Producing copper creates wastelands

by Nancy Freeman
Appeared in Green Valley News and Sun, November, 2006

I know we need copper, we use copper, and we will always use copper. However, we have to face the fact that it is the most environmentally devastating of all the industries—both in physical appearance and environmental disturbance. It makes mountains disappear and creates pits in which 355 ton haul trucks look like ants as they grind up and down the slopes.

Some defenders say that if we don’t want copper mines—we shouldn’t use copper. The truth is copper mines make wastelands—it’s a given. There are plenty of wastelands throughout the Southwest. The mining companies can find copper there. We just don’t want copper mining in our forest. What a blessing that the Creator figured out how to put trees in the arid Southwest!

The Forest Service lands are specifically designated for “beneficial uses.” Mining is considered a beneficial use. But Augusta is not proposing mining on Forest Service land, they are proposing dumping their waste on the land. This use of forest lands as a dump is not a beneficial use.

Have you been over there? It’s a wonderful place—I even saw a pair of Montezuma quail there last spring! The Montezuma quails have to be the most delightful bird on the planet. There may be prettier, bigger, brighter birds, but no bird has painted itself as skillfully.

Rosemont management asserts that it has come up with a new plan for recovering the environment. Such an improvement in mining techniques is a worthwhile idea—but it’s experimental. No one has ever done it! Forest Service lands are not the place to conduct experiments. It simply doesn’t make sense to use forest land that can never be replaced for experimentation. Their plan should be tested with a small project in an area away from heavy population, recreational areas, and public water supplies.

Reclamation Plan?

The idea that desert restoration is going to take place on tailings mixed with waste rock is downright ludicrous. Just drive down Mission Rd. behind Twin Buttes and Asarco mines and view the number of plants that have stabilized on waste rock—zero, zilch. And those waste piles have been there for some forty years. And I can assure you there is not even a tenacious tumbleweed growing on the Twin Buttes tailing impoundments that have been unused for over thirty years.

Anyone who lives on the desert knows how hard it is to get anything to grow in this soil—even in our best “top soil.” Nevertheless, I give you the new Augusta Potting Soil recipe:

1 pound of mineral-laden white paste
1 pound of rocky soil taken from several hundred feet underground
Sprinkling of toxic processing chemicals, catalysts, reagents, and thickeners, such as:

Alky Aryl Oxime
Petroleum Distillate
Sulfosuccinate surfactant
Alkyl Xanthate salt
Nalco 7873
Alcohol/hydrocarbon blend

Mix ingredients and put in clean pots. Plant your favorite desert plants every year. After some 100 years—Voila— you will still have nothing.

Further, it is utterly impossible to return a mining site to an open space ranch land. Sturgess seems to forget that we live in a mining district and we have seen the devastation. The next thing we know they will be saying that the pit will become a recreational site for swimming and boating. All miners know that mining pits become toxic lakes because the heavy metals on the slopes are exposed to the air and water. Further, in this region, radioactive materials are associated with the copper ore bodies. Radio-nuclides are locked up in earth, concentrated in veins of ore with chemical bonds that hold it in place until they get disturbed. That toxic lake will have to be fenced off and posted with “no trespassing” signs. They can fence it off from cattle and humans, but what about wild animals and birds? The private land of Rosemont ranch will be a pit—how can it be returned to open land?

Even if the waste were to be replanted—which I don’t think it can be—who would want to walk on soil with toxic heavy metals that have been concentrated in the milling process—not a Montezuma quail, I’m sure. The site will be a wasteland—forever. Is this what we want in our forest lands?

Mining creates environmental havoc

Mining creates wastelands and Sturgess knows it. He was at Cyprus Metals when Miami was declared a Superfund site because of groundwater contamination. He worked at Bagdad when EPA intervention was necessary because of fish kill downstream from their tailings impoundment in Copper Creek. That tailings impoundment was built over a wash—just what they propose to do at Rosemont mine. This was not 40 or 50 years ago this was in 1992. Further, the Tohono site has groundwater with radio-nuclides and is in the process of being designated as a Superfund site.

Sturgess proposes to set standards for a new generation of mining—why didn’t he start it 15 years ago when he was an environmental head at Cyprus? The half-dozen “core values” he listed in his Green Valley Comments on October are the exact impacts that mining makes on the environment—and he knows that they are going to exist with every mine. This dust and mirrors denial of reality portends a company that is not what we need in Arizona.

Rosemont has been home to simple “hole in the side of a mountain” mining with a couple of sticks of dynamite—not big pit mining. It is proposed that there is 500 million tons of copper at the Rosemont site. Since the copper is at .06 percent, that means that there will be billions of tons of waste rock, tailings and ore dug up and displaced in 16 years. And this is not going to have an impact on the forest?

