For all of her 53 years, Donna Goodale has threaded horses and mules through nearly impassable thickets of scrub oak and manzanita behind the tiny hamlet of Top of the World, Arizona, 75 miles east of Phoenix on U.S. Route 60. Goodale is a solid-framed woman with curly blond hair and a country-quiet voice. She works as a prison guard in Globe. But she hired out as a cowpoke until she was well into her 30s, and still guides trips all the way up into Haunted Canyon, a hard-to-find green sliver in the Tonto National Forest. For the last several years, she's been trying to ride herd on copper mining.
She's comfortable with all kinds of horsepower; today her big pickup truck lumbers down the freshly bulldozed scar of a mining road and stops just three-quarters of a mile behind her house where the land drops down toward Powers Gulch and Pinto Creek, which has been nominated by the U.S. Forest Service for Wild and Scenic River status.
In spots the ground is littered with Native American potsherds, evidence of civilizations that once lived here. Mule deer are abundant; so were javelina until local sportsmen held javelina shoots and annihilated them. Black bear migrate through to lunch on manzanita berries. To the west are the high ridges that mark the boundary of the Superstition Wilderness in the Tonto National Forest.
But it's a two-faced panorama. To the northeast is wasteland, the gouged tailings pits of the Magma/Pinto Valley Mine, acre upon acre of white desert talcum powder spewed out of the copper mines. This part of Arizona has always been mined. After thunderstorms, the washes run green with copper-tinted run-off that's coursed over some forgotten prospector's uncovered diggings. Three years ago, flash floods took out the big tailings impoundments at Pinto Valley and sent them racing down Pinto Creek into Roosevelt Lake.
And so you'd think that Goodale and her neighbors would be reconciled to the notion of another mining company coming in and taking another big chunk out of the earth.
But Goodale's fighting it.
The Carlota Copper Company wants to install a 300-acre hole behind Goodale's house, then put a 300-acre heap-leach pad--a mountain of copper-ore rocks and sulfuric acid--in the wash leading down to the creek.
The Environmental Protection Agency says the mining plan is unacceptable. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Park Service have recommended that the mining company not get the appropriate permits to start up the mine. The U.S. Department of the Interior and the Arizona Game and Fish Department have all registered their concerns for water and air quality. A Forest Service staff geologist has said that the whole area is geologically unstable and subject to life-threatening landslides that could float the whole acid pile right down into Roosevelt Lake, Phoenix's largest reservoir.
Donna Goodale thinks the mine will suck the water right out of her well--just like earlier mines did to her parents' well, just a few miles east on U.S. 60. Indeed, the project's draft environmental impact statement reports that it will require 750 to 1,200 gallons of water per minute, 24 hours a day for the next 20-some years.
However, in the current political climate, such environmental details take a back seat to the economy. The town fathers of nearby Globe have lobbied for the 300 jobs the mine will create, and so have Arizona senators Jon Kyl and John McCain and Arizona Congressman J.D. Hayworth.
Of the bunch, only Hayworth actually showed his face in Top of the World.
Donna Goodale asked Hayworth about her water, and about the crushing machines and heavy trucks and high-intensity lights that would be operating less than a mile behind her house night and day for the next 20 years.
"He says that's what you've got to expect when you live in a mining district," Goodale reports of her conversation with the esteemed congressman. She's lived there for 30 years, and before that she lived three miles away. Hayworth didn't care.
"He says we knew there were mines here when we bought the place. There was no mine here. There were diggings down there. We moved here because it was next to the National Forest and we could ride horses there. It doesn't seem to bother him any. He's for making as much money as you can off the land."
Goodale followed up her meeting with the esteemed congressman by writing him a letter. "I know that one of your concerns is property rights," she wrote, "and property owners being compensated when their property is devalued by the federal government.
"I believe that we also have property rights. The mines do not have the right to destroy those property rights and water supplies without compensating us. It bothers me more that a foreign mining company can do this."
Goodale and her fellow citizens have been denounced locally as "radical environmentalists." One local journalist even warned his colleagues that if the crazed environmentalists disrupted the public hearings on the mines, then the good citizens of Globe should take up arms and run them off.
"I've never been involved in any environmental group," says Goodale. Indeed, she's been a cowgirl. Her daddy was a metallurgical engineer.
