Open Pit Mining: The Protest that Worked

In 2009, Vista Gold Corporation,  a Canadian-owned company that was headquartered in Denver Colorado, announced plans for an open pit gold mine in the watershed of the Sierra Laguna, above the town of Todos Santos, in Baja, California.  The water for Todos Santos and adjacent villages came fro a dam that was very close to the location of the the proposed mine.  There are no other water sources. and the risk of contamination by mining waste was high. The value of the mine was estimated at 1.2 million ounces of gold over a 9.3-year period.

“The proposed mine near Todos Santos was a preposterous idea: the mine would have needed to move a million pounds of rock to get a pound of gold,” said John McNerney, known to many in Jerome as the founder of  Jerome Instrument Corporation in 1979.

John knows a lot about gold mines. He spent many summers prospecting in Northern Nevada and that’s where he got his idea for designing a detector that could accurately measure mercury vapor. He knew just how nasty the consequences of open pit gold mining could be.

One of his biggest regrets is finding the Jerritt gold mining prospect near Elko, Nevada, which John described as a most beautiful canyon that began filling with mining waste as soon as the mine opened. The Jerritt mine was shut down after it contaminated the Owyhee River and other streams with atmospheric mercury used in the processing of gold. It could re-open when it installed better mercury emission control equipment. “By that time the damage was done,” said John.

After John McNerney sold his company in 1988, he and his wife Iris moved to Port Townsend, Washington where John built a most beautiful boat that took them on many voyages. A favorite was sailing the islands that were near La Paz, Baja, California.Eventually they moved to Todos Santos, in Baja California (a tourist town not unlike Jerome, AZ), where John built a home. He joined Niparaja, an organization which is devoted to marine conservation and the protection of many of the sensitive environmental coastal areas and islands that he grew to love while sailing. (

When Vista Gold announced the potential for a new open pit mine above the town he lived in, John helped spearhead the grass roots movement against it.

Virtually as soon as announcements of a new mine were made and permits applied for, a new website,, was put up and. During the first year, the articles were about the terrible working conditions and environmental disasters that attached to open pit mines. The first year also coined its ‘rallying’ slogan : Agua Vale mas que Oro! (Water is Worth more than Gold!).

The first article that was put up on vistagoldno website was: “Water vs 3700 tons of arsenic.” This short, concise, article made clear that the biggest threat to water sources was arsenic contamination. The article put up some graphic photos of the health problems that workers had due to working with arsenic. “With every hurricane or heavy rain, this exposed arsenic will leach into the aquifers for generations.” (Arsenic is a major component of acid mine tailing in and around Jerome.)

Hands and feet contaminated with arsenic.
Hands and feet full of arsenic poisoning.
John’s said that putting up these types  articles was part of the process of educating the community that had very little real knowledge about the effects of big mining in the communities surrounding them. “The information is all over the internet, John said. “We just had to find the best and start putting them up.”
The website shows the interesting sequence of activities that culminated in the protest that shut down the mine. The organization of the protest is clear and could easily serve as a model for virtually any other mine protest.

As the protest grew, so did the promises of Vista Gold—jobs (400 to 600 workers during construction and 300 full-time employees for the project’s life) and proper work-safety practices. Vista Gold also promised to use “environmental sensitive, state-of-the-art mining technology and practices, and uphold the highest international standards.” The company promised to build a desalination plant to ensure long-term, fresh water. (This was probably a just-in-case they wrecked the water sources for Todos Santos and nearby villages.)

Vistagoldno kept the pressure up. They put up stories about damage to Mexican communities that had ongoing mining operations. They featured a story about a few American companies that were protesting ‘dirty gold’ operations in other parts of the world. They summarized and provided links to a series of articles in the New York Times about contamination that resulted from the operations of global mining companies.

“When the residents of Todos Santos began to realize, ‘Hey that’s our lives they’re going to take away’—the protest picked up the momentum of a snowball careening downhill” John said.

