A summary of the promises made by Phelps Dodge as reported in Green Valley News & Sun
By Tim Hull
What is this permit, and what does it mean to the community and its drinking water?
The permit has been around since the mid-1980s, administered by the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality according to relatively stringent rules about what substances, and how much of those substances, a particular enterprise can release onto the land and into an aquifer.
So why doesn't the local Phelps Dodge Sierrita Mine, which has been releasing tons of copper mining byproducts into the ground from its tailing mountains in west Green Valley for more than 30 years, operate under the guidelines of one of these permits already?
Michele Robertson, manager of the ADEQ's Water Permits section, traveled to Green Valley recently to answer just that question for the Green Valley Community Coordinating Council's Environmental Committee.
The ADEQ is now on the verge of getting to the bottom of that list, Robertson said (in fact, the department is statutorily required to finish the list by the end of this year). They have 10 left to do, she said.
A draft of the local mine's permit, which will establish what chemicals and pollutants the mine can discharge onto the land and how much and where they can do so lest they be penalized, is expected to be ready for release by the beginning of May, Robertson said, with public hearings in Green Valley to follow soon after.
But there are limits to the permit, especially when it comes to existing facilities.
For one thing, permits for existing facilities have less stringent, 20-year-old criteria than those for new facilities that discharge contaminants onto the land, Robertson said.
Also, sulfates, the contaminant released by the mine that has caused the local water supply to be overly hard, bad tasting, and to have potential laxative affects for the elderly transient population, aren't directly regulated in the permit, Robertson said.
Because the permit's criteria is based partly on federal drinking water standards, and sulfates are monitored only as secondary contaminants by those federal standards, there are no numerical thresholds related to sulfates to which the Sierrita Mine will be held.
Instead, under the APP, the ADEQ will apply what Robertson called "narrative standards" to the plume of sulfates that has been growing in west Green Valley for decades now.
That plume has caused Community Water of Green Valley to shut down at least one of its wells, and to spend millions searching for non-affected wells across Interstate 19 to the east.
Running from the plume
"We are running from the plume right now," said Art Gabald-n, manager of Community Water. "The bottom line is that this community needs an alternative source of water that is not affected by the plume."
The ambient level for sulfate in the local water supply is about 60 parts per billion.
In at least one well near the mine's tailings, Community Water has recorded sulfate levels at more than 500 ppb.
While the federal Environmental Protection Agency, the Centers for Disease Control, and the ADEQ consider sulfates non-hazardous, Robertson said that the permit's narrative standards governing sulfates will be sufficient, as they expressly say that a contaminant so monitored "cannot endanger human health or impair the use of the water in the aquifer."
But how such broad criteria will be applied specifically in Sierrita's APP remains to be seen.
Robertson said that it is likely that an "alert level" for sulfates will be written into the permit. That level will be established based on "site-specific, case-by-case" criteria, she said.
When Sierrita finally receives its permit, the mine itself will be responsible for filing reports with the ADEQ certifying that it is complying with the APP, Robertson said.
The mine will be required to set up test wells at every "point of compliance"-- a point on the mine's property past which various contaminants cannot go.
"If it goes over, action will be taken," Robertson said.
Under the permit, the mine will still be allowed to discharge pollutants into the aquifer. The APP, however, provides limits to how much can be released, in an effort to make sure that the water supply is not "further degraded," Robertson said.
Phelps Dodge has been in negotiation with ADEQ over the specifics of the APP for several years, and company leaders say that the mine will welcome comments from the public about the criteria set down in the draft.
This weekend, the mine has invited more than 3,000 Green Valley and Sahuarita residents to tour the mine.
The mine has also worked closely with Community Water in its effort to get a better grade of water to its customers, allowing the water company to hook into a few of the mine's as-yet uncontaminated wells as a short-term solution to the sulfate problem.
Mike Woods, an environmental compliance officer with the Sierrita Mine, attended the committee meeting Friday at which Robertson spoke.
"We are dedicated to figuring this out," Woods said
By Tim Hull
"There's a lot of other stuff that needs to be taken care of before they're operational, but the connection will be done by the end of the week," said Distribution Supervisor Lonnie Gant, who worked with two construction crews out of Tucson installing pipes and other hardware for the wells Tuesday.
"We are hoping our customers will have a noticeably better quality of water after this is done," Gant said.
However, since the wells are still within the influence of the sulfate plume caused by seepage from tailings at the Phelps Dodge Sierrita Mine, they are considered merely temporary, according to Community Water General Manger Art Gabaldon.
Community Water's two contaminated wells, which have recorded sulfate and TDS levels more than twice that recommended by the federal Environmental Protection Agency, have been nearly out of commission for a month and are expected to be completely shut down once the new wells are operational, Gabaldon said.
Meantime, the company is searching on the east side of Interstate 19 for a more permanent source of uncontaminated water, further away from the creeping sulfate plume.
Gabaldon has said that Community Water will use the new wells only until early 2006, as a more permanent solution must be found by January next year so the company can comply with new federal arsenic standards, and the best way to clean arsenic out of water does not work in the presence of high sulfate levels, Gabaldon said.
