If the mining industry, which has produced at least 40 Superfund sites nationwide, becomes a part of TRI, it will make a lot of other polluters look like they were spitting in the ocean.
"I don't think there's
any "perhaps' about it," says Phelps Dodge spokesman Tom Foster,
when asked if he thought the mining industry would dominate the
TRI's Top 50 toxic releasers list.
No wonder. A
1985 EPA report to Congress estimates that hardrock mining creates
up to 2 billion metric tons of solid waste every year in the United
States - more than twice as much as all the cities and other
industries in the TRI combined. Forty percent of those wastes, such
as copper, lead, cadmium, zinc and arsenic, have been linked to
cancer, brain damage in children and aquatic-life
The mind boggles when considering a
typical cyanide heap-leach gold mine, which normally processes
about 60 tons of ore to yield one ounce of gold. What would the TRI
have told us about the Summitville gold mine in southern Colorado,
which has turned into one of the largest pollution disasters in
recent mining history (HCN, 1/25/93)? Or about the devastation
wrought by mining along the Clark Fork River in Montana, site of
the largest complex of Superfund sites in the
Exact numbers for mining pollution are
largely a mystery, but there is one tantalizing hint. In the first
year of TRI reporting - released in 1989 for the year 1987 -
Kennecott Copper's Bingham Canyon Mine in Utah mistakenly thought
it was required to report, and dutifully disclosed that it produced
over 158 million pounds of waste, including 130 million pounds of
copper residue. That ranked Kennecott as the fourth largest
polluter in the nation among 18,000 facilities.
Mining industry officials concede that under TRI reporting, Western
mine sites quite likely would blow away all the DuPonts and Dows
and fill every spot in the TRI Top 10. Even if the Bingham Canyon
mine had cut its pollution by 50 percent from 1989 until 1994 - an
enormous reduction - its 79 million pounds of waste would easily
make it No. 1 in total pollution in the latest report by more than
20 million pounds over two giant DuPont plants.
Says Phil Hocker, director of the Mineral Policy Center in
Washington, D.C., a mining watchdog group, "I think this will
quantify for the first time the threat these mines present to the
health of people in the West."
National Mining Association president Richard L. Lawson, who, as
Vice President Al Gore was releasing the latest TRI report, said
the Clinton administration was "pandering to people's fear and
playing politics with the environment." Lawson said complying with
TRI would be costly, burdensome and unnecessary.
Mining giants like Phelps Dodge and ASARCO, whose operations have
fouled the West for decades, feel especially aggrieved over the TRI
reports. In the 1994 report, ASARCO's East Helena, Mont., smelter
ranks second in the nation in total toxic releases to the land, and
fourth for "total" releases, with over 43 million pounds of waste.
(Its Hayden, Ariz., plant is ranked sixth.) But ASARCO spokesman
Jerry Cooper says these numbers are misleading because they simply
represent enormous piles of slag, the black molten by-product of
ore processing, which the industry says is inert and harms no
"The slag is out in the
open, not in some tank (like chemicals at a refinery)," says
Cooper. "The emergency crews know where it is, so does the
community, and if properly handled it's only hazardous by legal
definition." (Last March, ASARCO was named in a Justice Department
lawsuit that alleges it and three other mining companies dumped
over 70 million tons of mine wastes in the Coeur d'Alene Basin in
Idaho, resulting in a Superfund cleanup project now estimated at
between $600 million and $1
"There's no release
to the environment," says Foster from Phelps Dodge, whose copper
smelters near Playas and Hurley, N.M., rank in the top 20 of toxic
"land" emitters because of their slag. "We're just moving rock from
one place to another. I don't see the value in (the community
knowing its TRI numbers)."
But Phil Hocker asks
that Westerners remember its long history of mine-related
pollution, and that toxins can and do eventually leach out of slag,
despite its glass-like state. "The idea," says Hocker, "that slag
is somehow benign and that the companies shouldn't have to report
it is immoral."