The protest began to draw in leaders and residents in the communities that would be affected.  It was beginning to be so effective that. They wrote letters of protest to the mine and to Mexican officials.

Within a year, Vista Gold decided to change the name of the project from Paredones Amarillos (literally “yellow walls)” to the “Concordia” project “because it believed “that this will better reflect the integration of the project with the environmental, social and economic priorities of the region. The name Concordia (translated as “agreement” or “oneness”) was selected after “a wide-ranging dialogue with local communities and other project stakeholders.” which you could translate into community leaders were beginning be increasingly concerned about the nature of mining dirty gold. According to Vista Gold, “The name change is part of a broad program intended to communicate Vista’s commitment to developing the Concordia gold project in a way that is consistent with contemporary standards for sustainable development, environmental stewardship, and the health and safety of the communities in which the Company operates.”

Don’t you just love public relations mining speak!

In 2011, more than 8500 people chanting “Agua Vale mas que Oro! “ at a protest rally near Los Cabos. It included the entire town of Todos Santos — the cops, the school kids, the teachers, firemen, business owners, carpenters and plumbers and many others in neighboring communities. See a video about this march:

Support against the gold mining project drew .

Support against the gold mining project drew .

The following day, director of SERMANAT (environmental agency of Mexico) announced they would not issue the required permits for this mine.

Protesting a large mining operation can be done with committed leaders, their ability to inspire volunteers, a long-range plan to attract a strong following, and a catchy rallying slogan.

“You could say that my life has come full circle,” John McNerney said. “I used to be involved in helping mining companies find new sources of gold. The world needs metals, but mined responsibly. No one needs any more gold.”


The 7-Up Billboard Bites the Dust—Love in the Wild 70’s

I interviewed Charles Matheus in 1996; he had come back to Jerome to visit his mother. I asked him about what it was like to grow up here with the hippies. He chose to tell me this story about his parents and their friends, part of the older generation of eccentrics that had moved there in the sixtiesl

“I felt like I was surrounded by love. Before I talk about love, I have to talk about the billboard. In 1973, one of the focal points of conversations among my family’s friends was how to get rid of the billboard. It was the only billboard for 50 miles around and it was right at the apex of the curves. It took up the whole of our friend’s Larry Ahern’s living room window, a hideous “7-Up Power” ad in paisley flowers of Day-Glo orange/green/fuchsia. In an election year, the ad was temporarily replaced by an ugly mug of a sheriff running for the county spot against the USA’s red white and blue.

“One day, the billboard was gone. Most people thought it was Katie Lee who took it down. She was considered a radical before anyone knew the width of that word. In those years, she was a Western singer who sang about cows, horses, prostitutes and the disappearance of real cowboys.

“Ten years later, I was reminiscing with my Mom, just before I went to college. 
‘Wasn’t it great when Katie Lee cut the billboard down.

‘That wasn’t Katie, that was your father,’ said Mom. ‘One night he and his buddy Larry were sitting at the dinner table getting pissed off and they decided to do something about it. They went into the coal shed and got the blue chain saw they used to cut wood from up on Mingus. They made three cuts and toppled the billboard into the weeds, where it still lays.’

During an investigation of the crime, Winnie Foster, one of our friends that had moved to Jerome in the 1960s, confessed that she had done it, but the cops didn’t believe her. By that time, she was getting on in age and had broken a hip. She told us she wanted to spend a night in jail as part of her ‘bucket list.’ Winnie lived in a blue and white house across from the Methodist Church that her friends and family called “Foster’s Folly” because they thought she was crazy to buy a home in Jerome.

“My father died when I was young. I can’t describe what it is to feel proud of someone I hardly knew, nor can I tell you what’s it’s like to love someone who’s gone, but that’s love and love is hard to talk about.”

