Arizona Public Radio | Your Source for NPR News
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Boom, Bust, Boom: Flagstaff Author Bill Carter Explores The Effects Of Copper Mining

Arizona currently supplies about half of the copper used in the U.S. But, mining doesn't come without significant impact on the environment and the people who live and work in mining towns. Flagstaff-based journalist Bill Carter has just written a book on the subject called, Boom, Bust, Boom: A Story About Copper, The Metal That Runs The World. Carter told Arizona Public Radio's Gillian Ferris Kohl he got the idea after the vegetables he was growing in his backyard in Bisbee started to make him sick.

BC: We already knew that they were starting to test soil for toxins. And I went down to the post office one day and it said you have really high levels of arsenic and lead. The whole thing kind of came together as the idea for a book is, on many different levels: one is, I’m a dad and I don’t want to live in a place with young children where this is in the ground and this is in the air and this is around us. That was kind of a very primal reaction. And then the second one is more of what I do for a living and what is going on here? Does this go on everywhere that mines have been or are active? Because Bisbee’s been closed down for 35 years. The scary part is the contamination in my yard it came from 100 years ago when they had a smelter. You know, it just stays there, it doesn’t go anywhere.

GFK: And when you say ‘they’, ‘they’ tested your soil, who are you talking about?

BC: Yeah, sorry. It’s Freeport McMoran now. You know, the big players in terms of Arizona’s history of copper are Phelps Dodge, they’re pretty much the ones who own the majority of mines in the state. They sold in 2007 to Freeport McMoran for 25 billion. So, Freeport owns, like, Baghdad, a mine in Miami, Bisbee, Ajo and also Indonesia, Africa, South America. So, they’re big. They’re the biggest copper company in the world, publicly traded copper company.

GFK: To get an idea of how big, can you give me a list of some of the things that copper ends up in in our daily lives?

BC: I can. (Laughs). Because I brought one. Ok, average car, 50 pounds, you do the math there’s a billion cars in the world, there’s sixty million made every year. Every house has about 400 pounds. Every 747 jet has 135 miles of copper, about 9,000 pounds. There’s .75 mgs in every bar of chocolate. Cell phones, 16 grams in every cell phone.

GFK: Is there an alternative metal or substance to copper?

BC: We don’t have an alternative for it. If we speak about the big issues like oil, the carbon footprint, global warming, eventually this world is going to tip more toward green technology. Copper, there’s no alternative. They tried aluminum in the 1970’s and it burned down a lot of houses. So, nobody has an answer for it to go away.

GFK: And that is what your book is trying to get at is that it doesn’t go away environmentally speaking.

BC: The process of getting copper is the problem, both in how they process copper and also what’s attached to the rock with copper. And those are the things, as you’re getting to the copper, those things are now exposed to air and water. And once they get exposed to air and water there is no recourse, there’s no way back. You are now going to leach off uranium, arsenic, they just don’t know how to stop it. It’s too big a scale, they don’t know what to do.

GFK: What did the mining town, mining families have to say about the destruction to the Earth? Are they aware? Do they wish it was different? Or do they not care because they’re getting a paycheck and health insurance?

BC: Yeah, that’s a good question. If I ask you where you’re going to live, you might say, maybe romantically, the beach or the mountains or a cabin in the woods. You’re not gonna say on the edge of an open pit mine. But, I think what happens is the mind, the human mind, starts to go around that thing. You just block it out. And this is not like a criticism or anything. A miner’s mentality is different than most people. They accept that we have to do this to the Earth and to ourselves to have the life we do as a modern civilization. And, you know, listen, I give the other side credit cause you have to cause this is the argument you’re gonna hear from people: we give people jobs, their kids go to colleges on our backs, you know, my dad worked in a mine, and that’s totally legit. The conversation that is in this book is really, we have this mineral copper, we can’t escape it, it’s part of our lives. If we want a modern civilization, copper’s part of it. You can get away from oil and still have a modern world, eventually. You can’t yet get away from copper. But, there’s also a conversation of how do you do this in a way that is maybe more responsible?

 GFK: So, you traveled the globe looking at copper mining. Is there a connective thread, environmentally speaking, in these areas? Do the landscapes look the same?

BC: Yes. You know when you’re entering a copper belt. Everything has a red hue. Also, you’re gonna see massive amounts of tailing piles and that’s where they basically get their copper. So, you know, you’re starting to enter a destroyed landscape. Now, in the United States, our regulations as much as they are fought about in Congress, keep most of our streams at least visibly clear. If you go around the world, those regulations for the most part don’t exist and it’s just a big dumping ground.

