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:


1 comment:

  1. A nice post! I've been living in Bisbee this summer and I've been curious about the soil remediation program. One of the workers told me that the replacement soil, which seems to be sandy clay-loam, comes from a quarry operation between Bisbee and Sierra Vista