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County: Mining company broke law with blowing dust

November 26, 2018

TUCSON, Ariz. (AP) — Pima County has issued a notice of violation against mining company Freeport McMoRan for what environmental regulators say were blowing tailings from the company’s Sierrita Mine in Green Valley that violated county law and the company’s air quality permit.

This is the most serious case of blowing dust from mine tailings in that Green Valley-Sahuarita area, south of Tucson, of any of five such Freeport violations since 2013, county officials said.

“There were so many people affected calling in, saying their health is affected, their homes were completely covered in dust,” said Ursula Nelson, Pima County Department of Environmental Quality director. “This is on a whole different level than we’ve seen in the past.”

Tailings blew across Duval Mine Road north of the mine on six days between Sept. 18 and Nov. 6, according to the notice.

A Freeport official declined to say whether the company will challenge the county’s violation findings. Legally, the company has 30 days to respond to the notice, which was filed Nov. 13, the Arizona Daily Star reported on Saturday.

The tailings dust left the mine site in violation of a permit requirement that the dust not leave the mine’s property, the county’s violation notice said.

Also, concentrations of the tailings dust in the air Oct. 11 were up to three times thicker than allowed under the mine’s permit, the county said.

The permit requires the air be no more than 20 percent opaque. That day, the air near the tailings ranged from 23 percent to 61 percent opaque at various times, according to the notice.

Freeport arranged cleaning services or reimbursement for approximately 490 homeowners who requested it for their homes, said Linda Hayes, the company’s vice president of communications.

Freeport has reported each excessive dust event to the county, expressed regret that the incidents occurred and said it is working closely with residents to help clean up the dust.

It has blamed the problem on weather, including excessive winds and rains. The rains in early October were so heavy that the company’s own vehicles, headed to the area to mitigate the tailings dust, got stuck in the muddy tailings for nearly a month.

Freeport also has committed to coming up with solutions to prevent dust problems of this magnitude from flaring again.

The company acknowledges that dust levels during some of these incidents exceeded the 20 percent legal limit. But because resolving the violation notice is a complicated, multi-step process, “It would be premature for us to make a decision or comment on our position until we are further along,” Hayes said.

“That said, we do not challenge the fact that these events occurred and deeply regret the impact they have had on our neighbors,” Hayes said in an email to the Star.

Once the county gets Freeport’s response to the notice, it will determine if a fine is warranted, Nelson said. The county’s maximum fine for such violations is $10,000 per day the violations exist.

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Information from: Arizona Daily Star, http://www.tucson.com

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