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Yavapai County Mine Approved On Federal Land Despite Public Concern
A relatively small mine has been approved to start digging on federal land in Yavapai County. This comes after more than a year of studies and loud public opposition.
There were more than 1,000 public comments against the mine. The nearby city of Prescott and the local volunteer fire departments opposed the mine.
Joe Trudeau, Southwest advocate for the environmental advocacy group Center for Biological Diversity, said he’s concerned that the community went unheard.
“Opposition to the mine is a resounding chorus in this region," Trudeau said. "99 percent of people around here who have commented are opposed.”
Trudeau, who lives in Prescott, is also concerned about public records that show friendly communications between the mining company and the Bureau of Land Management, who owns the land.
“One of the most surprising things reading through the emails we received in the FOIA request was the agreeable nature and tone between the mining company and our public servants,” Trudeau said. "It almost seems as if the BLM exists to serve the mine and not the public."
Based on the Mining Act of 1872, whoever owns the mining claim on public land is allowed to use that land for their profit, if the mineral is determined to be of a certain quality.
Kirkland Mining Company President Areta Zouvas denied asking BLM to change its reports.
“We don’t interfere in the BLM reports. Why would we? We’re not hiding anything, and the truth is what it is,” Zouvas said.
But, in an email, Zouvas specifically asked BLM employees to stop using the words “asbestos” and “erionite” when referring to the company or its future product. Erionite is an asbestos-like material linked to lung cancer, and is a major fear among local residents.
The mineral Zouvas is mining, called pozzolan, is a concrete-like rock formed from tuff, an igneous rock.
Zouvas said public concerns about erionite were overwhelming.
“[They said] 'It’s still a concern, it’s still a concern, what else can we do,'" Zouvas said. "And that’s when I said, look, at the end of the day, I’ve already tested it, it’s not there,”
Other emails from 2017 also show BLM Hassayampa Field Manager Rem Hawes agreed to leave off that same language from air-quality monitoring. Hawes told KJZZ the BLM prepares reports independently, regardless of outside input.
“We studied it. There’s actually been more than one study done on that, and both were negative for airborne carcinogens in general, but including erionite,” Hawes said.
The erionite mineral can be found in Arizona, including in abundance within 10 miles of the mine. The BLM and the mining company have done extensive testing for erionite.
One of Trudeau's primary concerns is a BLM electron microscope lab test that found less than 2 percent of a mineral with the physical characteristics of erionite in one of the samples.
BLM geologist Shelby Cave says she re-tested that sample with a different method called X-ray diffraction, looking at the chemical composition of the mineral to be even more accurate. She could not find evidence of erionite.
“X-ray diffraction is considered the standard method, because this volcanic tuff is extremely fine-grained,” Cave said.
X-ray diffraction may have a limit of detection, however, only able to detect material if more than about 2 percent is present.
Zouvas also said there is no evidence of erionite present, after doing private testing.
“It doesn’t exist. It’s been proven a number of times over and over again," Zouvas said. "This is a moot subject at this point for me, and I won’t discuss it.”
In an interview from earlier this year, Al Burch, a geologist contracted by Kirkland Mining, explained why this rock is valuable enough to mine.
“It’s very unique because it has just the right chemical composition and just the right physical characteristics to be able to be used as a high-quality natural pozzolan.”
Zouvas plans to mine and sell the pozzolan, which is a natural concrete material.
Over the public process, the final mining plan changed. There are now protections of several culturally significant archaeological and environmental sites, with at least a 50-foot buffer between them and the mining operations.
“In order for this to move forward, they had to avoid them or mitigate them, which they did, which protected some areas of a wash nearby as well as some natural and cultural resources in the area," BLM Field Manager Hawes said. "The operator actually changed the plan.”
The appeals period ends in early January, after which Kirkland plans to start its mining process.
EDITOR'S NOTE: This story has been updated to correct the headline.