The Water Saga – Latest Chapter

Published in Green Valley News Comments 11/10/05

Community Water Company is now providing decent drinking water—but the question remains: For how long? The remedies have been temporary. Phelps Dodge has given no plans for a permanent solution and there is evidence that they want to settle for the temporary ones. At the end of August, ADEQ sent Phelps Dodge a letter asking for details of their “voluntary remediation” program, which has remained a secret to date. No reply to date.

The public hearing in Green Valley in mid-August [ADEQ couldn’t “arrange their schedule according to people’s vacations”] was successful and gave Arizona Department of Environmental Quality [ADEQ) a clear message that we want our drinking water cleaned up of the pollution—any kind of pollution, whether it is poison are not. There were intelligent comments from Dick Shuman, a local retired engineer, from Allan McDonald of the Green Valley Coordinating Council, and myself. In addition, David Albright, in charge of groundwater for the Environmental Protection Agency, made written comments about concern over the high radio-chemicals in the tailings seepage. (They have not reached Green Valley water supply yet.) Frankly, things looked good.

In a lengthy presentation at the public hearing [the rest of us only had 5 minutes], John Brack, manager at Sierrita mine, gave only some basic public relation presentation: a diagram showing that sulfuric acid is used in a closed system (failing to mention the radioactive and volatile chemicals that do go into the tailings pond) along with info on taxes, jobs, community support. He never uttered a word about the clean-up, or any permanent “remediation” of the groundwater. We all assumed that would come in their written comments. But, no, not a single word about clean-up in their comments.

Phelps Dodge objects to regulatory compliance
Basically, Phelps Dodge has decided that since they are such a wonderful company, which has been so “proactive” in providing water outside their mess, they don’t have to be regulated to clean up the pollution. They use the term “perceived” problems in speaking of the non-poisonous sulfate plume, with its accompanying hardness that clogs up everything from our drip emitters and hot water heaters to dishwashers. If one examined the rusty gook on a reverse osmosis filter after only six months of service, one would wonder what the residue must be doing to the human filtering systems (i.e., kidneys and bladders) of those who were drinking tap water at a hardness level twice the definition of hard water. [Reminder: Please drain your hot water heater!]

I’m wondering, since Phelps Dodge is so “proactive,” why they didn’t do anything about the water until there was a public outcry. The sad truth is that it took twenty month from the time they promised some relief in a GVCC meeting, Oct. 8, 2003, until there were some results. I had to spend months collecting data to show that the hardness (30 grams/gal) in my kitchen was due to the mining operations. If they are so “proactive,” why didn’t they clean up their mess before I spent all of my time and energy? For a detailed summary of their “proactive” and “voluntary” program, go to Program.

Phelps Dodge owns a water company in Sahuarita, Las Quintas Serrenas. With that company, a replacement well is dug if the sulfate reaches 400 mg/ltr because everyone calls in and complains. In Bisbee, Phelps Dodge provided bottled water when the sulfate level reached 250 mg/ltr. And they have been “proactive” here in Green Valley?

Here is an excerpt to ADEQ from William Cobb, PD’s “Environmental Director” in Phoenix. Does he think that ADEQ doesn’t know what has been going on?

As presented in this letter, Phelps Dodge Sierrita Inc. ("PDSI") is pro-actively addressing sulfate conditions downgradient from its operation in Green Valley that have created aesthetic impacts to drinking water supply wells operated by Community Water Company ("CWC"). The steps taken by PDSI and CWC to locate alternative water sources for CWC have substantively altered the basic assumptions used by the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality (ADEQ) in preparing the draft aquifer protection permit (APP) for PDSI.

Mr. Cobb is a little late—about a year and a half late. So are we to believe that Phelps Dodge doesn’t need to come under compliance by a government agency to assure clean water. Please, please, please give me one instance when Phelps Dodge did any environmental work without strong pressure from a government agency.

What is the AZ Legislature doing?
When I am asked publicly, “What about our legislators, what are they doing?” I reply simply, “I’ve avoided politics all my life, and now I know why?

The Arizona Legislature is totally insensitive to the reality of living with water with hardness of 30 grains/gal even. Senator Tim Bee wrote me that Phelps Dodge was complaining that the aquifer protection process was too slow. That was after the Senate tried to get rid of ADEQ, which obviously was a logistical maneuver, since now they say they don’t need to be regulated anyway.

The Aquifer Protection Permit system has already been debated and was put in place with the best interests of business and industry. At the time of its enactment in Arizona, environmentalists argued for a standard of no degradation of the water quality at all. Business and industry argued for the ability to pollute up to the standards allowed by EPA. This is Arizona, so we know who won; therefore, we have an “Aquifer Pollution Permit” when it comes to our publicly-owned natural resource of water.

Other organizations also turned a deaf ear to our appeals for remediation of the groundwater. James Apperson, President and CEO of Arizona Chamber of Commerce, wrote in the public comments, “Phelps Dodge is an important employer in Arizona.”

Phelps Dodge hires around 700 people at the near-by Sierrita mine. I have to drink polluted water for their sakes? No one asked me. Why didn’t I get a choice? Anyway, we know PD’s record with labor—they killed the unions in the Arizona Morenci strike in 1983. That was after two attempts to get rid of unions in the Supreme Court. What sacrifice has Phelps Dodge made for these 700 jobs? Why should I sacrifice? In addition, PD’s press is continually touting new technology that allows them to cut back on manpower. And what happens to the jobs when the mine closes down? Does PD pay 100% of the unemployment?