Conventional stripping is not new technology

August claims it has new technologies, yet their plan (page v) clearly states “Mining of the ore will be through conventional open pit mining techniques”; further, “ Ore will be processed either by conventional sulfide milling, or by leaching” –it’s the same big pits and tailings impoundments that have scarred the landscape for over 100 years. Again, “Preproduction stripping will require 15 to 21 months for phasing in mine operations, training work crews, constructing access/haul roads, and clearing and grubbing the pit and waste rock deposition areas that will be disturbed during the initial years of operation.”

There are possibilities for new technologies and they will be found if we stop compromising and allowing mining go on in the same old way it has. While it is true liners on tailings impoundments avoid groundwater contamination, if they don’t leak—but they do nothing for the appearance.

One miner labeled me “anti-mining.” He thinks his life is rough because of environmentalist. But environmentalists were only created because industry was ignoring common sense precautions in doing their operations and disposing of industrial waste. I will spare you my opinions of the reality that we humans compromise our wisdom for the sake of a profit.

Some people have questioned why Canadian mining companies are coming down to U.S. One reason could be they have wreaked havoc on the environment there—especially on native Indian lands and fishing areas—and so Canadians are speaking up and demanding stiffer environmental laws. I think the U.S. should follow their lead.

Do the Math!

How many tons of waste rock will be dumped from the pit onto the Forest Lands?
Seven hundred and fifty million tons—759,300,000 tons—of waste rock will be deposited on 3,155 acres of forest land in 16 years. Mining not only removes mountains, it creates them. And Augusta is just going to tuck it into the landscape where it won’t be noticed!

How many tons of tailings will be dumped in impoundments?
They will use 350 ton trucks to move the ore to the mill, which means 250 truck loads per day grinding from the pits to the mill. There will be just over 26 million tons of tailings dumped annually in impoundments. This makes a total of 419,000,000 tons of white mineral laden paste for our “rock garden” over the 16 year period.

How deep does it get?
This gives a grand total of 1,188,211,000 tons to be spread over 3,155 acres of Coronado National Forest land. So we have over 1 billion tons of waste rock and tailings, which means almost 376 million tons per acre. This gives us a grand total of 173 cubic feet of waste per square foot of land. That means 173 feet high of useless waste rock—on every inch of allotted forest land. This pile is equivalent to a fourteen-story building. And they are telling us their operations will be “environmentally sound and protective of the environment.” With a toxic lake and waste piled 173 feet deep—there will be no environment to protect! We are not quite as stupid as the Canadians thought!

How many trucks will it take? All supplies, including sulfuric acid and toxic volatile organic chemicals, will be trucked on to the site daily. Further, to calculate how many daily loads of copper will be out on the road in 10 ton trucks? Sulfide Ore at .6 % of 27,000,000 tons = 162,000 tons of copper per year = 450 tons per day, that is, forty-five 10-ton truck loads. However, the concentrate is at best 50% copper—so twice that amount is ninety 10-ton truck loads per day. In addition, there is 10,000,000 tons of oxide ore per year. We do not have the percentage of copper in this oxide ore to calculate the number of additional truck loads to carry out the copper wafers.

Miners need jobs

Augusta claims it has drawn on this local talent for the drilling, metallurgical, environmental, geotechnical, and feasibility studies currently in progress. Of the staff who are now benefiting financially from the proposed mine, most of them, including the environmental experts were from out of the area. There is unemployment in Tucson, but how many of those persons can handle the skills needed for mining? If you think there are no mining jobs in Arizona, go to Infomine website and click on Careers.

Dark Sky and Federal Regulations

The reality is we will be able to stop the mining with one of the side issues. The best bet may be the "dark sky" regulations required by the observatory for good lighting is essential for mining operations.

In January of 1995, a fatality occurred at a waste rock dump area at the Sierrita mine site, then owned by Cyprus Corporation. A Caterpillar dump truck backed over a berm, and turned over fatally injuring the driver. There was no illumination provided at the dump area. The truck was equipped with two back-up lights that were quite dirty. The Labor Board required that portable lighting plants be provided at all dumping areas to provide sufficient illumination for safe dumping operations.

The National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) requires federal agencies to integrate environmental values into their decision making processes by considering the environmental impacts of their proposed actions and reasonable alternatives to those actions. A formal NEPA process will not begin until Augusta has completed a satisfactory work plan. The Forest Service has been accepting comments from persons who have any useful information. I sent them an extensive report. They have sent Rosemont’s Plan of Operations back to them stating that it is incomplete and they need a full study, including impact on water. Further, Pima County officials and supervisors are taking an active role in accessing the situation and making comments. All reports are posted on website. Any updates will be posted there. The community message is clear: Go find your mine elsewhere.

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