Monday, January 16, 2012

Mining Town Dirt

In respect to gardening, “your garden is as good as your soil”, has become my mantra.  While my first post speaks about my attempts toward removing a Bermuda grass lawn from the yard, this post will describe the dirt under the grass.

The town of Bisbee, founded in 1880, originally served those who were interested in mining gold and silver, but copper proved to be the most abundant and lucrative metal found in the area. The demand and price for copper soared with the event of WWI & implementing Edison’s inventions. The mining operations and population exploded, enough for Bisbee to claim to be “once the largest city between St. Louis and San Francisco”. Mining operations switched to open pit mining starting with the Sacramento Pit opening in 1917 and later with the Lavender Pit (opened 1951 and closed in 1974).

Warren, Arizona
Our home in Warren, a satellite of Bisbee, is positioned between two mountains of waste tailings; one is currently being leached for copper, using sulfuric acid (foreground) and the other is currently being capped with soil, to prevent the sulfates from leaching into our water supply (yellow patch middle ground). I’m aware that I need to be thoughtful about the dirt’s history in evaluating its purpose and the practical actions I need to take to create the healthiest garden possible.

Mining activity east of Chihuahua "B" Hill
Before Freeport-McMoRan bought the mine in 2007 from Phelps Dodge, Bisbee hasn’t seen mining operations since 1974. Although we are aware that Freeport-McMoRan is conducting exploratory operations, the increasing activity behind the “B” hill (a prominent landmark in Historic Old Bisbee) has not gone unnoticed by the locals.

In 2008, Freeport-McMoRan set up a soil remediation program called the Bisbee Soil Program. In their literature it states that Freeport-McMoRan “is committed to address potential residential soil-related environmental issues in the greater Bisbee area associated with historical operations”. Also,  I noticed The Shaw Group logo prominently displayed on a fleet of shiny new trucks so they must be participating in some way as well. 

Homeowners are encouraged to sign up for their soil to be tested and in the event that the tests prove levels of arsenic, copper, lead, and/or manganese beyond what is accepted then the company will remove and replace the soil for FREE. Initially, everyone I came across who was a property owner was excited about having his or her soil tested and replaced if needed. They all claimed, “It would increase the property value”. With the housing market the way it is, especially in southern Arizona, there is no wonder for their concern.

Diagram showing tested areas.

Since my partner was putting his house on the market, he signed up for the soil to be tested. The B01 section of dirt in the back of the house had qualified for cleanup with the results of 554 ppm of lead, while the side and front yard tested within acceptable levels. The F01 sections test results proved to be well below the cleanup levels with the exception of arsenic at the level 26.3 ppm, which is just under the 30 ppm requiring cleanup. Should I be concerned?

Here is a case where the resident is expected to understand the science to able to make sense of the results to make a critical decision about participating in the program. I’m guessing a high percentage of our community members (including myself) are not educated in this field of science and I suspect that many find it easier to place their trust with the experts and believe in the explanations presented by Freeport-McMoRan.

Activists have been speaking about the discrepancies of data interpretation between the scientists paid by the vested corporation verses the results by independent research companies. I’m naturally concerned. It is difficult not to be skeptical of recommendations made by large corporations or government agencies. Lawrence Lessig Keynote on Citizens United Decision at For the People Summit touches on this trend during the first 6 minutes into his presentation.
I decided to ask those who have had their soil replaced about how they feel toward Freeport-McMoRan’s soil program. Everyone seemed to be very pleased with the outcome. I asked them specifically where is the replacement soil is coming from. They didn’t know and didn’t think to ask. The reason I felt that is was an important question is that the smelter operations in Bisbee eventually relocated to Douglas in 1904, just 23 miles away, and operated until 1987. At one time, tons of sulfur dioxide was released into the atmosphere daily, a primary cause of acid rain. I am skeptical that the soil within trucking distance is any healthier than what we have. My partner had a conversation with the folks at the Remediation Program office but the office  staff didn’t seem to know anything about that aspect of the program. They did know that we couldn’t count on our soil being replaced within the next year and it may be two more years (note: notification about the test results was received in Mar. 2010) before that takes place .
The 2010 the Bisbee soil program update literature, supplied plenty of photos of happy, young, and hard working team members in the field. The EPA was mentioned in one section because they indicated that there could be natural occurring radon in the area. Soil samples were collected and analyzed to determine the background levels. The evaluation of the data found that “none of the 261 properties had radionuclide levels in soils that exceed levels that the Arizona Department of Radiation Control has determined to be protective of human health (my bold). Freeport-McMoRan’s programs are conducted under the oversight of the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality (ADEQ). I’m supposed to feel assured, right?