"My family works for the mines," she says. "I understand jobs. But not when they're going to do so much destruction and take the water supply. When a foreign company comes in and takes it, it's even worse."
Hayworth is right. This is a mining district, and has been for at least a hundred years; some of the diggings in the Carlota claim date to the 1800s. The existing Carlota mine shaft was still being worked in the 1940s, and the Carlota claim, some of which is private property, backs right up to the Magma mines.
In 1991, Cambior USA, the U.S. branch of a Canadian mining company, bought Westmont Mining, Inc., and in the process acquired the private property of the historic Carlota Mine. Cambior also acquired mineral rights to ore bodies in the adjacent National Forest. A year later, Cambior bought additional mineral rights from Magma, and expected to start mining in 1993.
Carlota plans to take 100 million tons of copper out of the ground over the next 20 or so years. It would stake out 3,000 acres, though only 1,400 of those acres would actually be disturbed, and a third of that disturbance would be on Carlota's private property.
There would be three pits: The largest would gouge out nearly 300 acres, a hole that would be only partly filled when the ore peters out. The ore would be crushed into gravel-size rocks, then piled onto a 300-acre heap-leach pad where it would be soaked in a sulfuric-acid solution to extract the copper.
The problem is that a river runs through it--a stream and a wash, to be precise. Pinto Creek, which empties into Roosevelt Lake, runs over the pit site. In order to mine beneath it, Carlota would have to dig a milelong diversion channel around the pit, which could change the chemistry, the speed, the temperature of the creek, and could consequently upset the riparian habitat downstream. And to hell with "Wild and Scenic" qualities.
The heap-leach pad would sit right smack in the middle of Powers Gulch, a major drainage that joins Pinto Creek downhill from the mine. Carlota would have to cut a second milelong diversion channel to reroute the Powers Gulch run-off around the heap-leach pad so that it wouldn't wash the pad's sulfuric acid into Pinto Creek and eventually into Roosevelt Lake--and the Phoenix area's water supply.
The Tonto National Forest Plan--the official U.S. Forest Service document that specifies the ideal use for each section of the forest--sets aside this land for recreation and fish and wildlife habitat.
But when it comes to mining, the Forest Plan means little or nothing, because the Forest Service does not have jurisdiction over the mineral resources below the surface. According to the 1872 Mining Law, the minerals are controlled by the Bureau of Land Management, and the Forest Service has to cooperate with potential miners.
Paul Stewart, the Forest Service employee charged with expediting the Carlota mine project, says, "If the area is open to mineral entry, if they have followed the process with the BLM and have legal claims to the minerals, if they comply with all other laws, then basically it's a done deal. It becomes their property and they can take it and mine it."
Stewart's voice brightens as he adds, "Now we have authority to affect how they do it. Not whether they do it, but how they do it."
And so the project required an Environmental Impact Statement, a two-inch-thick document paid for by Carlota, prepared by a third-party consultant and edited by the Forest Service.
Carlota needed to convince the Forest Service that the Pinto Creek diversion channel would not seriously affect waters downstream and that the leach pad and its acid would stay put in Powers Gulch, not only while the mine is operating, but long afterward.
It needed to prove that the mine would not sully the air quality of the wilderness area next door.
Furthermore, because Carlota's operation would require 750 to 1,200 gallons of water per minute for the next 20 years, the Environmental Impact Statement needed to address where that water would come from, and whether it would come from the wells of Donna Goodale and her neighbors.
Given the Forest Service's resigned acquiescence to the 1872 Mining Law, however, the EIS process of identifying problems becomes a matter of rearranging those problems so that all the bureaucracies involved can live with them. The Forest Service is generally friendly to mining interests--as it is to timber and cattle grazing--and seldom says no. The National Forest, as the signs say, is a "Land of Many Uses," some of which get preference over others.
And since the EIS documents are prepared by third-party, industry-paid consultants whose business depends on projects going through, they seldom advise against one, regardless of how damaging a project may be to the environment. Instead, an EIS presents a range of alternative plans and "mitigations," and who knows what inconvenient details get left out. State and federal environmental regulatory agencies ranging from the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality to the EPA make their comments on the draft EIS and then send them back to the Forest Service for consideration for the final document.
Because the Carlota Mine involves wetlands, once the Forest Service signs off on the Environmental Impact Statement, the ball rolls to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which has to issue a document known as a Section 404 permit so that Carlota can move the waterways before mining can begin.
