The Effects of Copper Mining on Environment and Society

A personal tale of poisoning in a former copper mining town.

Boom Bust Boom cover

“Boom, Bust, Boom” by Bill Carter weighs the pros and cons of copper as a vital resource despite the risks that copper mining poses to the environment and our health.

Cover courtesy First Schaffner Press

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Boom, Bust, Boom (First Schaffner Press, 2013), by Bill Carter, explores the presence of copper in our lives and its potential cost on our health, economy, and our environment. The following excerpt, from the first chapter "Tainted Vegetables," recounts the author’s personal experience with the effects of copper mining after he is poisoned by the vegetables grown in the arsenic-laced soil of his family garden.

"I like my town with a little drop of poison."
—Tom Waits

Every spring I plant a garden, a small but noble pursuit. Small in the sense that there are many more important items on the daily calendars of our lives, but noble because each step of self-sustainability has a lovely feeling of beating the ever-invasive food industry at its own game.

In my line of work, I travel a lot, sometimes to places where food is measured by cups of rice a week, and water is delivered to homes by ten-year-olds who have walked five miles through desolation to get to a well. Planting a garden is a way of keeping the harsh realities of the world at bay. It seems a sane practice in a world hell-bent on destroying itself.

When home, I try to talk to the plants every day. I grew up on a farm, so speaking to budding pomegranates seems natural to me, sometimes more so than speaking to my neighbor. Peaches and apricots are good listeners, too. I go to them for comfort. I trust the plants. And the seeds, although invisible, give great solace as they incubate in the ground.

This particular spring carries special meaning for me. My wife is pregnant with our second daughter and our two-year-old is eager to take on the chores of watering and helping her dad with the daily garden duties. My plan is to create a large vegetable garden in a backyard area we have never used. It is situated between two tall trees, perfect for morning and afternoon sun but shaded during midday.

After two full weekends of digging, raking, and trips to the hardware store, I complete a drip irrigation system. My daughter and I spend a Sunday morning planting squash, tomatoes, lettuce, spring onions, jalapeños, green peppers, and several herbs, including basil, thyme, and chives. Each morning, for weeks thereafter, I wake with the sun to see how much the garden has grown overnight. In the beginning the progress is slow, but soon the vegetables burst through the thin layer of dirt and begin to morph into yellow, red, and green.

After six weeks of daily attention, I collect my first batch of spring lettuce. I coddle each leaf as I wash it in the sink. Finally I prepare a salad for dinner. My wife won’t eat the lettuce or any other item from the garden. She’s not a food snob, but she is careful what she eats because of the baby that grows inside her. I argue that the food is as organic as we can find. She replies that she doesn’t trust the dirt.

She has a point. We live in Bisbee, Arizona, a small hamlet couched in the Mule Mountains, a mile above sea level. Bisbee is a dormant mining town, located eight miles from the Mexican border as the crow flies. The copper mine closed down more than thirty years ago, but the effects of its existence remain. Mine shafts pockmark the hillsides and sulfuric acid runoff stains the cliffs a burnt orange. Giant headframes dot the horizon, reminders of the elevators the size of houses that used to carry men a thousand feet below the surface. And then there is the open pit, a large crater on the edge of town where all the water from our torrential monsoon rains pours off the mountains into this mile-long giant bathtub.

Life in a Former Copper Mining Town

My wife and I met in Bisbee, not long after we both moved here in 2000, mostly to get away from anything resembling suburbia. As I’ve passed through the decades, I realize I have a few steadfast requirements for what I call quality of life. Most important is not driving in traffic. At all. I need to walk out my front door to a good hiking trail. I also like the ability to barter, if money is short, for any vital necessity. In Bisbee, I have always been able to trade one of my books for a meal, a poker buy-in, or a bottle of wine, or all three. Money is required here, but bartering is accepted.