I admit I didn’t immediately associate Freeport-McMoRan or The Shaw Group with any bad press. I did know that mining companies are in the same class as oil companies, so I took a look on the Internet. It didn’t take long to find some very disturbing news about the environmental history and practices attached to these two companies. The actions described are not fostering my trust. Check out the links at the end of diary for more information.

Taking a step back, our 1920s house probably has lead paint buried under several layers of acrylic based paint. Being nearly 90 years old, the layers of paint have built up over time. This means that the first coats of paint are old and brittle and the paint randomly chips free. Another consideration is that the troubled patch of dirt in the back yard is a prime spot for dumping household chemicals, historically a popular practice among many people. Since lead levels are their only concern here, I’m not inclined to solely put the blame on the mining operations. The stated Freeport-McMoRan cleanup level for lead is 425 ppm. The new EPA standards states lead is considered a hazard when equal to or exceeding . . . 400 parts per million (ppm) of lead in bare soil in children's play areas or 1200 ppm average for bare soil in the rest of the yard (Last updated on 11/08/2010).
After serious consideration, I’m thinking that I do not want to participate in the soil remediation program but my partner is concerned about the property value. The test levels for our backyard seem not high enough for us to be overly concerned about our health and we don’t have young children living with us to worry about.

Wild Mustard
In respect to our property value, I plan to use an alternative clean up solution called Phytoremediation. Phytoremediation is the practice of using plants to remove pollutants from the environment. Studies have shown that sunflowers pull arsenic and lead out of soil. Brassicas, particularly Indian mustard, are also hyper accumulators of arsenic and other metals.

Research data is sketchy, but I did learn that it is important that the expired plants, full of toxic waste, are removed and safely disposed of. I haven’t found anything about the best type of sunflowers to use nor if the seeds hold pollutants. Pictured above is a type of mustard that grows wild in the yard. I’m trying to identify it to know if it should be pulled up and disposed of because of our arsenic levels or should I use it to amend the soil. My best guess in identification is Sisymbrium irio, London Rocket.  Perhaps one of my readers can offer their insight on these questions.

I intend to have the soil tested next winter, after a season of sunflower treatment. The data Freeport-McMoRan provided to us will be useful because it gives us a baseline for my experiment.

I couldn’t ask for a more beautiful possible solution to the lead and arsenic problem. The real problem is the possibility that mining on a large scale will return to the area and how that will affect our unique community.

The Bermuda Lawn update:
Morning Snow, February 2011
Freeport-McMoRan’s soil program crew picked up some dirt samples on the city’s land in front where the Public Works crew removed the grass and soil. I have to wait and see what that means for my plans. I have already landscaped part of it. In vacant areas, the Bermuda grass appears to be dormant and although it has been sunny, it is very chilly. I’ll take this as a sign for me to give my project a rest.

More Reading:


Keep Western New York Beautiful (KWNYB): Programs‎ > ‎Green-to-Clean‎ > ‎

Our Garden Gang: Organic Ade > Suck It Up!

Freeport-McMoRan, a U.S. corporation headquartered in Phoenix, Arizona, the Grasberg Mine is one of the world’s largest single producers of both copper and gold, and contains the largest recoverable reserves of copper and the largest single gold reserve in the world, according to Freeport-McMoRan.
·      Massive environmental destruction: the mine has already disposed of one billion tons of tailings into the local river system
·      Significant support to the Indonesian government and military ($20 million 1998 through 2004)
·       Serious human rights violations: indiscriminate killings, torture and disappearances of local people in their safeguarding of the mine operations and their campaigns against West Papuan secessionists By Heathlander

The Shaw Group: The Shaw Group
Shaw has over 30 years of experience in managing wastes of all types, including radioactive, mixed, hazardous, and sanitary. They work closely with federal, state, and local regulators to ensure safety and compliance in the handling, processing, treating, transporting, and disposal of these wastes.
·       In 2010 Shaw was ordered by The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission to improve the way it responds to safety complaints from employees, following the firing of an employee who felt substandard protective paint coatings were being applied to critical parts of a nuclear plant's cooling systems.
·       As part of Shaw's work providing 24,000 FEMA trailers (to Katrina victims), the company was cited after explosions for failing to follow proper safety standards.

Douglas Smelter Environmental History:
January 07, 1985|United Press International
Much of the railroad is now torn up, but the mining and smelter towns it served near Mexico remain--part of the so-called Gray Triangle where pilots must plow their crafts through tons of airborne sulfur dioxide.
By next year, two smelters in northern Mexico and a Phelps Dodge facility in Douglas could pour 2,700 tons of sulfur dioxide into the atmosphere daily.
That would be equal to 80% of all the sulfur dioxide produced in the West, including that from coal-fired power plants.

