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Deborah Ham's Unfinished Business

Deborah Ham, the eccentric country lawyer who led an uphill legal battle to keep a copper mine out of Pinto Creek, a tiny forest stream just west of Globe, died suddenly of a stroke on May 13. She was 60 years old. Around 7 o'clock in the evening, Ham met...
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Deborah Ham, the eccentric country lawyer who led an uphill legal battle to keep a copper mine out of Pinto Creek, a tiny forest stream just west of Globe, died suddenly of a stroke on May 13. She was 60 years old.

Around 7 o'clock in the evening, Ham met a friend at a coffee shop near her Globe office. Shortly after entering, she mentioned that she felt funny, and then collapsed. She was rushed to the hospital and died about an hour later.

In December, Ham filed suit in federal court against the U.S. Forest Service, asking for an injunction to keep the service from authorizing any work on the Carlota Mine. Cambior USA, the U.S. branch of a Canadian mining company, purchased the Carlota Mine in 1991 and announced its plans to dig a 300-acre pit in Pinto Creek and place a leach pad--an acid-tainted waste dump--in a nearby wash, both of which eventually empty into Roosevelt Lake.

A local group that calls itself Citizens for the Preservation of Powers Gulch and Pinto Creek approached Ham to give it legal counsel. With a single-mindedness that characterized her life, she took over leadership of the protest group and nearly neglected her private law practice. Her obsessive efforts did in fact help stall the mine project and earned her the enmity of the mining community in Miami and Globe.

And although Ham became well-versed in the environmental fallout of copper mining, she balked when her group was referred to as environmentalist. It was a "community group," she insisted.

Her death raises questions about who will pick up the legal case, now before Judge Roger Strand in federal court in Phoenix.

Ham had a dry and an endearing Yankee civility that could be companionable or caustic as needed. It sometimes took a beat to realize she was being sarcastic. But she never lost her temper or her nerve.

"We're shocked and saddened by her passing," says Jim Payne, a spokesman for the Tonto National Forest. "And although we had our differences, she was always professional and courteous, and she had our respect."

She was a fright to look at, tall and gaunt, with a face from another century: deep-set eyes that could have peered out from a daguerreotype of a frontier woman. She wore no makeup and refused to style her hair. She dressed in threadbare clothes, even in court, where she often carried a dog-eared copy of the Carlota Draft Environmental Impact Statement in the way that an itinerant preacher carries a Bible. She drove an old jalopy that looked as if it had been rescued from a demolition derby. And although her dusty office in town had computers and fax and copier machines, she would retreat with her dog to her ramshackle cabin on 10 acres of land folded into the Tonto National Forest. A mountain stream ran through the front yard, and as Ham's sister Phoebe says, "When you're sitting in the house, you can put your hand out the back window and touch the mountain." The cabin had no plumbing or central heat, and only in the last few years had Ham installed solar power; it did have a baby grand piano, which Ham had learned to play well during an earlier period of single-mindedness.

It seemed almost as if she had taken a monastic vow of poverty.
"All lawyers, when they are sworn in, before they start going to the 34th floor of big skyscrapers, have to promise that they will never reject the cause of the defenseless or oppressed, so help me God," says Ham's former partner and companion Peter Cahill. "That's what every lawyer has to say. And few of them remember it, and fewer still live it. Deborah lived it every day."

Deborah Ham was born in 1937, in Concord, Massachusetts, one of three daughters of a well-to-do family. Her father had been a newspaperman in Boston before opening an ad agency in Concord.

Her sister Phoebe, who still lives in Concord, feels that all three girls were a bit different. She reminds a caller that Concord is the home of Walden Pond, of Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Louisa May Alcott.

"It just seems that we sort of imbibed something from that," Phoebe says.
Deborah went to prep school in Concord and then, in 1959, graduated magna cum laude from prestigious Bryn Mawr College. She taught English in an inner-city Boston high school for 10 years, and then at a lab school for troubled youths at Boston University.

But she also found herself caught up in the movement protesting the Vietnam War. While volunteering as a draft counselor, she got the notion that she should be an attorney.

And so in 1970, after a year off in which she rode a bicycle from Boston to Seattle, Ham enrolled in the New England School of Law in Boston. She graduated as the top woman in her class in 1974.

