Author mines copper's history, complexities

2013-03-07T00:00:00Z 2014-07-01T16:50:29Z Author mines copper's history, complexitiesGerald M. Gay Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star
March 07, 2013 12:00 am  • 

A startling discovery in Bill Carter's backyard led the Arizona author to write his latest book, "Boom, Bust, Boom: A Story About Copper, the Metal that Runs the World."

Carter lived in Bisbee for nearly a decade. He met his wife and they had two children in the former mining town, which sits nestled in the Mule Mountains, nine miles north of the Mexico border.

In his book, Carter notes a local saying that Bisbee is "100 miles and 100 years from Tucson" with evidence of its past found all over town.

"The big open pit was not far off from our house," said Carter, who now lives in Flagstaff and who will sit on three panels at this weekend's Tucson Festival of Books.

"If you live in Bisbee, you just kind of use it as a landmark. You stop thinking about its history. It's just that thing down the road."

It wasn't until the corporation Freeport-McMoRan acquired Phelps Dodge, owners of the dormant mining operations in Bisbee, in 2007, that Carter began thinking about the remnants from the past that he couldn't see.

In 2008, Freeport offered soil reclamation tests to residents meant to measure the level of contaminants in their yards.

When the Carters received their results, he said they were surprised to discover that their land contained high levels of lead and arsenic from copper mine activities going back nearly a century.

"It was alarming," Carter said. "The heavy metals don't go anywhere. We think they do, but they just kind of hang there. Because we don't see them, it doesn't register."

The results served as a catalyst for Carter, who started researching copper to learn more about the people involved in the industry and the part it plays in the world.

"Up to that point, I didn't have a way in," he said. "I didn't understand the copper industry or copper itself. I thought about copper probably like most people think about copper, which was not that often."

The author, whose past books documented his time working in Sarajevo and as a commercial fisherman in Alaska, began looking into active and dormant mines in Arizona towns such as Bisbee, Superior and Morenci in Greenlee County, which is home to one of the largest active copper mining operations in North America.

He also traveled beyond Arizona, to Cananea, Mexico and the proposed Pebble Mine in the Bristol Bay region of southwest Alaska. Carter estimates he spent three years researching and writing the book from start to finish.

He tells the story from a first-person perspective, slipping in conversations with retired miners, working miners, financial traders and other colorful characters along the way, as he internally struggles with whether or not he should keep his family in Bisbee.

Some book reviews have chastised Carter's work as being oversimplistic.

The Wall Street Journal wrote that Carter focused too much on his quest for answers rather than giving the answers themselves.

"The author shies away from the documentary research that might have allowed him to weave his interviews into an authoritative discussion of the copper industry," the review said.

Carter said the WSJ review wanted something different than what he was offering.

"I didn't write an academic book," Carter said. "Those exist and they are very useful, but they are unreadable. I wanted to deliver something that was readable."

Carter said he doesn't consider his book anti-copper.

"Boom, Bust, Boom" includes historical details that lay out the positive effects that copper has had on the world.

Copper has been a desirable metal going back to ancient times.

American pioneers in business such as George Hearst, the Guggenheims and J.P. Morgan were all involved in the copper industry at one time or another.

"With gold, you get a lot of money quickly, then move on," Carter said. "With copper you can create a true empire. You create towns, railroads, electrical systems. It becomes a bigger deal."

Today, copper is used in most modern devices, from computers and cars to planes and cellphones.

"It is everywhere," Carter said. "Our civilization can't run without it."

It's the way it is extracted that Carter feels doesn't work.

Problems such as acid rock drainage and pollutants in the air often result from mining, he said.

"The question is, can we mine copper in a way that isn't so damaging?"

Carter said "Boom, Bust, Boom" is less of a damning statement against copper mining, and more of a conversation piece about how modern society is tied to this particular metal.

"It is very complex," he said. "It's a tricky issue to navigate."

See Bill Carter

Carter is taking part in three panels:

• "Rebels with a Cause" 1-2 p.m. Saturday in the University of Arizona Student Union Memorial Center Catalina Room.

• "Poisoned! Hometown Toxin Tragedies" 1-2 p.m. Sunday in the Student Union Gallagher Theater. This panel will be broadcast live on C-Span2.

• "Minerals, War & Humanity" 10-11 a.m. Sunday in Room 140 of the Integrated Learning Center.

Contact reporter Gerald M. Gay at ggay@azstarnet.com or 807-8430.

Copyright 2014 Arizona Daily Star. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Activate