Action Meeting on Aquifer Planned
Green Valley resident Nancy Freeman will hold the first in a series of "action meetings" about the Santa Cruz Aquifer Tuesday, Feb. 8, 9 a.m., at the Bank Of America at the northwest corner of La Canada and Continental.
Freeman has been organizing the group, Save the Santa Cruz Aquifer, for the purpose of educating the public and state legislators about the significant impact the Phelps Dodge Sierrita Mine has on the local water supply. . . (See entire article)
GV Woman Aims to Save Aquifer
Concerned about what the Phelps Dodge Sierrita Mine is doing to the local aquifer, the Green Valley resident has over the past couple of years been searching and digging in the labyrinthine corridors of Western water policy.
On the way she's learned enough to stay worried about Green Valley's water supply, and to attempt to form a group dedicated to cleaning up the Santa Cruz aquifer. Her new Web site (which she constructed herself) contains a litany of concerns and reams of data about the mine's impact on the local water supply, and now she's going straight to her neighbors to enlist them in her quest. (See entire article)
PD Mine Seeking Aquifer Protection Permit
State regulators are currently examining the impact the Phelps Dodge Sierrita Mine has on the local water supply, and public hearings on the issue are expected to be held here in February 2005.
It's all part of the process the mine must negotiate to acquire an Aquifer Protection Permit, which is required of any facility in Arizona that discharges materials into an aquifer or onto a land surface, according Cortland Coleman, a spokesman for the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality. . . (See entire article)
Hoping to mitigate a water quality issue that has dogged the utility for years, Community Water Company of Green Valley is planning to drill a replacement well outside the plume of contaminants created by the Phelps Dodge Sierrita Mine.
With the new well in place, the water company will shut down at least one of the existing wells that has registered levels of sulfates and Total Dissolved Solids (TDS) at more than twice those recommended by the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). . . (See entire article)
"Seeping for decades: Mike Wood, of the Phelps Dodge Sierrita Environmental Department, said Friday that the mining concern recognizes that sulfates have been seeping into the groundwater in western Green Valley "for decades."
One solution, Wood said, is for PD to find higher quality water in its own wells and make it available to Community Water to put into service. The other option is for PD to install a new well for Community Water outside the impacted area, Wood said.
Both options could be a long time coming, however, as water regulation in Arizona is typically a long and Byzantine process.
"We are pursuing this with all due speed," Wood said Friday. "But there is a lot of regulation involved; this will take us several months to work through..." (See entire article)
Note: After 15 months nothing has been done about promised well replacement--but it's getting closer!.
PD: Solution in the works for local water problems
As it prepares to ramp-up its mining efforts after years of diminished copper production, the Phelps Dodge Sierrita Mine continues to search for a solution to the local water problems it has caused, a mine official said this week.
Two wells in the Community Water service area have been hopelessly contaminated by sulfate and Total Dissolved Solids (TDS) levels about twice those recommended by the federal Environmental Production Agency, the result of seepage from the Sierrita Mine's tailings.... (See entire article)
Please Don't Drink the Water
I have been working behind the scenes for over a year trying to get the situation remedied. But the truth is, even though the Phelps Dodge mine officials gave a promise of two new wells to replace the two wells they were contaminating, nothing has been done to date.
Water Company Still Dogged by High Sulfate
"In the short-term we want to pump water from one of our existing well fields (and take the offending Community Water wells out of commission); that would greatly reduce the level of sulfates," said Bruce Richardson, a Phelps Dodge Corp. spokesman.
Area water companies borrowing millions
Gabaldon said that until an agreement is made with Phelps Dodge to clean up the sulfates and TDS in those wells, arsenic levels can't be reduced in them. A plan to replace the offending wells by 2006 is currently being negotiated with Phelps Dodge, he said....(See entire article)
Documentation of the air quality problem:
PD uses Living Weapons in Battle against Dust
In the battle against dust that blows across Green Valley from the nearby copper mines, Phelps Dodge is employing cattle, algae, snowshoes, a snowcat from Canada and a marsh rover from the bayous of Louisiana.
These innovative measures are being used because dust has been a major issue in Green Valley and Sahuarita for decades. That's because 99 percent of the ore mined for its copper and molybdenum content is crushed into a gray powder finer than beach sand, called mine tailings.... (See entire article)
Mining firm must pay $1.4 million settlement
Copper mining giant Phelps Dodge agreed this week to pay a $1.4 million settlement for allegedly sending more than 1,000 tons of sulfur dioxide into the air around Green Valley between 1994 and 1999.
Sulfur dioxide, made famous as the primary ingredient in acid rain, in high concentrations can cause serious respiratory system ailments and can damage lung tissue. (See entire article)
Air quality program starts next week (some history on above story)
Company officials have maintained that no federal air quality standards were violated.
EPA officials have recently sent a fifth information request to the company regarding its investigation of whether air quality standards have been violated in the past. (See entire article)