After graduation, Cahill and Ham moved to Tucson as volunteers for VISTA (which was sort of like a domestic version of the Peace Corps) to start up a consumer program at a legal-aid clinic. And when their year's service was up, they jointly applied for a job at the legal-aid society in Globe. Because there was only one job, they shared it. Some years later, Cahill was fired from the clinic, and Ham and the rest of the staff quit in protest.

Ham and Cahill then opened a private practice, which they ran until 1985, when they split as legal and personal partners.

Citizens for the Preservation of Powers Gulch and Pinto Creek approached Ham in the early '90s. She dogged the Carlota Mine project all the way through the federal approval process, mercilessly lobbying agency people in Phoenix, Washington and San Francisco (the regional office of the Environmental Protection Agency). She wrote hundreds of letters to congressmen and bureaucrats and reporters, and assiduously churned out Freedom of Information Act requests.

One summer, to counter arguments that Pinto Creek was dry much of the year, she walked its length, 20 miles or so through rugged and rocky country.

"She wanted to make sure that the water was running in July," says her friend Laurie Manzano. But she disappeared for three days while doing so, and gave her friends a good scare.

Other attorneys who worked with her over the course of the fight worried that she was so thorough and persistent as to make a judge lose patience.

"She really kept everyone's feet to the fire," says Laura Gentile of the EPA. "Her work moved along the process, and it's better for it. I'm sure if she were not around, the project would not be as good as it is."

But Ham wanted more than that. She wanted the project to go away completely. When the mining company had acquired nearly all of the requisite permits and Ham had jumped through all the hoops of the appeals process, Ham filed her suit late last December. In it she listed the endangered species affected by the mine, and used the recent waste spill into Pinto Creek as an omen of potential disaster. Judge Strand has not yet responded to the request for injunctive relief.

"Carlota in the last few years had taken nearly all her time," says Laurie Manzano. "She'd nearly sacrificed her personal well-being for that cause, and for the most part her business had suffered because she was so preoccupied with it."

In recent months, with layoffs at the local mines, and the Carlota Mine looking so much more necessary to the local economy, Ham's name was increasingly dragged through the tailings piles.

A petition circulated in town asking a judge to remove her name from the list of attorneys to whom the county awards cases representing the indigent. The petition had been talked up on the local radio station, but it went nowhere, and Ham laughed it off because she was on no such list anyway.

Letters to the editor of the local papers would deliberately misspell her name or write it all in lower-case letters.

"I would also suggest to those of you, including your gang of malcontents debra [sic], that find mining distasteful, 'get the hell out of Dodge,' and let the rest of us continue to work and raise our families in peace," one such letter read. "You knew this was a mining town when you came here and if you don't like it leave."

Peter Cahill says, "There are a lot of articles in the paper ironically complaining about outsiders, and Deborah had been here more than 20 years. Isn't Cambior Canadian?"

Publicly, Ham would take on the letter writers. In March she wrote her own letter to Congressman J.D. Hayworth to take him to task for comments he'd made about her group.

"Dear JD:" it began. "I am always interested in hearing what you have to say. Apparently your office recently told the Copper Country News that: 'a tiny but vocal group of environmentalists has employed questionable legal tactics to stop the mine from opening.'

"As you know, I represent the group you have described above, after your own fashion. Please be so kind as to tell me what are the questions and what are the tactics of which you complain. If I am the 'office of questionable legal tactics,' I would like to know just what they are."

But at the same time, she was feeling the pressure. That same month she wrote to her friend Peter Cahill, asking him to write against the mine because ". . . if no one responds to such insulting, off-the-wall, arrogant attacks, then people tend to think that everybody agrees. I don't at all want anyone to say anything nice about me (in fact, better not), but someone should say that such narrow-minded bigotry does not advance rational understanding."

She kept her sense of humor. After one blasting story that referred to the zealous activists holding up mining, justice and the American way, Ham fired off a fax to this reporter at New Times.

"Good Morning Michael!" her cover note began. "Here's some rural journalism for you. We know how to sling words around with the best of them!"

She signed it, "So long, Deborah the Zealot."

Contact Michael Kiefer at his online address: [email protected]

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