The Case of the Azure-Colored Water: Jerome AZ

Jerome’s mining wealth in the first half of the twentieth century came at a big cost to the surrounding environment. The mountains were denuded for wood to build 88 miles of mining tunnels and other infrastructure. Mining wastes and tailings that are contaminated with a large toxic cocktail are visible from most every part of town.

Mining has always been a dirty business.

The biggest environmental threat to citizens in Jerome was the flow of azure-colored water during heavy rains in drainages on Perkinsville Road between what is now the Gold King Mine and Jerome. Moreover, the large slag heap and tailings on Sunshine Hill, just above the Daisy Hotel and other nearby residences, would leach blue water into Bitter Creek, which flowed directly into Jerome ‘s newly renovated sewage treatment plant, potentially contaminating it and groundwater resources below it.

The blue water was laced with a heavy potion of copper sulfate. In that watery mix were also found cadmium, selenium, arsenic and other nasty substances.

Kids liked to throw nails and car parts into it and watch them turn copper. They liked touching it. Jerome citizens loved to take their dogs walking out on Sunshine Hill or out Perkins Road. The owners had to restrain the dogs form drinking the water.

Drop a metal part into copper sulfate water and watch it become coated with copper.

Drop a metal part into copper sulfate water and watch it become coated with copper.

A major characteristic of sulfide ores is that they oxidize when exposed to air and water, e.g. they turn to sulfates. The toxic cocktail of blue water resulted in the oxidation of copper sulfides still present in the tailings piles that were created by the United Verde Mine and its successor, Phelps Dodge Corporation. Today, the colors showing in the unmined portions of the open pit above town—vivid oranges, yellows, dark reds—are evidence of the oxidation process, as well as indication that some of the ores still exist.

That characteristic was the clue that led Native Americans sometime prior to the 1600s up to what is now called Cleopatra to dig up the blue colored ore that was exposed there. Today, the colors showing in the open pit above town—vivid oranges, yellows, dark reds—are evidence of the oxidation process, as well as indication that some of the ores still exist there.

Often found near the top of massive sulfide copper ores is azurite, a deliciously colored blue minerals used in jewelry. The Hopis used pigments for their pictographs and the Yavapai used it for body adornment. Specimens collected from Jerome mines can be found in the Mine Museum on Main Street and at the Jerome State Park (Douglas Mansion).

Often found near the top of massive sulfide copper ores is azurite, a deliciously colored blue minerals used in jewelry. The Hopis used pigments for their pictographs and the Yavapai used it for body adornment. Specimens collected from Jerome mines can be found in the Mine Museum on Main Street and at the Jerome State Park (Douglas Mansion).

(More information about Jerome’s massive sulfide ores are discussed in in the previous blog, “The Future of Mining in Jerome Az.”)

The Mining Act of 1872 regulated little in the way of potential environmental degradation. Mining companies had a virtual free pass to mine gold, copper, coal as profitably as possible. Up until the nineteen seventies, pollution caused by mining, whether it was caused by what the mines left behind, or practices that were ongoing, were largely ignored.

In 1970, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was founded. In 1972, amendments to the Federal Water Pollution Control Act, now known as the Clean Water Act,  establishes guidelies for regulating the discharges of pollutants into ground and surface water. This meant that the EPA could mandate the clean up degraded and hazardous mining sites. The laws were strengthened when the The Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA or Superfund) was passed in 1980 which gave the EPA authority over sites contaminated with hazardous substances, as well as other pollutants or contaminants.

Citizens, most old hippies, began complaining to the town of Jerome and the town responded by contacting the EPA.  The new sets of laws gave EPA officials a mandate to investigate complaints. They came to Jerome, took photographs, and passed complaints on to officials at Phelps Dodge, then owner of the UV property on which the blue water was found, and hoped for voluntary compliance. It did not happen. Instead, PD stalled the process by claiming that there were broken water pipes under the affected lands and that the town was responsible for maintaining them, a claim that was untrue.

Finally, in 2003 that the EPA finally issued a Complaint and Consent Decree against Phelps Dodge for discharging acid mine drainage (e.g. the blue water) in violation of the Clean Water Act. PD was fined a civil penalty of $220,141.00 and told to formulate a reclamation plan to avoid seepage into Bitter Creek and other groundwater resources downstream. The EPA threatened to make name the PD site a Superfund site, which would have meant many more millions in fines and cleanup costs.

Once ground and surface waters are contaminated, they are virtually impossible to adequately restore to even drinkable use with any available technology in any time-frame that is within most people’s life spans. They best solution is to prevent contaminants from reaching water sources.

Phelps Dodge formulated a remediation plan and and spent close to $12 million to control the seepage, not entirely successfully.

In 2006, Phelps Dodge Corporation was sold to Freeport-McMoRan Copper and Gold, Inc. (Freeport) the largest publicly traded copper producer in the world and one of the world’s largest producers of gold. The deal created the world’s largest publicly traded copper company.[1]

In 2008, Freeport continued the remediation plan begun by Phelps Dodge and spent tens of millions of more dollars in extensive voluntary reclamation to control the seepage and improve water resources. Part of that project was to build a new drainage system on their property to ensure that mining wastes containing potential contaminants did not escape into groundwater resources.

The blue water stopped flowing.

Freeport also paved and put street lighting into a much-appreciated parking lot for tourists just outside of Jerome on the road heading towards the Gold King Mine. They provide buildings at that location to both the Town of Jerome for vehicle and equipment storage and a studio to sculptor Scott Owens.

So far, they have been good neighbors.

[1] Business Wire, November 19, 2006

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