightened by the cyanide needed for gold processing, fears that are heightened by the sheaf of magazine and newspaper stories they've gathered on cyanide spills and poisoned groundwater. In this case, the "cyanidated" tailings will be piled in a natural wash, and although the soil beneath the tailings will be compacted and lined with plastic to render it impermeable, though the wash will be dammed to withstand a so-called "100-year flood," though cyanide breaks down quickly and though the whole thing must be regulated by the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality, they worry that the poisonous chemical will wash into the Hassayampa with the first bad rainstorm.
BLM's Christensen vows that Newsboy will meet all the agency's cyanide regulations. "Gosh," he says, "I hope we would never quit learning from the accidents that happen in other places."
The potential for accidents won't stop the mine, and though the EA does not yet meet BLM standards, the Newsboy mine appears to be a fait accompli. "Unless there is something that comes out of that [EA] document, those people will mine," Christensen says.
Regardless of the mess it makes, the mine will be completely legal--at least as the laws are written now. "This is the emotional side, so it doesn't make any difference," acknowledges Ed Knipp. "But we came out here for the quiet and the quality of life. I know nobody else wants to hear about that."
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