In Bisbee, no two houses are quite alike. In fact, they are spectacularly different, reflecting the individual owners who built them, most more than a hundred years ago. Several streets are so narrow that driving down them requires bending the mirror inward to avoid clipping it off. Gas lines run exposed up stairways, occasionally doubling as railings. Each homeowner must adapt to the nuances of his or her home, and no manual exists to help with repairs. Local plumbers and electricians have to throw their training out the window because no job in town resembles that of a modern-day house.

Bisbee is no ordinary mining town. In its heyday it was one of the largest copper towns in the United States. Phelps Dodge, then the owners of the mine and once the political and economic alpha force of Arizona that owned almost every large copper mine in the state, took more than $8 billion in copper from this place. You don’t take that much from the earth without leaving a scar or two.

In 2007, Freeport-McMoRan bought the Bisbee mining operation and everything else Phelps Dodge had owned in Arizona and throughout the world for $25 billion—including mines in Africa and Chile. Freeport now owns a majority of the land to the north and south of Bisbee. They own the dormant mine. They own the twenty-seven hundred miles of mining tunnels that run beneath the town. They own some parcels of the mountains, sections of the outlying desert, and many buildings in town. Even though they don’t own most of the homes, at times it feels like the only things they don’t own or control are the people and the sky.

Originally based in New Orleans, Freeport began as a sulfur-mining company in 1912. In 1981 it merged with McMoRan Oil & Gas Company, the latter part of the name being a combination of the surnames of the three men who started the company: W. K. McWilliams, James Moffett, and B. M. Rankin.

Freeport-McMoRan employs 29,700 people in several countries and in 2012 ranked 135th on the Fortune 500. It has an estimated 102 billion pounds of copper, 40 million ounces of gold, and 2.5 billion pounds of molybdenum—a mineral used to strengthen steel—in reserve. The company expects to produce more than 4 billion pounds of copper per year for the next several years, making it the largest publicly traded copper-mining company in the world, second in size only to Codelco, the national copper company of Chile.

The company has always lured a collection of powerful families and individuals into its ranks, including the Whitneys—of the Whitney museum of American art in New York City. Rockefellers have served on the board of Freeport for several decades. Augustus Long, the director of Texaco from 1950 to 1977, was also a prominent board member along with Robert Lovett, son of R. S. Lovett, president of Union Pacific Railroad and commonly known as a “Cold War architect.” Henry Kissinger has long been a board member and today holds the title director emeritus.

Currently, James Moffett is the acting chairman of the board, president, and chief executive officer of Freeport-McMoRan, whose headquarters has relocated from New Orleans to Phoenix, a result of buying Phelps Dodge. In 2010, Moffett’s yearly compensation package was $47 million, including his base salary and various exercised stock options, making him the highest-paid person in Arizona, with second place going to Richard Adkerson, the cochairman of the company, who has earned $180 million since 2006, at an average of $33 million a year.

In 1988, while still based in New Orleans, Freeport gained national attention for dumping toxic water into the Mississippi. That year, Citizen Action, a national Washington-based environmental watchdog group, named Freeport the sixth-largest producer of toxic waste in the United states and the number-one water polluter. More recently, in 2008, the Political Economy Research institute at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst listed Freeport as the country’s twenty-second-worst air polluter, with a grand total of four million pounds of toxic air released in one year.

Poisoned Soil

As part of the transaction with Phelps Dodge, Freeport assumed an obligation to reclaim all the polluted soil in the Bisbee neighborhoods. By 2008, Freeport began a program it calls “soil reclamation,” which means they are testing every household in Bisbee to check for contaminants in their yards. If the company finds toxins above the allowed level, it removes all the contaminated dirt from the yard and replaces it with new dirt. Then the company wipes its hands and moves on to the next house.

