Company Refurbishes Yards Impacted by Historic Mining Activity

October 14, 2021

Sandra Jenocovich has a beautiful new yard 70 years in the making.

Jenocovich is one of hundreds of property owners in Clarkdale, Ariz., whose yards are being refurbished at company expense to remedy soil contamination caused by historic smelter activity. Most of the impact was done nearly a century ago by a company that has been out of business for decades.

Under Freeport's townsite soil remediation program, contaminated soil is removed and replaced with clean soil that meets current regulatory limits. Long before the era of environmental laws, metals and other constituents like lead, arsenic and other byproducts of smelting were emitted and settled in soils around the prior smelter. The program returns affected yards into pristine versions of their original conditions with fresh landscaping, gravel, fencing and anything else that was disturbed to do the work. Watch the video.

"I'm very happy with the way it came out," said Jenocovich, who retired from Freeport's Bagdad operation and has lived in her Clarkdale house for 20 years. "No complaints. I have a beautiful yard. Thank you, Freeport."

Clarkdale smelter operated by predecessor company

Freeport has never had mining operations in Clarkdale. No one has since 1953, when the copper smelter built four decades earlier was shuttered.

The Clarkdale smelter was built by the United Verde Copper Company and opened in 1915 to process ore from Jerome, at the time one of the top producing mines in the world. Before that, smelting was done in Jerome, just up Cleopatra Hill from Clarkdale.

In 1935, United Verde was bought by Phelps Dodge, which continued operating the smelter until it closed. Freeport bought Phelps Dodge in 2007, acquiring both its assets and its historical liabilities, including responsibility for environmental impacts caused by any of the companies it acquired. That includes United Verde and its smelters in Jerome and Clarkdale.

Remediating historical sites where the company is responsible is a central tenet of Freeport's environmental commitment. For more than 15 years, the company has completed soil remediation in Arizona and other states, fixing the environmental impacts caused by legacy predecessors that over the years got snapped up in corporate acquisitions.

"Consistent with our environmental policy, this is the company doing the right thing in stewardship, in managing our social responsibility and in attendance to our legacy impacts," said Bryce Romig, Freeport's Director-Remediation Projects. "It's absolutely doing the right thing in the communities we serve or, in the case of the historic operations, communities that were once served by our predecessor entities."

Past projects include work in the Arizona communities of Ajo, Bisbee and Douglas as well as towns in Oklahoma, New Jersey and Pennsylvania. About 3,000 property owners have agreed to soil removal and replacement in those locations.

Historical sites, modern regulations

What's going on in Clarkdale is a good illustration of how the soil replacement program works and why it is needed.

When the United Verde smelters were operating, there were no limits on emission controls used on the smokestacks. So, a variety of airborne metals drifted over the community for decades, eventually settling to the ground and getting into the soil.

The federal Clean Air Act, which restricted smokestack emissions, was passed in 1970, nearly two decades after the Clarkdale smelter closed. Since then, environmental laws and regulations have set what are considered safe levels for metals and other components in soil.

The aim of Freeport's soil remediation program is to remove any dirt from affected properties that does not meet current regulatory standards and replace it with soil that does. It's not that the concentrations that exist today are toxic, though prolonged exposure could pose a long-term health risk, for instance to a child who ingests soil from dirty hands.

The work in Arizona is being done in coordination with and under the oversight of the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality through its voluntary remediation program.

Years in the making

Just figuring out where to do the soil replacement and getting the necessary approvals from regulators and property owners can take years. The first step is identifying the communities where the company may have some responsibility. Given Freeport's extensive family tree with branches extending to predecessor companies that operated more than 100 years ago, the company's list includes historic smelters known to have emitted copper, lead, arsenic and zinc when they were in operation.

Once a community is identified, areas of potential impact are defined through a lengthy risk assessment. In Clarkdale, it is known where the smelter was located, how much and what kinds of materials it processed, how tall its smokestacks were, and estimated historical wind patterns.

All of those factors are studied to determine which parts of a community might have been impacted. Since Clarkdale was downwind from the smelter, it's pretty much the whole town.

Other factors also come into play. In Bisbee, the smelter was near the downtown and temperature inversions trapped emissions within the canyons around the town. In some places, people would use mine tailings as landscaping materials to decorate their yards, a practice that ended decades ago.

Door-to-door and yard by yard

The next step is community outreach, which can include mailers, town halls and going door-to-door to explain the program. The goal is to get landowners to agree to soil testing to determine whether their properties qualify for a company-paid remediation.

Once all the paperwork is done and the access agreements are signed, crews are sent to take soil samples. Multiple samples are taken throughout the property, which is divided into use areas. For homes, that's typically the front, back and side yards.

If tests show that concentrations in any use area of the site exceed regulatory standards, that portion of the yard qualifies for soil replacement. It's a yes-or-no answer, meaning it doesn't matter how much a property exceeds the standards, said Michael Steward, Manager-Remediation Projects and project manager in Clarkdale. Any exceedance qualifies for remediation.

Doing the cleanup is not as simple as sending in a backhoe. Utilities, tree roots and other obstructions mean much of the work must be done by hand.

In Arizona, crews normally dig out 2 feet of soil and replace it with clean fill. From there, the yard is returned to its original state in a like-for-like manner, Steward said. That means if the yard had grass, then new grass is put in. Pavers, gravel and even things like fencing and flower beds are replaced to their original condition.

Selling with success

Success is the program's best sales pitch, Steward said.

When community outreach began in Clarkdale in 2015, there was skepticism as to why Freeport was offering to dig out and refurbish people's yards. But as property owners signed up for the program and neighbors saw how beautifully their yards turned out, interest intensified.

"Trust is something that is hard fought to get in these towns, and once you have it, you need to keep it. It is earned every step of the way," Steward said. "You have to walk the talk, and there's no gray area with these communities. You either do what you say you are going to do and meet expectations or they're not going to talk to you. We work really hard to make sure that we keep that trust level there."

So far in Clarkdale almost 95 percent of the owners have agreed to participate in the soil replacement program, and about 600 properties, or about 70 percent of the properties, tested in the town have exceedances.

Steward estimates it will take a couple more years to finish the work in Clarkdale.

Cleaning up Clifton

In the eastern Arizona town of Clifton, Jennifer Laggan, Manager-Remediation Projects, has been working on community outreach since late 2019. Soil testing of properties in Clifton began in May, and plans are in place to begin remediating affected properties by the end of the year.

Three smelters operated in Clifton from the 1880s until 1938. The whole community is eligible for the testing and remediation program, 928 properties in all.

So far, there has not been much resistance in Clifton, Laggan said.

"It's right next to Morenci, and the people that live there are very familiar with our mining operations," she said. "A person in a hardhat and a vest doesn't spook them where that might not be true in some other communities that don't have an industrial base. We would like to make sure each property owner has the opportunity to ask questions, get answers, and get their soil tested and cleaned up, if necessary."


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