Book Review—Empty Mansions: The Mysterious Life of Huguette Clark and the Spending of a Great American Fortune

I would love to have had a fairy godmother like the late Huguette Clark. She was the daughter of William Andrews Clark, owner of Jerome, Arizona’s legendary United Verde copper mine, and, in his lifetime, one of the richest men in the world. Huguette was the rich princess bestowing gifts of great worth with her magic wand throughout her 105-year life.

The book, written by Bill Dedman and Paul Clark Newell, Jr., was published in 2013 by Ballatine Books.

Interestingly enough, the cover of the book does not show the mansions and apartments that Huguette abandoned, but the lavish home that her father, William Andrews Clark built on Millionaire’s Row in Manhattan.  Clark’s wife Anna and Huguette and Andree, daughters of that marriage, lived there until his death in 1925.

Interestingly enough, the cover of the book does not show the mansions and apartments that Huguette abandoned, but the lavish nine-story home that her father, William Andrews Clark built on Millionaire’s Row in Manhattan. Clark’s wife Anna and Huguette and Andree, daughters of that marriage, lived there until his death in 1925.

I loved the story of Gwendolyn Jenkins, an immigrant from Jamaica who became a nurse’s aide. Jenkins helped take care of Irving Gordon, a Madison Avenue stockbroker who helped handle Huguette’s investments and died of cancer. After his death, Huguette wrote her a lovely note, “a proper note” thanking her for his care.  “She included a ‘little gift,’ “a check for three hundred dollars.” Her daughter said, “You’d better sit down, Mother, and let me read this letter over to you. This check is for thirty thousand dollars!”

In another story, Huguette waved her magic wand to find the illustrator Felix Lourioux, who illustrated fairy tales in the French weekly, “La Semaine de Suzette,” a favorite in her youth, and commissioned several works by him. Lourioux was also the early illustrator of Mickey Mouse books. She lavishly supported him and his wife Lily throughout their lives.

Huguette spent a great deal of her considerable fortune on her very personal tastes in art and people. She supported as many as a hundred families in her lifetime—artists, craftspeople illustrators, and musicians; William Gower husband of less than a year and his new family; the Frenchman Etienne de Villermont, the love of her life whom she refused to marry and the wife he eventually married; relatives, friends, staff that helped take care of her many properties, and nurses.

The surprise of the book was that Huguette’s passion was dolls. She spent millions of dollars on buying and outfitting them with costumes. She meticulously researched the period in which each doll came from and directed the building of the ‘house’ or ‘castle’ some were to live in as well as furniture and accessories to go with them. She extravagantly paid the artisans, sent gifts to their wives, children and grandchildren and continued to support the families after they died. (The collection is valued at $1.7 million.)

Photos of two of the dolls from Huguette’s collection that are found in the book. To help publicize its publication, authors Dedman and Newell posted a three-minute plus video on NBC News displaying images of Huguette’s doll collection of French, Japanese, German dolls and some of their lavishly made homes. The background music is the tune “Salut d’Amour, played by pianist Eduard Laurel and violinist James Ehness on the the famous Strativarious violin, “La Pucelle.”

Photos of two of the dolls from Huguette’s collection that are found in the book. To help publicize its publication, authors Dedman and Newell posted a three-minute plus video on NBC News displaying images of Huguette’s doll collection of French, Japanese, German dolls and some of their lavishly made homes. The background music is the tune “Salut d’Amour, played by pianist Eduard Laurel and violinist James Ehness on the the famous Strativarious violin, “La Pucelle.”

I loved the story of the Japanese artist Saburo Kawakami who was hired to build a replica the lavish Hirosaki Castle, which included cutting shingles from a rare Japanese cedar for its roof. Huguette loved Japanese culture and history and collected rare Japanese Hina and other period dolls.

