An off-the-books polluter

  • Kennecott's Bingham Canyon Copper Mine in Utah

    Phil Hocker/Mineral Policy Center

Note: This article is a sidebar to a feature story.

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 fatalities.

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 nation?

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."

Poppycock, says 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 one.

"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 billion.)

"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."

High Country News Classifieds