In older smelters, air emissions contained elevated levels of various metals. Copper and selenium, for example, which can be released from copper smelters, are essential to organisms as trace elements, but they are toxic if they are overabundant. These metals can contaminate the soil in the vicinity of smelters, destroying much of the vegetation. In addition, particulate matter emitted from smelters may include oxides of such toxic metals as arsenic (cumulative poison), cadmium (heart disease), and mercury (nerve damage).

Arizona Department of Environmental Quality:


Wednesday, January 11, 2012

The Bermuda Grass Lawn

Our home before we moved in.

The soil located on the property has been used for years as a lawn. Now, I am not a fan of lawns. In fact, I have a strong opinion against lawns because they usually require chemical treatment and water piped in from outside of the area. I loathe golf courses. I think it is obscene and a crime to lavish water on lawns and to build golf courses in the desert.

The majority of the property’s lawn is occupied by Bermuda grass. Some people, like me, prefer the name “Devil Grass”. The Bermuda grass was surviving without any extra care except grooming during the monsoon season. I couldn’t find fault in it in that way. It is a plant after all and I admire survivalists. For half of the year it looks dead but once the rain hits in July it jumps back to life. If you were to offer it some chemicals and water it would be green year round.

At first I assumed that the Bermuda grass was put in place by a previous homeowner for the sake of convenience or in an attempt to recreate a lush lawn like those that are popular in other parts of the country. Then it came to my attention that Bermuda grass is used in ballparks in warm climates. The historical Warren Ballpark sits across the street from our home so maybe the seeds migrated and took over the space with no encouragement from the occupants.

The Warren Ballpark is the site where the historically unjust Bisbee deportation took place. As I gaze to the south, I sometimes reflect on the fact that in 1917 a crime was committed against the population of Bisbee right there on the site that is in front of me. Let me share with you an excerpt from an overview of the historical event provided by University of Arizona:
On June 24, 1917, the I.W.W. presented the Bisbee mining companies with a list of demands. These demands included improvements to safety and working conditions, such as requiring two men on each machine and an end to blasting in the mines during shifts. Demands were also made to end discrimination against members of labor organizations and the unequal treatment of foreign and minority workers. Furthermore, the unions wanted a flat wage system to replace sliding scales tied to the market price of copper.

Snip - July 12, 1917

The vigilantes rounded up over 1,000 men, many of whom were not strikers -- or even miners -- and marched them two miles to the Warren Ballpark. There they were surrounded by armed Loyalty Leaguers and urged to quit the strike. Anyone willing to put on a white armband was released. At 11:00 a. m. a train arrived, and 1,186 men were loaded aboard boxcars inches deep in manure. Also boarding were 186 armed guards; a machine gun was mounted on the top of the train. The train traveled from Bisbee to Columbus, New Mexico, where it was turned back because there were no accommodations for so many men. On its return trip the train stopped at Hermanas, New Mexico, where the men were abandoned. A later train brought water and food rations, but the men were left without shelter until July 14th when U. S. troops arrived. The troops escorted the men to facilities in Columbus. Many were detained for several months. (Sheila Bonnand, 1997)

Train Leaving for New Mexico. Deportation of I.W.W.s    July 12, 1917

To this day, there remains a hard feeling within the Bisbee community over the event. To illustrate this fact, several years ago a member of the community proposed a memorial for the deportation event. The proposal went through a long and contested battle before gaining approval. While the placement for the memorial was intended to be by the ballpark, eventually it found a home in the cemetery next to James Brew. James Brew had shot a Loyalty Leaguer (vigilante), after giving a warning that he would shoot anyone who tried to take him. In return, James Brew was shot on the spot. The fight for justice carries on. Solidarity forever. Occupy Everywhere! In my case it is my little piece of dirt.

How do you deal with the problem of removing Bermuda grass? I have had previous battles with Bermuda grass on a smaller scale before, so I knew that it was unlikely that I would ever be able to completely eradicate it. Some people use Monsanto’s Roundup as a solution. In fact, I had a confrontation a few months after I moved into the home. A well-meaning neighbor was spraying Roundup on the grass that was thriving in the cracks in the road in front of her house and she decided to continue on to the front of my home. I was dismayed because I had observed her frequently tending her yard and I thought we might share the love of plants. Although, I was looking forward to having a neighbor to share gardening experiences with, I had to introduce myself to her by requesting that she discontinue spraying the grass in front of our home. She was very apologetic and expressed that she thought I would like to have the grass eradicated. I very carefully explained that I appreciated her intentions but that I aim to be an organic gardener and I was concerned about the health of our wildlife and watersheds. She quickly said that the label stated that product was safe for the watersheds. I looked at her, took a breath, and pointed out that the company that makes that claim is Monsanto. Based on what I know about Monsanto, the company cannot be trusted. Next, I suggested that she should research the company’s practices online. I didn’t want to go on a long rant because I had hoped to build a relationship. She admitted that her husband hates her using Roundup and that he shared my views about the chemical. Whew. She understood where I was coming from but I wonder why she is still using the damn product. Thankfully, we maintain a friendly relationship even though it had a slightly rough beginning.