As portrayed in the book, Huguette was exceptionally private, well-mannered, introverted, shy, generous, and kind, absorbed daily in private passions that gave her a great deal of pleasure. Not much more about her personality can be gleaned from the book. To his credit, Dedman tried hard—plugging through archives, bank drafts and written documents and interviewing anyone alive who knew her. Co-author Newell’s scant five sidebars of conversations with Huguette on the telephone don’t add much by way of illumination and left me wondering why the book included them.

If I have a quarrel with the book it is that the book is very much a prize-winning journalist’s approach to writing about someone whose life was so carefully guarded. Perhaps only a third of the book is about what can be gleaned about Huguette from descriptions of her art and doll collection, descriptions of the lavish homes she lived in and abandoned, and the people that received some of her generous gifts.

Even the major love of Huguette’s life (“Love of Half a Life”) with the Marquis Etienne de Villermont gets a scant five pages, taken up in part with a few short affectionate notes between them: “It’s Valentine’s Day and I am thinking of you with great affection. I send you this bouquet but the mimosas are under the snow. We will take the boat in the middle of March, the United States. It will be a joy to see you. I can’t wait, I hope you are well, will try to call you. Much love, always, Etienne.” Another page or so of this segment describes the friendship that continued after he became married to someone else, which included Huguette’s gifts to help them adopt a child and a description of some of the gifts she sent to that child.

You have to admire a woman who was able to guard her privacy to that extent and live quite a full life absorbed by the pleasures and people she was drawn to. Up until her twenty-year stay at Beth Israel Medical Center, she stayed clear from fortune hunters, gossip, media attention, and family or friends that might only have cozied up because of that fortune.

What is interesting is that the book documents the sadness of those aspects of a very wealthy person’s life—attempts by Beth Israel to get her to sign over much of what remained of her fortune (politely called ‘cultivating the donor’). Equally sad is the lawsuit instigated by remnants of her family, most of whom had never met her, who wanted a piece of her fortune. Sad too the controversy surrounding Hadassah Peri, the nurse that devoted her life to taking care of Huguette while she was in the hospital and became perhaps her only friend and confidante. Huguette supported her with huge donations to her and her family ($31 million!) and left a considerable portion more to her in the will,

The settlement of Huguette’s estate came after the book was published. Those who would like to know about it can read Dedman’s article, “Huguette Clark’s $300 million copper fortune is divided up: Here’s the deal” at

There’s a lot of captivating detail to interest the reader who can’t get enough of the lives of the rich and famous.

The most interesting and valuable segment  of Empty Mansions is the 125 pages or so (almost a third of the book) devoted to William Andrews Clark, Huguette’s father. For me, It is single best biography yet written about W.A. Clark, from his birth to a not so poor family, to his education, growth of his business empire, the building of his mansion in New York, and the dissolution the mansion and sale of the United Verde mine. The book offers a much more complex and interesting portrait of him than the one of Huguette.

William Andrews Clark in Jerome, Arizona.  Courtesy of the Herbert V. Young Collection of the Jerome Historical Society.

William Andrews Clark in Jerome, Arizona. Courtesy of the Herbert V. Young Collection of the Jerome Historical Society.

Perhaps this is where Newell added a great deal of value to Empty Mansions. Newell’s father was Clark’s uncle and Clark often visited him when he was in Los Angeles. Newell was writing a biography about Clark but “his health was failing, so only fragments of that work were completed.”  Newell took up that his father’s work by organizing the archives, visiting museums and historical societies and developing friendships with some of the relatives that had known Clark. It was a visit to the Corcoran Gallery that revealed that Huguette was still alive (by this time she was already ensconced in Beth Israel Medical Center). Newell  was quick to say that even his father had never met the very shy and reclusive Huguette.

The segment on Clark included 18 pages of rich new information about the battles between Marcus Daly (owner of the Anaconda Copper Mining Company) and Clark for control of political power in Butte.  These include debunking some of the allegations of Clark’s bribery for the United States Senate and its aftermath, which included the Daly camp’s bribery of some of the Montana legislators that had initially voted for Clark to recant their testimony. Clark eventually resigned in the swirl of controversy, then was reappointed to fill the vacancy.