Only the Environmental Protection Agency can veto the 404 application, but as one official at that agency said, "It's very rare that EPA uses that trump card."
The state and federal regulatory agencies found the first draft of the Carlota EIS to be sketchy and incomplete, but they admit that they really have little authority to stop this or any other mine--regardless of how bad it is. With the exception of the EPA with its seldom-used veto power, they can only register their complaints and make suggestions to the Forest Service and the Corps of Engineers.
What will likely happen with the Carlota Mine is that the Environmental Impact Statement will be smoothed and polished until every agency is satisfied.
The mine will be environmentally sound, or at least environmentally reasonable.
On paper, anyway.
Deborah Ham, a Globe attorney swept up in the tiny grassroots opposition to the Carlota Mine, is trying to remind the Forest Service that it can stop the project, even if it won't.
"All the Forest Service knows how to say is '1872 Mining Law, 1872 Mining Law,'" she says. "That's their opinion. I disagree somewhat: There's a law that says you have to prove a reasonable plan of operation. And I would contend that not every plan can be made reasonable."
Even Cambior executives question whether they should have ever considered mining Carlota.
"Our initial fatal flaw of our analysis," says Jock McGregor, the president of Carlota Mining and a vice president of Cambior, "is that before we went ahead, we didn't identify the specific major problems in discussions with the Forest Service because we're right next door to Magma/Pinto Valley. And so it surprised us that the permitting process is taking so long.
"Right now we've spent over $30 million, and we still have no indication whether we're going to get a permit. That's very high-risk money."
McGregor, who speaks with a charming Scottish accent, had been working on the project since 1988, when he was an executive at Westmont, the company bought out by Cambior. Seven years later, he is still waiting to hear if the mine will go ahead. His patience is wearing thin.
There is something drastically wrong with a system that could, in theory, allow an entrepreneur to spend seven years and $30 million, and then inform him that his project can't go through.
So, to some extent, McGregor's frustration is warranted. While navigating the oceans of bureaucratic documents, he says, "You have to keep reproducing the same information rewritten in a slightly different way. It's amazing how expensive and time-consuming that is, and it doesn't add anything to the protection of the environment."
McGregor directs his ire at the usual environmental bogeymen, the federal regulatory agencies.
In a March letter to the Corps of Engineers, McGregor wrote, "It seems apparent to us that the EPA and [Fish and Wildlife Service] have never intended to do anything but recommend denial of the project either as an unwritten policy of opposing the development of natural resources or as a stalling technique to cover for not having done their allotted task of reviewing the document."
Later in the same letter, he wrote, "The FWS's, EPA's and [Arizona Game and Fish]'s current approach is uncooperative, obstructive, and prejudicial and simply cannot go unchallenged at this point in the process."
McGregor asked friends in high places to speed matters along.
On March 3, Arizona Congressman J.D. Hayworth wrote a letter to the Forest Service's Paul Stewart reminding him that Carlota had already spent $5 million on environmental studies (it had to foot the bill for the Forest Service's Draft EIS) and it deserved to get its "state of the art" mine going.
And on May 11, Arizona Senator Jon Kyl sent a letter to Stewart's boss, Tonto National Forest Supervisor Charles Bazan, that began, "We are writing to express our concern with the inordinate amount of time the Forest Service is taking to complete the Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for the Carlota Company Mine," citing that the company had spent $4 million on environmental studies and had even covered some of the personnel costs of expediting the paperwork--namely, Paul Stewart's salary for the project.
The clear message of the letter was: They've spent a lot of money, they deserve their property rights. And Hayworth and Kyl were not the only U.S. legislators willing to shill on behalf of a Canadian company so that the federal government could hand over federal lands to them.
Congressman Hayworth also signed Kyl's letter, and so did Arizona Senator John McCain, Senator Ben Nighthorse Campbell and Congressman Wayne Allard from Colorado, Senator Frank Murkowski and Congressman Don Young from Alaska and Senator Larry Craig of Idaho. Of the Arizona delegation, only Hayworth agreed to talk to the Top of the World opponents of the mine. Donna Goodale likened his spiel to that of "a used-car salesman," and she and others felt he had no grasp of the project, but he nevertheless stood dogmatically firm on its going ahead.