GFK: The title of your book, Boom, Bust, Boom, suggests episodes.

BC: Yeah, the boom, bust, boom is global, it’s in every mining community. When a mining company walks in and they find minerals and they want to go for it, that’s the biggest boom. Man, they start treating everybody in that community or around that area, politicians, people, companies, really well. Schools, parks…whatever you’ve got we can fund it. This goes on for however many years, let’s call it 50 years. The problem is that copper is a global market. If there’s an earthquake in Chile that hurts a mine in Chile, that has a huge effect on the copper market in the United States. And when they shut down, whether it’s temporary or whatever, they just shut it down. You have 30 days to leave the house that they’ve let you live in. Bye. If your kids are going to school, it doesn’t matter. You are leaving this house in 30 days. The whole game shifts.

GFK: That’s the bust?

BC: Yeah. The bust is when they shut down either because the mine is done or because the global market is making them constrict supply. If there’s another boom after that, it’s really just a reinvention of that same first cycle with different characters.

GFK: It sounds common in the mining industry.


BC: Yeah. And the reason it’s common, the reason it’s boom, bust, boom is the copper mining companies are not like other companies. These people are not in the game for ten, five, fifteen years. They’re in the game for 50, 100 years. And if they’re having problems politically in a place that they can’t open, they’ll just wait it out until the politicians change, policy changes in D.C., whatever it is. They have the ability to wait. One, they have the money and two, it’s the nature of that industry. The minerals in the ground are not going anywhere if they don’t take them out.

GFK: I wanted to talk to you a little bit about, I think it was chapter 16 in your book, that is just the best opening sentence of a chapter I’ve heard in a while. And it is, ‘mines, all of them given time tell a story’. And what are Arizona’s mines saying? If they could tell a collective story, an environmental story, what would they say?

BC: The story would be that they’re all bleeding sulfuric acid. They’re ruining the water table. There’s no way back. The environmental destruction that happens with hard rock mining like copper, which by the way is the largest polluter in the United States for toxic chemicals, is copper mining. And so the story is, quite often, just a big hole, debris and destruction and just walk away. That’s pretty much the history of copper mining throughout the world. Here’s the upside: we have it good. If you go and see these huge tailing piles right on the road of, say, Miami and Globe and Bisbee, wherever you go, that’s pretty darn good, cause around the world it is ugly what they do. In China, for instance, it is horrible. They just throw it in rivers, the whole tailing pile goes in rivers, they don’t care. Or the waste does. Indonesia is home of the biggest gold mine in the world and the third biggest copper mine. It’s called Grasberg. And it’s run by Freeport McMoran which is based in Phoenix and is pretty much kind of the big boy on the block in terms of copper in Arizona. This is absolutely the worst mine in the world. It is absolutely horrendously run. They know it and they don’t care. They add 300 thousand tons of waste to two river systems that are pretty much sustaining a couple of indigenous groups, they’ve been doing it for 30 years, it now has a 30 mile plume into the sea of sulfuric acid, it’s a total dead zone, and they don’t care. I mean the CEO that lives right there in Phoenix in that big building has basically said he doesn’t care.

GFK: Is there hope? When you say a company cleans up and they throw 2 feet of top soil onto the whole thing, is that enough in the long run?

BC: If you look at old films like Gladiator or The Ten Commandments, mining is a huge part of every one of those stories, we just don’t think about it. Those stories are basically organized around mining. The Romans were out to get copper and tin. The Battle of Carthage is about a copper mine. If you look into the future, Avatar, that’s a mining issue, right? Cause, you know, that’s something where someone pitted them as the evil thing who’s gonna go to another planet to get some mineral. It’s one of the oldest stories that’s not talked about. If you’re gonna sit and say, I’m against all mining, you need to go back into some other world that doesn’t exist. And you need to, like, go camp in the woods with nothing, by the way with you because it probably has copper in it. Or join the game and say, how do we do this in a way that makes sure we’re very responsible about our water, about where we do it, how we do it. We have a national decision that says, ok, there’s other places you can mine, you cannot mine here. I’m not against all mines. I’m against that mine in that place. And I think that is a more winnable approach as opposed to it’s all bad. Cause that is like putting your head in the sand. It’s not really realistic. Because you know what? You’re about to go out the door from this coffee shop and get in your Prius which has twice as much copper as another car because it has electrical elements.

Gillian Ferris was the News Director and Managing Editor for KNAU.