The book also debunks the veracity of Mark Twain’s now famous and oft-quoted excoriation of Clark.  “He is as rotten a human being as can be found anywhere under the flag.” (It goes to show that negative accusations always stay more firmly in the mind that positive ones, especially when they are well-written.) Turns out Twain had been saved from bankruptcy and was a close friend of Henry Huttleston Rogers, CEO of Rockefeller’s Standard Oil, the company which took over Daly’s Anaconda Copper, a fabulous stock swindle story all on its own.

Empty Mansions contains twenty-four pages of wonderful (and rare) color photographs and many black and white ones. My favorites were the black and white photo of Anna Clark’s bedroom with her harp at Bellosguardo taken in 1940 by Karl Obert and the full page photo of the very lovely Huguette taken in 1943.

In summary: Empty Mansions is a good read—especially for those of us who love the history of Jerome and all the byways it can take us on.

Gold Mining in Jerome AZ 1980’s

Outfitted with overlarge Wellington boots, a hard hat with a flashlight and a self-rescue device, which would give us breathable air in case of a fire, Walter and I are ready to descend 1100 feet down the hoist located at the Audrey Shaft in Jerome, adjacent to the Douglas State Park.

Audrey Headframe, Jerome, AZ.

Audrey Headframe, Jerome, AZ.

In 1984, Budge Mining Ltd. leased mineral rights from Phelps Dodge and United Verde Exploration and sunk quite a few bucks into fixing up the Audrey Shaft and elevator of the old Little Daisy Mine and fixing some of the tunnels. Mining, albeit on a small scale, threatens to come back to Jerome.

The new mine is after red- and black-banded jasper and other types of quartz chert and intend to haul the ore to New Mexico. There it will be crushed and used as a flux to process copper. The flux is heated and the gold will float up as a byproduct.

The gold is electron gold, microscopic and invisible. The only way geologists know it is there is to assay the rock. Paul Handverger, who was managing Verde Ex’s properties, was excited because he discovered the new prospect.

I’m there as part of a newly formed organization called the Jerome Protection Foundation, which is objecting to the proposed mining. Too noisy, especially at nights with dumping and sounds of trucks backing up, too disruptive to tourism that comes to the State Park, too much wear and tear on our already damaged roads, and so on. The road from Highway 89a to the State Park (Mine Road) is narrow and twisty. We’ve seen drivers who can’t always see around the curves drive much too fast and not quite on their side of the road.

The mine personnel are trying to appease us and have invited me to go into the mine. I’m all smiles and charm. I’ve always wanted to see the inside of a mine.

Pete Flores, mine foreman, reassures me that it’s perfectly safe. “You’ve been seeing too many movies. It’s not too bad at all down there. I even took my wife.”’

“How much gold is in the ore?” I ask. “Oh about .2 percent to a ton of rock,” says Flores. “I’ve been mining gold for 4-5 years and the only gold I’ve ever seen was in my teeth.

Down in the big tunnel, Flores shows us the safety rules, the emergency 
stretcher, the stepladder that would allow us to climb out if the elevators have a problem, the pneumatic tube that flows and circulates air. “I never had an accident and none of my men have either,” Flores says.

My big surprise is how roomy, high and long the tunnels are. My two-story house would hardly touch the ceiling. The ceiling of the tunnel is netted with wire mesh and embedded with bolts that go five feet into the rock. Flores also showed me some soft spots that could possible lead to cave-ins, which he likens to rotten apples.

We’re slowly walking in muck towards the high school. The muck is from water that needs to be used in diamond drilling through the hard rock jasper. We’re also shown two types of ores that hold massive amounts of copper—one a black schist that looks like coal and is very dense. I’m told it assays out at 30% copper to the ton. In the other or type, you can see copper seams—Jerome’s Apache gold— that assay out as 50-70% ore to the ton. They’re part of the extremely high concentrations of copper that are common to Jerome’s massive sulfide deposits.

