Longform

From Dust to ... Golf?

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The argument boils down to this: Phelps Dodge and the state contend that with minor technological tweaking, the bathtub will not leak its polluted groundwater into either the drinking-water supply for the town, which lies underneath the bathtub, or the Verde River, which runs right alongside it.

Environmentalists, however, contend the bathtub might very well leak and that there simply have not been enough studies to satisfy them that the Verde Formation will, indeed, protect drinking water from the tailings.

The conflict over the project has taken on technical and legal sophistication, but in Clarkdale it remains a typical environmental catfight.

With extremists on both sides.
One highly visible anti-Verde Valley Ranch proponent, John Bond, fears the tailings will give people epilepsy. Bond, who says he is concerned because he himself has epilepsy, once likened a DEQ official to a Nazi.

The company, for its part, plotted bullylike lobbying to pressure DEQ officials, through the governor and other state officials, to "expedite" the permits.

The extreme behavior on both sides of the dispute clouds the real significance of Verde Valley Ranch.

Arizona is the largest copper-producing state in the country. Hundreds of active and inactive copper mines have produced millions of tons of tailings, many of which carry with them the threat of state or federal environmental enforcement. Verde Valley Ranch is a complicated experiment, carefully designed as a profitable alternative to federal environmental enforcement actions.

If Phelps Dodge wins court challenges and administrative appeals, it may set a precedent. Phelps Dodge and other Arizona copper-mining companies may take similar actions to deal with ugly, potentially health-threatening tailings cast about the state.

In fact, no one can predict with any real certainty how Verde Valley Ranch will turn out.

But that reality hasn't stopped it from becoming the focus of the type of polarized spectacle that Phelps Dodge and environmental regulators hoped the development would prevent or shortcut.

"The biggest problem I see on both sides," Jerry Wiley says, "is that neither side wants to tell the truth. The environmentalists present a worst-case scenario with embellishments, and the other side presents a best-case scenario with embellishments."

Internal documents made public at the appeals board hearing in February reveal just how carefully Phelps Dodge deliberated over Verde Valley Ranch before concluding it was the most practical, cost-effective alternative for dealing with the problematic tailings.

Nowhere in these internal records, however, is there any indication that the company hashed over the possible adverse health effects caused by heavy metals or salts found in the tailings.

In March 1992, a team of Phelps Dodge environmental employees huddled in the 15th-floor conference room of the mining company's downtown Phoenix office building.

The topic of concern: whether to proceed with plans to develop Verde Valley Ranch. Federal environmental regulators were pressuring the mining company to clean up groundwater and the seeps leaking into the river. And state regulators were demanding more environmental data that could stall the project for years.

Nothing seemed to be working out.
Two years before, weeks after the company was cited for violating the Clean Water Act, high-level EPA officials met with Phelps Dodge executives in San Francisco. The EPA had ordered Phelps Dodge and Clarkdale to immediately cease the discharge of sewage onto the tailings. It had demanded intensive monitoring of groundwater for contaminants as well as further studies of the underground geology--prerequisites to cleanup that would make any company nervous.

As an alternate solution to the tailings problem, Phelps Dodge persuaded EPA to accept the Verde Valley Ranch project, which would be supervised by state environmental officials. The company also obtained EPA approval for Clarkdale to continue discharging effluent onto the tailings until Verde Valley Ranch made it through the state permitting process.

The advantages of having DEQ oversee the "politically palatable" Verde Valley Ranch were rehashed at the 1992 internal Phelps Dodge meeting. One of the most attractive advantages--to Phelps Dodge, atleast--was that Verde Valley Ranch allowed Phelps Dodge to escape potentially huge financial liability under state and federal Superfund laws.

And, really, the company couldn't come up with much else that could be done with the tailings.

Relocating or remining the tailings would simply move the problem to another location and could expose workers and residents to unhealthful dust. And moving tailings would subject the company to further environmental cleanup and permitting regulations and costs. (Either option would cost $30 million. In the last quarter of 1995, the company earned $190 million on sales of $1.1 billion.)

Canceling the development part of the project--that is, reneging on the deal to build Clarkdale a sewage-treatment plant, covering the tailings with plastic and attempting some cleanup of polluted groundwater in the area--might be far cheaper in the short run. The estimates run from a high of $6.4million down to $3.6million.

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Terry Greene