Phelps Dodge to pay $1.4M penalty for Sierrita mine pollution violations
By Mitch Tobin


Phelps Dodge has agreed to pay a fine of $1.4 million for a raft of air-quality violations at its Sierrita mine west of Green Valley.

Between 1994 and 1999, the company illegally discharged more than 1,000 tons of the pollutant sulfur dioxide, the Environmental Protection Agency said Monday in announcing one of the largest fines against an Arizona mine in recent history.

On hundreds of occasions over the past decade, Phelps Dodge bypassed pollution control equipment and operated its ore roasters without required sulfur dioxide monitors, the EPA and Justice Department said in a complaint and settlement filed Monday in U.S. District Court.

"Not only does this settlement secure real improvement in air quality and public health for the local residents in Green Valley, it also sends a message to corporations who think they can increase their profit margins by ignoring the law and harming the environment," said Thomas Sansonetti, assistant attorney general for the Justice Department.

"The significant penalty Phelps Dodge Sierrita will have to pay under today's settlement is much higher than the economic benefit achieved from its noncompliance."

Phelps Dodge neither disputed nor admitted to the violations. But the company noted it only took over the mine from Cyprus Amax Minerals Co. in 1999.

"Much of this predates us and our ownership," Phelps Dodge spokesman Peter Faur said. "Certainly since we've taken over ownership of the property we've worked diligently and in good faith to resolve these issues, and we're pleased that they're resolved."

EPA attorney Thomas Mintz described the fine as "on the high side for the Clean Air Act for a single facility." Violations of the Clean Air Act can carry fines up to $27,500 per day, but "it's the agency's preference to always settle these matters" because "it's a resource burden for both sides," Mintz said.

The state of Arizona joined in the settlement and will receive 10 percent of the fine for its claims against the company.

Much of the case surrounds the ore roasters that Phelps Dodge uses to extract the silvery-white metal molybdenum after ore has been crushed and copper has been separated. Phelps Dodge is the world's leading producer of molybdenum, which is commonly used to strengthen steel alloys.

At Sierrita, Phelps Dodge typically would run a roaster's exhaust through a so-called scrubber to remove more than 90 percent of the sulfur dioxide, Mintz said. But the EPA alleges Phelps Dodge broke Clean Air Act rules 361 times between 1994 and 1999 when it bypassed the scrubber while workers were removing scale from the device, sometimes using jackhammers.

The EPA learned that illegal levels of soot and sulfur dioxide were being emitted from a smokestack without a scrubber by examining Phelps Dodge's own records, Mintz said.

The complaint also alleges Phelps Dodge operated 15 ore crushers, six ore-sifting screens, three ore conveyor belts and an ore storage bin in violation of the Clean Air Act. Violations included failure to: obtain proper permits; install best available pollution controls; conduct initial tests and install monitors; and record and report data from the monitors.

As part of the settlement, Phelps Dodge agreed to immediately install monitors, obtain proper permits, comply with air pollution limits and disconnect the smokestack used to bypass the scrubbers.

"The enhanced monitoring and reporting requirements will allow the EPA and the public to know whether the ore roasters are complying with the sulfur dioxide limit each and every hour, rather than once a year," said Wayne Nastri, the EPA's regional administrator.

Phelps Dodge, the world's second-largest copper producer, also operates the Morenci, Miami and Bagdad copper mines in Arizona, plus facilities in New Mexico and South America.

The company is Southern Arizona's 11th largest employer, providing the equivalent of 3,400 full-time jobs at an average salary of $49,411, according to the 2004 Star 200 survey.

The Sierrita Mine employs about 600 people and produced 75,600 tons of copper in 2003. By comparison, Morenci - the largest copper mine in North America - employed 2,030 workers and produced 421,200 tons of copper.

In January, Phelps Dodge announced it was increasing production at Sierrita and several other mines to full capacity thanks to higher metal prices. Three years before, it gave Sierrita's employees 60 days notice that the mine might shut down because of rising energy costs and falling molybdenum prices.

What is sulfur dioxide?

Sulfur dioxide, SO2, smells like a burnt match.

It's a heavy, colorless gas that's most commonly released to the atmosphere by coal-fired power plants.

High concentrations of SO2 can impair breathing for asthmatic children and adults who are active outdoors, causing wheezing, chest tightness or shortness of breath. Studies have also found that elevated levels of SO2, in combination with soot, can compromise the lungs' defenses and aggravate existing cardiovascular and respiratory illnesses.

SO2 is one of the major components of acid rain that can corrode buildings and foul soils, streams and lakes. It also contributes to the haze that clouds views at many national parks.

Nationally, SO2 emissions declined 31 percent from 1993 to 2002 as stricter pollution controls were enacted. Today, levels of the pollutant are highest in the Eastern United States, in large metropolitan areas and near coal-burning power plants.

Tucson hasn't exceeded federal standards for SO2 since monitoring began in 1973, and SO2 levels here have fallen substantially as the number of smelters at mines has declined.

SOURCES: Environmental Protection Agency, Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, Pima County Department of Environmental Quality.