I applied for Freeport to check our soil, which they did, but that had been months ago. A team of geologists, chemists, and environmental engineers walked the perimeter of our house, probing the soil to a depth of two feet. No one would answer any questions I had, other than to say the results would be ready in several weeks. Over the past few months it has been hard not to notice these teams of professionals driving in new gray jeeps with the word SHAW sprawled across the door. Shaw, I find out, is also a Fortune 500 company with ties to the industrial, chemical, and petrol industries and based in Baton Rouge. Among other services, it offers environmental remediation. The company prides itself on cleaning up highly toxic sites, including areas polluted by the manufacture of biological weapons. Months passed, so I assumed our soil was fine. Meanwhile, spring waits for no one, and I want to grow food. I want to teach my daughter it is possible to eat from our backyard and not Safeway.

The first night I eat a salad from our yard, my wife eats something else. As much as my daughter likes gardening, she doesn’t like salads, or anything remotely resembling a vegetable. She opts for macaroni and cheese. The salad tastes delicious, but knowing it came from the backyard, our backyard, makes it even more scrumptious. I do this daily, sometimes twice daily, for two weeks, each time feeling great pride in my efforts as a gardener.

One night I have a nagging headache, which intensifies the following night. My stomach feels nauseous. I tell myself the headaches and nausea are a result of a bug going around town. One night I wake up with quite a different sensation altogether. I have diarrhea and severe cramping in my stomach. Crawling to the toilet, I throw up, again and again. At this point I am nervous, thinking I have a serious sickness. My mind goes where so many in America go: medical insurance, which I don’t have. This cycle of physical sickness and mental anguish goes on for another week. In that time I have stopped eating anything other than basic staples.

After several more days, I am able to walk, and to eat once again. I have forgotten all about the garden; I don’t even care that it exists, although it still does because the drip system keeps working, thanks to the timers attached to hose spigots throughout the yard.

Feeling better, I walk to the post office and pick up my mail, eager to feel the sun on my face. Along the way, I look up and see the usual landscape, which in a state of weakness I remind myself is beautiful even as every angle makes me think of the mining days of yesteryear. There, in the side of Bucky O’Neil Mountain, exists a hole the size of a two-story building, the first entrance ever made into the famed Copper Queen mine. Like most mining camps, Bisbee was home to hundreds of individual mines, but the Copper Queen, built entirely underground, would become one of the richest copper mines of the early twentieth century.

After reading the local paper, I pick through the bills at the post office and notice a letter from Shaw. I read the letter a few times before its meaning registers: My front yard has 564 parts per million of lead, 32 percent higher than acceptable levels. In my backyard, where the lettuce, peppers, and spring onions are flourishing at this very moment, the soil has arsenic levels of 79.3 parts per million, more than 100 percent higher than acceptable levels for residential soil.

How the arsenic and lead got to my yard is not a mystery, but because I can’t see these poisons, I allowed myself not to believe my soil was laced with heavy metals. I knew of several large smelters, towering chimney stacks that exhaled smoke and heavy metals, which used to exist a quarter mile from my house and dominate every view in Bisbee. I’ve read stories from the early 1900s when newcomers visited the town for the first time at night and reported a haunting feeling of entering a landscape of hell: orange embers flying into the night from the smelters. Slag heaps, smoke, campfires, all giving the mining camp a feel of Dante’s Inferno.

The copper mines in Bisbee opened in earnest around 1881 and the final one closed in 1975, twenty-five years before I set foot in town. The smelter was dismantled in 1908, more than a hundred years ago, the result of upper management not wanting to live in the same town as a poisonous smelter, and the fact that the company had stripped almost every tree from the surrounding mountains to keep the smelter burning twenty-four hours a day. it took several decades for the trees to come back. And yet to this day, the arsenic and lead levels in the topsoil remain toxic. A hundred years of wind, snow, and rain since then, a century for nature to pound the earth, bleach it, leach it, flood it, grow over it, and erode it—and still the poisons remain. It is ironic how little copper is in the soil, but it makes sense. It would have been extracted in the smelting process, leaving the arsenic and lead particles to be belched into the wind and settle on the surrounding yards.