I ask Flores what he likes about mining.

“The temperature,” he says. “My first job out of school was doing surveys in Grants New Mexico. It was windy, cold and miserable. Then I got a job mining. Down there the weather’s always perfect, an even 70 degrees all year round.”

While walking around, Flores told us about old mining superstitions.

“The miners of Arizona’s copper districts belong to many different nationalities. If they worked as miners in the Old Country, they bought their superstition with them. Many nationalities believe that mines are inhabited by impish “little people” called kobolds by the Germans, duendes by the Mexicans and tommyknockers by Cornish miners. They like to play pranks, like carrying carry off small tools. In the old country, miners kept them appeased with food offerings. The superstition that lingers on is that a woman will invariably bring bad luck into any mine. So whether true or not, it is very difficult for women to go down into the mines.

Tommyknockers, in mining folklore, are the spirits that knock on walls just before cave-ins.

Tommyknockers, in mining folklore, are the spirits that knock on walls just before cave-ins.

Anti-Mining Activism: The Jerome Protection Foundation

Barbara Blackburn, who had a level head and was a great organizer, started the Jerome Protection Foundation in the late 80’s. I was secretary. We were the black hippie crows creating as much an uproar as we knew how. Joining us was Mayor Francesca Segretti, who became livid when she had to drive to work at a crawl behind eleven ore trucks. Our members called and wrote a barrage of letters to officials at ADOT, the State Preservation offices, Historic Preservation in Washington, D.C., UVX; Phelps Dodge, Budge Mining. We flew off press releases, held meetings, got residents of Jerome engaged in doing something with their anger besides spouting off.

John McNerney, founder of JErome Instrument Corporation, which manufactured mercury detectors, used a noise detector to take formal measurements. “You need a baseline, something to compare potential noise levels to,” John said.  Joey van Leeuwen made a list of trees along Mine road that might be cut down if the road was widened. The strategy was to create a big bother along many fronts.

In one rancorous town council meeting, one mining geologist shook his fist and said, “You’ll see big mining return here in the next century. The biggest zinc deposit in North America is right underneath Jerome.”

There is a lot of zinc up there near the open pit and underneath the Company Hill houses, but it’s low grade and so far there doesn’t seem to be a lot of interest in mining it.

Fortunately, although four different mining companies professed interest as buyers of the chert, contracts for the ore were not forthcoming. Then there was an accident down in the mine, which nobody could get any details about. A big hush-up. A first for Flores. The mine shut down for repairs and never reopened. Today, the Historical Society constructed The Audrey Headframe park.

Would our protests of the Jerome Protection Foundation have amounted to anything? Maybe a few small concessions by the mine. At best. we probably did little more than spook them. Mining is a big Goliath. We were saved by either fate or serendipity.

It did not give us much hope against successfully protesting against an even bigger mining Goliath that may loom from discoveries of new massive sulfide deposits.  (See a previous post: “The Future of Mining in Jerome.”)

The Audrey Headframe  Park

In 2010, volunteers led by Allen Muma, President of the Jerome Historical Society, and Mayor Jim Kinsella, constructed the Audrey Headframe Park. The big draw is not just the restored headframe, but a glass platform where visitors can walk and peer down into the shaft—the same one that held the old elevator that took us down into the mine. Special zenon lighting and mirrors heighten the effect of looking down into the tunnels. The shaft is surrounded by old mining artifacts, such as ore cars, drills, water cannons, and an old mining cage.

Looking down the old Audrey shaft. In the 1980's, I was taken down by elevator to  tour a proposed new gold mine.

Looking down the old Audrey shaft. In the 1980’s, I was taken down by elevator to tour a proposed new gold mine.

The mirror walk was built by the same company that built the spectacular glass skywalk on the portion of the Grand Canyon owned by the Hualapai nation.