Toxic sludge killed thousands of birds at open pit copper mine
By Summit Voice
SUMMIT COUNTY — The Freeport-McMoRan Corporation, owner of the Henderson and Climax molybdenum mines in Colorado, recently agreed to pay $6.8 million for natural resource damages at its Morenci Mine in east-central Arizona.
The U.S. District Court for Arizona recently approved the settlement, which involves the multinational mining giant, as well as the State of Arizona, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
The settlement is the result of several years of negotiations among Freeport-McMoRan Corporation, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality and the Arizona Game and Fish Department.
Settlement negotiations began in 2003 after the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service investigated the bird mortalities at Freeport’s Morenci tailings ponds, reported voluntarily by the mining company. The settlement money will be used for the restoration of Arizona wildlife populations and its habitat.
The Morenci mine site is located near the Arizona communities of Clifton and Morenci near the New Mexico border. The mine site has numerous open pits, leach rock stockpiles, tailings impoundments and uncovered ponds. Five smelters also have operated historically at the site.
Rainwater-formed ponds on the tailings were documented to be highly acidic in 2000 and 2001 and to cause death and other injuries to migratory birds through exposure and ingestion. Hazardous substances at the mine, located between the San Francisco River and Eagle Creek, have included sulfuric acid, copper, and other dissolved metals.
Negotiations included the results of field investigations, documentation of injuries reported in 2000-2001, and the modeling of injuries that preceded the documented event and resulting future loss of wildlife productivity.
“The Arizona Game and Fish Department looks forward to putting these settlement funds to work to create wetland habitat for Arizona’s migratory and resident birds,” Arizon Game and Fish director Larry Voyles said in a prepared statement. “The Department commends Freeport-McMoRan for voluntarily reporting the bird mortalities and entering into a settlement which fairly compensates the public for lost resources.”
“I am pleased to see this settlement agreement between the State of Arizona, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and Freeport-McMoRan Corporation,” said USFWS southwest regional director Benjamin Tuggle. “Now we can begin the process of restoration by working with the public and other involved stakeholders to determine what restoration project or projects will best compensate for those resource losses.”
“We feel this is a fair settlement to resolve this matter,” Arizona Department of Environmental Quality Director Henry Darwin said. “It’s also important to note that Freeport-McMoRan has proactively changed its operating procedures over time to prevent these kinds of problems in the future.”
The settlement money will be held in the Interior Department’s Natural Resource Damage Assessment and Restoration Fund until restoration projects are selected. A trustee council consisting of ADEQ, Arizona Game and Fish Department, and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will solicit project ideas and prepare one or more draft restoration plans for public review and comment before selecting projects for implementation.
Restoration projects will be designed to restore, rehabilitate or replace injuries to terrestrial, aquatic and avian habitats. These plans will be made available for review at a later date.