I decided that I would take a multistep approach. First, I waited until July for the rains to soften the dirt to make the digging process easier (I’m 50 yrs. and feeling it lately). Round 1 - dig down the depth of my shovel and turn the soil over. Rake and pick out the grass and roots as much as possible. Let the hot summer sun roast the disturbed earth and burn the grass debris that I missed. Round 2 – allow enough time for the survivors to begin to recover and then repeat digging process in just those spots. Round 3 – begin adding topsoil because I have hit the layer of clay soil at this point. Continue to be diligent in removing any survivors. I’m hopeful that the amount of surviving grass will be less in time.

Several folks had noticed me digging the grass up and made the suggestion that I throw down an old carpet over it instead. I gave the response that I’m concerned about the fact that most carpet materials are made from synthetic fibers (polyamides (nylons) and polypropylene) and that it would most likely be toxic for the soil and plants that I want to use in place of the grass. Many people pass by and voice admiration for my efforts but I get the feeling that the quiet ones think I’m crazy.

In late July, the operations manager from the city’s Public Works department took an interest in my activity. He was leading a team to improve the ground levels to promote the flow of the torrential rains to the drains to prevent flooding. I explained to him that the grass had built up in the years (2 inches) and that the water wasn’t being allowed to sink in the soil but flowed instead on the sidewalk. Then he noticed that I had placed some rocks in front of a drainage outlet to appear like a riverbed. I explained that I was attempting to subdue the grasses that promoted soil and debris blockage to the opening and to encourage the monsoon water to flow into the canal as intended. He was impressed with the functionality and decorative effect.

He then pointed out that I was digging on city property and he asked me about my plans. I explained that I wanted to lower the level of the soil to below the sidewalk so that the water would puddle and sink in instead of it flowing down the sidewalk. He liked that idea. Then I went on to say that I wanted to plant local flora, aka cactus and wild flowers in the plots closest to the street and a mixture of plants that are drought tolerant in the plots toward our fence. He didn’t feel that the city would approve of the cactus. It would be a liability for the city if someone were injured from brushing up against a cactus. I wondered if he had noticed the century plants, barrel cactus, yucca, ocotillo etc. decoratively placed around town. Since I had pointed to the closest hill to illustrate the landscaping idea, he also sternly warned me not to take anything from the mining company’s land.

Anyway, I was already aware that the land between the sidewalk and the road was city property. After a short period of discussing what is the city’s property and what was ours, I pointed out that everyone on the street had customized the land in front of their homes. We had a thoughtful discussion about that historical fact and how he was concerned about telling some homeowners that they will have to remove their trees because the tree roots will eventually destroy the sidewalk. I became worried over the fate of the desert willow that we had recently planted but he gave his approval for that type of tree.


Well, I had to laugh at this sudden concern about the sidewalk. The sidewalk was in poor condition in front of our home and it was evident that it had been that way for half a century. He looked down toward the sidewalk and noticed for the first time the level of decay and the outright hazardous shape the sidewalk was in. The Bermuda grass had grown over it to such an extent that it had hidden the deterioration. My attempt to cut the grass away from the cracks made the problem quite visible. Without thinking, I told him that we were planning on hiring someone to restore the sidewalk (I also wanted to dig up the grass thriving under it). We figured that the city had limited resources and we wanted to contribute to the cause. He objected to that idea and said we would have to get permission from this and/or that city department. He then began to get animated and called a member of his crew over for consultation. The operations manager’s work force is comprised of the incarcerated. The orange suited crewmember consulted was obviously valued for his knowledge and in the course of the conversation let out the fact that his boss had him for 25 more years. I don’t know all of the details but I have the opinion that the taxpaying and jobless citizens in this country are not benefiting from this arrangement. The operation’s manager stated that he wanted to put the sidewalk repair on his schedule and also added the removal of the Bermuda grass for the reason of improving the drainage.

Later, we were told that the sidewalk would be repaired by the end of the year (2011). Also, we were advised to stop the landscaping project until then because his crew needed space to work in. Our thoughts were that it would be a long time for that project to fit into the city budget. We thought that we would probably just do the repair eventually and suffer the consequences for doing something that needed to be done and that would save the city money later. I decided to continue working on the project at my own slow pace, keeping in mind that the sidewalk repair project would require some room to maneuver.

Within two weeks the crew brought in a backhoe. The grass, three to four inches of its root system and soil were removed. The first battle with the evil grass is completed. For all the issues I have with the city’s logic, in this case, I am very grateful for their assistance with the dirt I occupy.