But taking that route would render the company vulnerable to inclusion on state and federal Superfund programs. Superfund programs are famous for dragged-out, costly legal disputes, often generated by the polluters themselves, that for decades stall cleanups and drive up costs.
For Phelps Dodge, Verde Valley Ranch was the only financially promising option. The cost of complying with state environmental regulations was projected to be $7.4million. Although Phelps Dodge has not publicly put a value on Verde Valley Ranch, internal documents reveal that the project itself would generate an 18.5percent internal rate of return.
So the plan to pursue state environmental permits and develop the land seemed the most reasonable.
What Phelps Dodge had no way of knowing in 1992 was how hotly those state environmental permits would be disputed.
Except for the Clarkdale tailings, which are the color and consistency of dry Chinese mustard powder, the site of Verde Valley Ranch, about 110 miles north of Phoenix, is postcard pretty. It is 750 feet from a scenic stretch of the Verde River, where bald eagles nest in trees on the banks. It sits below the hilltop site of the ancient Sinagua dwelling now known as the Tuzigoot National Monument. And it borders Tavasci Marsh and the oxbow-shaped Peck's Lake, both havens for hundreds of migratory birds.
Clarkdale, named after copper baron Bill Clark, who purchased the United Verde Mining Company in the late 1800s, had always been a company town.
Ore from Clark's huge Jerome copper mine was processed in Clarkdale. In the 1930s, Clark sold the mine to Phelps Dodge, which operated the mine until 1953 and continued Bill Clark's lucrative practice of chemically separating copper from ore and dumping the liquid waste slurry right next to the Indian ruin, marsh and lake.
Before he sold the mine, Clark built Peck's Lake by diverting water from the Verde River into an old, abandoned channel it had once flowed through. The purpose of the oxbow lake was to provide a picnic and fishing spot for miners. Near the lake, Clark added a golf course and a bandstand.
Today, the residents of Clarkdale are sharply divided over whether Verde Valley Ranch is a good idea.
Merchants and businesspeople and local retirees, especially, seem to want the project to go forward. Matt Pecharich, an 82-year-old tavern owner, is a native of Jerome. He remembers the liquid tailings in the huge pond. After Phelps Dodge stopped dumping tailings in 1953, the pond eventually evaporated, leaving the tailings pile that has become the town's most controversial landmark.
Pecharich is convinced that if the tailings were dangerous, they would have caused damage when they were in a liquid state and, in his mind, far more potent. But no one ever got sick, he says. The way he sees it, the tailings pose no environmental hazard.
"I'm an optimist," Pecharich says.
Some citizens, however, are pessimists, and they have joined the Audubon Society and the Sierra Club in opposing Verde Valley Ranch.
They are not convinced the project is environmentally sound.
Some suspect that Phelps Dodge will abandon the housing development just as it abandoned the Jerome mine, leaving an environmental disaster in its wake.
Curtis Linder, a Clarkdale resident who works in a mobile-home park, has lived in Clarkdale most of his life. His grandparents were Clarkdale pioneers, and many members of his family worked in the Jerome mine. He remembers that as a child he played at the company golf course, and people fished in Peck's Lake--until a 1985 federal study detected unhealthful levels of heavy metals (the same metals found in the nearby tailings pile) in the fish.
Linder says his family owns the local water company, which would serve Verde Valley Ranch. And he points out it is certainly not in his best financial interest to oppose the development.
Linder is not a particularly articulate man, but his instinct tells him that capping the tailings with plastic and covering them with a golf course is utter folly.
Like many longtime residents of Clarkdale, Linder also has proprietary feelings about Peck's Lake and Tavasci Marsh. He is offended that public access to the area would be partially restricted by private homes if Verde Valley Ranch is built. (The details of public access are still being negotiated by environmentalists and Phelps Dodge.)
Linder has set up an office for activists in his grandmother's house in Clarkdale. It has become headquarters for citizens angered by what they see as Phelps Dodge's continuing control over the town. "Yanking away Peck's Lake from everybody seems like a shameful thing," says Tom Evans, a Clarkdale carpenter. "The only reason Phelps Dodge is here is to make money."