Longform

What Do You Do After the Company Leaves?

Page 4 of 6

The tailings come from a metal- processing plant in Mesa. In December 1986, the plant's owners moved the stuff to an abandoned mine near Apache Junction. Soon after that, residents there lobbied state legislators to get rid of it. Last year, the politicians told the state to find someplace else. Magma won the contract from the state with a bid of $241,000.

No Superior official will admit to hearing about the project until it was a done deal.

"I object to this going on without letting this town know anything about it," councilmember Ruben Fernandez tells Canez. "The way we found out was the newspaper."

"That was an oversight on our part," replies Canez, who is standing at the back of the room with his arms folded. "We did let the county supervisors know. . . . We think the tailings were all right where they were, but it was politics."

Superior used to have a political voice. Town merchant Jimmy Karam was a long-time Pinal County supervisor. But his small department store went under, and Karam resigned and moved to the Valley in late 1987. Superiorite Roy Chavez ran for Karam's seat last year but lost, leaving the town without a political presence. And growing Apache Junction, a suburb of Phoenix, now has the clout in northern Pinal County to push Superior around.

Another man points at Canez and shouts: "Magma is trying to solve Apache Junction's problems, not solve its own! It's bullshit!"

"We've got some beautiful environment here," adds Superiorite Artie Diaz-
Gonzales, who works at an electrical plant near Casa Grande. "We should be getting rid of the tailings that are already up there. Magma couldn't care less what's going on at this meeting."

Town librarian Beverly Burritt stands to address the council. "People elsewhere are making decisions on what should be dumped on us," she says. "Do we have the ability to say no?"

Mayor Ruiz looks at her bleakly. "At this particular time," he says, "I don't think we do."

A FEW WEEKS LATER, Tom Harris phones acting DEQ director Ron Miller.
"We have no idea what we already have in those ponds, how safe or unsafe it already is," Harris tells Miller over a speaker phone. "If we're going to survive as a community, we have to know what chemicals we have floating around."

Miller asks Harris what he wants the state agency to do, adding that the legislature probably would have to approve any major environmental study of Magma's existing tailings piles and waste ponds.

"I find it ludicrous," Harris replies, "to have to go through the legislature, where we have no pull whatsoever, to beg them to let a state agency help us out."

A few days before Christmas, trucks carrying the tailings start pulling into Magma's mill. The project, which provided a handful of temporary jobs, is supposed to be completed a few days from now.

ABOUT 45 OLD-TIMERS are playing bingo one afternoon at the Superior Senior Center on Main Street. They play on boards donated long ago by Karam's Department Store, now defunct. Each game's winner gets to choose an item of food: a can of peas, a loaf of bread, soup.

Some need the food. Others donate their winnings to needier friends. The Mesa-based East Valley Catholic Social Services provides about forty hot meals a day. Center director Becky Tellez also makes sure the homebound are taken care of.

Most are former miners or their widows and wives. Many are ailing, but the nearest hospital since Magma closed its 35-bed facility in 1985 is in Miami, eighteen miles over the mountain.

Doctor Carlos Argudo tries to make it every weekday to his clinic in Superior. But he also works at the county hospital in Florence and lives in Chandler, so his office hours are irregular.

The town's pharmacist, who lives in the Valley, often doesn't make it to his drugstore on Main Street. Pinal County used to drive a busload of senior citizens once each week to Florence on "pill day," as it was called, to pick up medicine. That practice was discontinued last year.

"They can go two or three days without their medicine if they don't catch the pharmacist in," Tellez says. "We try to do all we can for them, though it's tough."

Not everyone moans about Superior. "We like ghost towns," says Orin Foutz, a man in his late sixties who was laid off with everyone else in 1982. "Leave the pollution and stuff down there in Phoenix. We had a good racket going when the mines were open. Now we have to find something else, turn it into Sun City, maybe get the tourists up here. On the other hand, I wouldn't mind if they would just leave us be."

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Paul Rubin
Contact: Paul Rubin