Longform

NO MINER CONSIDERATION

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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."

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Michael Kiefer