Hayworth, incidentally, when asked by the Arizona Republic about the campaign contributions he received from mining and other PACs, pooh-poohed the suggestion that he represented special interests. "We are working to maintain the interests of Mr. and Mrs. America," he said. Not surprisingly, neither Hayworth nor Kyl returned phone calls from New Times.
The Forest Service issued its Draft Environmental Impact Statement in January of this year. In May, at the end of the legal comment period, the toxic reviews from the environmental regulatory agencies washed in like a desert flash flood.
The EPA gave the document its worst possible rating, EU-3, meaning that the project was not only environmentally unsatisfactory but that the document itself was poorly prepared. EPA has not issued such a low rating since April of 1990, even though it has reviewed close to 200 DEIS documents since then. The agency asked the Forest Service to either withdraw the document or prepare supplements and extend the public review period. The Forest Service refused and EPA subsequently informed the Council of Environmental Quality in Washington, D.C.--the ultimate arbiter of environmental agencies--that a fight was brewing.
EPA worried that the mine's potential for releasing contaminants into the water was not adequately addressed in the DEIS.
"It will be acid out there for a long time," says the EPA's Jeanne Dunn Geselbracht. "There is no way of neutralizing that heap."
At stake was the rare riparian environment downstream on Pinto Creek, which the EPA termed an "Aquatic Resource of National Importance," and the Forest Service had nominated as a Wild and Scenic River.
EPA reiterated Donna Goodale's concerns that the mine would draw down the water table and dry up the stream. It worried about the endangered hedgehog cactus and the loss of a wildlife corridor. EPA raised air-quality issues, as well, especially since the proposed mine is within a scant few miles of a wilderness area.
Other agencies raised similar concerns, Fish and Wildlife, for example, which went so far as to ask the Corps of Engineers to deny the 404 permit.
Criticism of the mining plan as laid out in the DEIS rolled in from all corners. The Arizona Game and Fish Department bemoaned its impact on wildlife habitat. The National Park Service theorized that the air pollution and mine blasting would contribute to the deterioration of nearby Tonto National Monument. The Association of Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics noted the possible adverse effects on habitat and warned of the likelihood that the diversion channels could fail. Even the local plumbers union spoke out against the project, fearing bad safety conditions and the invasion of a transient work force that would tear up the landscape and then go off and leave a mess behind.
"We're the ones who have to live here," says Wayne Bryant of the Plumbers and Steamfitters Union of Southern Arizona.
Attorney Deborah Ham, who has spearheaded local opposition to the mine, and Aimee Boulanger of the Mineral Policy Center's Durango, Colorado, office launched massive Freedom of Information requests to learn all they could about Carlota and Cambior.
After appealing to Washington, D.C., for some documents that the Tonto refused to turn over, Boulanger turned up some scientific information that the Forest Service had been trying to hide under a rock, and that suggested that Carlota's proposal might not be safe--which could inconveniently get in the way of the mine's startup.
Last October, Dennis Inman, a geologist and landslide expert with the Forest Service's regional office in Albuquerque, issued a troubling report to his boss, which was then reviewed by other geologists and then forwarded to the Tonto National Forest.
Based on his study of aerial photographs and data on the Carlota project, Inman felt sure that he was looking at a landslide waiting to happen.
"The consultants have assigned unrealistic strength values to these rocks above the [. . .] pits," he wrote.
He saw three potential disasters: If a landslide plugged the Pinto Creek diversion channel, it could turn the creek right into the pit. Cleaning up after that and redirecting the stream flow to the diversion channel would be costly, if possible at all.
If the slope gave way above the big pit, it could cause loss of life.
"There's a possibility that the whole hillside to the southwest of the pit could come in and fill their pit," Inman says, "and that means that they're basically done if it comes in to the degree I think it's going to come."
If a slide filled the Powers Gulch diversion channel, it would send that water into the heap-leach pad and carry its sulfuric acid down into Roosevelt Lake.
"This is the headwaters for the main water basin for the city of Phoenix," Inman continues. "You'd think that the inhabitants of Phoenix would be enraged."
Inman flew to Arizona to check on his suspicions, but before he made it out to the mine site, he suffered a heart attack and ended up in a hospital in Phoenix.
The Forest Service was alarmed by Inman's preliminary findings--and, according to Jock McGregor, embarrassed, as well.
The Forest Service asked the U.S. Geologic Service to go into the field and check Inman's research. Inman feels it was shopping for the answers it wanted.
"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.
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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.