Madan M. Singh, representing the Arizona Department of Mines and Mineral Resources (supposedly a state agency), states “To our knowledge there are no regulations governing the extent of sulfates in the water.” Again, Arizona Mining Association (definitely a non-state agency) representative, Sidney Hay, wrote a 5-page letter of all the pros of having sulfate in the water and concluded, “…at the very least, that ADEQ should use a level (i.e., 1,200 mg/ltr) that attempts to correspond with actual human health impacts. What Sidney fails to analyze is that 1,200 mg/ltr would give us a hardness level over 70 gr/gal.

The reason for this high calcium level is that Phelps Dodge throws lime (CaO 2) on the tailings pond to keep it alkaline; in addition, the high limestone content of the natural ground in this area is dissolved by the acidic sulfate. This is good up to a point because calcium is better than acidic sulfate. However, we know what our appliances and filters were doing when we had a level of 500 mg/ltr. I suggest that “at the very least” Mr. Singh and Mr. Hay drink water at 1,200 mg/ltr—then the number will no longer be some figure in a report—it will have meaning.

The Arizona Tax Research Association (which claims to be the taxpayer’s watchdog) contributed the information that Phelps Dodge pays $2.3 million in property taxes in Pima County; therefore, they should not be “unnecessarily overburdened through permit conditions.” I remind Mr. McCartney, the President, that if the mining operations had kept their pollution properly contained, there would be no need for permitting. Again, I don’t feel that I should be obligated to have water with less quality than what nature provided because a company pays taxes.

Phelps Dodge pays taxes, but what will be the price tag for cleaning up the toxic waste that they have wreaked on the environment? There is an incredible toxic basin in the groundwater in both the Sierrita and Twin Buttes pit area. This means that dewatering will have to continue for a least a century to keep that toxic basin in place, so it does not flow off their property. Who’s going to pay the electric bill? Has Phelps Dodge put up any bond money for reclamation? No.

The mine was here first
Technically, that’s not true. People have lived in Green Valley area since the 1940’s. A newspaper has been published here since 1964. The first golf course (Haven) was planned in 1961. Fundamentally, why would anyone put a tailings pond over an alluvial aquifer? Why would they place it on their property line, so there’s would be no buffer zone?

Although the copper content had been deemed too poor to mine, Duval opened operations in 1970 with government loans due to the Vietnam War. However, the present tailings impoundment, which did not use common-sense construction, was put in later. The old impoundment still exists. They could have at least placed the pond on the side of the mine where there were no people in the vicinity, for seepage from tailings ponds was a well-known problem.

And “the me first” scenario isn’t valid in any other area. Even if my neighbor was here first, but that doesn’t mean that he or she can start polluting the groundwater served by our mutual wells. Even if he starts junking up his yard with old cars, the county will come out, cite him and make him clean it up. I can find no law or statue, common or otherwise, that says someone can pollute a neighbors’ habitat because they were “here first.” In Arizona, the public gets a $500 fine for throwing a can on the highway; whereas industry can throw toxic waste into our groundwater. Where’s the logic?

Pollution is Pollution
A pollutant has to be a carcinogenic to be considered a regulated contaminant. At this point none of the pollutants are believed to cause cancer; therefore, they are not regulated by EPA. However, they are polluting our good quality water by adding sulfates and hardness, which make it non-potable. Up until now I have seen no evidence that the toxic plume is not spreading and will continue to spread. There is no guarantee that the heavy metals and radioactive chemicals now on the mine side of the aquifer will not migrate over to the Green Valley side. There are interceptor wells that keep drawing out the toxic waste—to go back into the tailings impoundment when it is too saturated to pull out any more metals. The mine manager says they have copper for another thirty years. Where are the guarantees and bonds to keep those interceptor wells pumping for another hundred years?

So why does business and industry get their way? I’m betting because the public doesn’t know or understand what’s going on. Are minerals more important than water for the citizens and our wonderful desert plants and animals? Phelps Dodge is claiming rights to about one-half of the water in Arizona. We will be discussing the Gila General Adjudication of All Rights to Use Water in the Gila River System and Source, which includes Pima County, in the up-coming Groundwater Awareness League meeting.

What can you do?
Although the public comment period has ended, we can still address any issue brought up already in the public comments. We need to inundate Department of Environmental Quality (ADEQ) with our desire to have the pollution problem regulated and solved, so that we will not have to go through this process again in the future. Write the ADEQ with copies to the Governor, who is completely informed of the situation here, and write the Phelps Dodge management. The Sierrita mine manager, John Brack, did tell me that his goal was to catch the seepage from the tailings impoundment and reuse the water in the mining operations. Such a recycling plan would be optimum because of the high use of water by the mining operations. However, the project will be expensive. Will PD’s corporate management support such an expenditure? Let them know that we insist on their cooperation. The contact numbers are all on the website. Ask for two things: the aquifer will be protected from further pollution and there will be bonds to assure reclamation of the site. We need to inundate ADEQ with our letters—hundreds of them—it is only with public pressure that ADEQ has the support they need to stand up to the mining companies. We have to act now.

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