The mining giant Asarco will pay Pima County its second round of civil penalties and environmental reparations in three years over tailings dust blowing from its Mission Mine in Sahuarita into neighboring homes.
This time, the Mexican-owned company will pay $70,000 as part of a new legal settlement, compared to $450,000 paid in October 2010.
The payment is lower because Asarco’s violations were far less serious this time, said Scott Porter, environmental quality manager for the Pima County Department of Environmental Quality.
The county issued two notices after the company reported violations in December 2012 and January 2013 to the county. In 2009 and 2010, the company received four such notices, many resulting from neighbor complaints.
Asarco this time was cited for three specific violations, compared to 10 in 2009-10.
The mine failed to comply with county rules on three days in 2012-13, compared to 40 days in 2009-10.
Both in 2009-10 and in 2012-13, the mine tailings at their peak made the air around the mine site nearly equally dense with dust. The air both times registered what’s known as an opacity reading above 80, compared to a county limit of 20.
But Eileen Belove, a neighbor of the mine site, said that overall the tailings dust pollution in her neighborhood in the recent incidents was about half as bad as in 2009-10.
Belove, who lives next to the mine site in the Rancho Resort development in Sahuarita, said she is more concerned about how Asarco’s payment to the county will be spent than about its size.
Of the $70,000, $40,000 is a civil penalty, county DEQ officials said. The rest goes to the county’s 131-mile loop bike and walking path project that connects the Rillito River Park, the Santa Cruz River and several other trails.
In 2010, the company paid a $100,000 fine and $350,000 for projects at the county’s Canoa Ranch Conservation Park south of Green Valley.
Belove said such funds would be better spent to install a dust monitor near the Mission Mine.
“We have all these families out here and they’re building more and more houses and schools,” Belove said. “How they are getting information now about tailings is by people calling in and complaining. It’s hit and miss.”
Porter said he and other county officials have told residents that a dust monitor won’t help them. Although a traffic light camera can catch violators, that’s not how air quality monitors work, he said.
“A monitor is not an enforcement tool,” Porter said. “It tells us there was a higher level of particulates in the air on a given day. But the heavy stuff that falls onto their houses doesn’t go into the monitor because the monitor doesn’t suck in big chunks. It just takes in fine particles and the big stuff goes away.
“The best thing we can do is get complaints and get our inspectors out there as fast as possible,” Porter said.
Asarco officials say they hope there won’t be any tailings dust complaints about the Mission site in the future.
Vice President Tom Aldrich says the company has closed the tailings site that was causing dust problems in 2009-10 and 2012-13. The company was already in the midst of closing it last December when the big dust storms hit, Aldrich said, and finished in February and March.
“Unfortunately, what happened is that when you don’t have an active tailings facility, you’re not putting in wet tailings to hold down the dust. Before we got it capped, we ended up having the dust blow,” Aldrich said. “We subsequently finished putting it into closure and had it capped over by February or March.”
Today, the tailings are covered by six to 12 inches of earth, he said. The cap is contoured and designed to prevent storm water from eroding the topsoil. The site’s sides are sprayed with a greenish colored, acrylic-based substance that’s supposed to stabilize them.
In the settlement agreement, Asarco also pledged to seek feedback from neighbors on how to best inform them about mine operations and dust control efforts. The company promised to provide a twice-yearly newsletter to residents for two years, and to offer annual tours for the two years to Rancho Resort residents and Sahuarita Town Council members.
Kay Davin, another resident near the mine site who has complained about past tailings dust, said she thinks Asarco is trying to be a good neighbor today, even though she’s disappointed at the size of this settlement and believes that the air she breathes isn’t as good as it once was.
“They’ve had some meetings with us. They’re trying to settle it,” Davin said.