The smelter is not the only cause of the poisoned yards, however. Bisbee is transected by two parallel gulches, separated by a ridgeline covered with homes on both sides. Many of these homes, perched on hillsides, have anywhere from ten to one hundred steps to the front door. In an effort to create level foundations for some of the more upscale homes, Phelps Dodge killed two birds with one stone by leveling the land with the mine waste, called tailing piles, which it didn’t want. The company hauled “dirt” from the tailing piles, still thick with heavy metals used to extract copper from hard rock, and trucked this dirt throughout various neighborhoods in an effort to terrace the town. Thus the foundations of many Bisbee homes are actually built upon mining waste from several decades ago.

So, in fact, I didn’t have a bug that was going around town. According to government guidelines, arsenic primarily enters the body through airborne dust. Ingestion of arsenic can cause irritation of stomach and intestines, nerve injury, and possibly liver damage. For several weeks I had been digging on my hands and knees, preparing the soil for a garden. Often I did this leisurely work with my young daughter. I ate the vegetables for weeks. My mind is abuzz with the realization of how little I know about the history of where I live.

I stop and I take a moment to be grateful for two things, that my pregnant wife didn’t trust the dirt and that my daughter doesn’t like salads. Both are fine. But I am not.

A Ticking Clock

All this heavy metal in my soil might be easier to forget if I hadn’t heard rumors for the past several months that Freeport-McMoRan will reopen the mine, which would effectively alter the economic, cultural, and geological landscape of this town. This makes me realize I have a lot to learn about how copper mining companies affect towns in close proximity to their operations.

One afternoon, as we stand on the back porch, my wife and I talk about the long term. We are wondering if raising our kids in this town is a good idea. And even if the mine does not reopen in the next few years, there is no guarantee that it won’t open in five or ten years. Either way, it feels like a ticking clock hanging over our lives, and I’m afraid the sound will only get louder as time passes.

I stare out at my arsenic-laced garden, glistening in the afternoon sun. So much work lost to a phantom toxin I can’t see, taste, or smell. Suddenly I begin asking myself a series of questions, first and foremost, what would be the effect of a modern-day mine on the surrounding community and land? Bisbee’s mining operation was relatively small by today’s standards. The pit looks like a fishing hole compared to the ocean-sized pits of today’s mines. A modern-day mine would be larger, use far more land, and create much more waste. Even though we own a house here and are deeply entrenched in the local life, would I still want to live in Bisbee if the mine reopens?

It’s a question my wife and I have asked each other before, but never with any sense of urgency. Now we feel that as parents we must find an answer, and soon. Still, when we bring it up, neither one of us has an answer, as if we are playing a game of chicken, seeing who will be the first to declare we will walk away from our friends, our community, our garden, and our home.

If I had to pick a single item that week in and week out reveals the most about the residents of Bisbee, it is the one-page police beat in the weekly paper. One entry catches my eye right away: “A woman requested getting a snake out of her house. It became lost in the clutter."

Another states: “An anonymous caller reported an unknown Hispanic man had left loads of marijuana at his residence in the 2100 block of S. Kentucky Lane.” Is the caller still anonymous when the police know it is the actual resident of 2100 block of s. Kentucky Lane who made the call?

Here is another typical entry: “A Bisbee resident returned home and found ice cream covering her car. The back door was open and a light that had been left on, was off."

Sometimes the person who writes these entries takes a moment for a public service announcement: “Several javelina—a wild peccary—were struck and killed on Bisbee roadways this week. Be alert for living or dead javelinas on the roads."

For me, the police beat validates the notion that humor is the antidote to the predictability of everyday life.


Excerpted from Boom, Bust, Boom by Bill Carter. Copyright 2013 © Bill Carter. Excerpted with permission by Scribner, a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc. Now available in paperback from Schaffner Press.