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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Cattle and Mines

Air Date: Week of

Copper mines north of the Arizona border face environmental challenges, including what to do about piles of mine waste. Now some copper companies have come up with new ways to bring life back to these spoiled lands. Laura Carlson of KJZZ in Phoenix reports.


CURWOOD: Toxic wastes aren't a problem for copper mines north of the Mexican border in Arizona, but companies still face environmental challenges including what to do about huge mounds of ugly, sterile mine waste. Now some copper companies have come up with a new way to bring life back to these spoiled lands. Laura Carlson of member station KJZZ has our report.

CARLSON: Deep in the desert mountains of southeastern Arizona, where scrub brush and mesquite trees dot the landscape, Magma Copper and other copper companies have been extracting ore from open pit mines.

(Truck engines)

Trucks the size of small homes transport tons of rock out of the mines for processing. The minerals are removed and what's left, basically sterile sand, is deposited in immense mounds called tailings piles. In the small town of Miami, Arizona, mountains of yellowish mine tailings literally spill into the downtown area. Raena Honan, with the Sierra Club, says she once recommended the site to a friend who looks for movie locations.

HONAN: And I said, you know, if you ever want a place that looks like World War III has hit, come, and gone, you ought to go up there.

CARLSON: Mining companies have been looking for ways to mitigate the blowing dust, erosion, and aesthetic problems created by tailings piles. And they're getting help from an unlikely source.

MAN: Hello, ladies! Hello! (A cow moos) That's more like it; say hi!

CARLSON: About 60 Texas longhorn cows are munching hay on the steep slope of a tailings mound at Magma's Pinto Valley Copper Mine. Jessie Mitchell, the mine's environmental technician, says the cows provide precious deposits of a different sort.

MITCHELL: The idea's as simple and as old as time. A huge number of animals in a small area are going to densely fertilize and till that area.

CARLSON: Magma is borrowing cows from local ranchers to turn once-useless mine tailings into soil, where grasses, shrubs, and even mesquite trees can take root. To accomplish this, the ground is covered with hay and topped with feed to attract the cows. They walk on the tailings, introducing air and fertilizer, organic matter that encourages plant life. Finally, Bermuda and indigenous range grasses are hand- scattered to hasten re-vegetation. Mitchell says he first thought of using cows for mine reclamation about 10 years ago, but he says no one took him seriously.

MITCHELL: Well it's very interesting, but thank you very much. Don't call us, we'll call you, and you can almost hear the roar of laughter as soon as we cleared the door.

CARLSON: But there's not much laughter now. Tailings piles that once looked like the surface of the moon are now covered with grass. The official word from Magma is that 250 acres have been re-vegetated and are even attracting wildlife. Not only do the tailings piles look better. Fast-growing Bermuda grass also is being credited with reducing erosion. However, there are a few concerns. Questions have been raised about possible toxins inside the tailings piles, but Magma officials say the cows have been tested and found to be healthy. Some say the project is commendable, but doesn't go far enough to address the environmental disruption caused by mining. The Sierra Club's Raena Honan says mining firms need to do more re-contouring and re-vegetation to, as she puts it, clean up their mess. That aside, she says using cow dung for reclamation is no joke.

HONAN: In one sense, yeah, you would kind of derisively laugh and go that's ridiculous. But in the other sense, you have to understand that this is really something that the mines are doing that they didn't have to do. They're making an attempt. And as far as I'm concerned I think that is a major step, considering what their history has been in this state.

CARLSON: Meanwhile, mining interests around the world are taking note of Arizona's cattle re-vegetation program. Magma officials recently outlined their results at an international conference in Santiago, Chile. For Living on Earth, I'm Laura Carlson in Phoenix.



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