June 2024
Purgatory in Paradise
Mine Restart Operation Threatens Neighboring Wells

Clear-cutting of trees at an old mining site off Senator Highway in 2018 prompted nearby resident Joe Trudeau, an ecologist and forester, to walk to the property to find out what was going on. He learned from an employee that a Chinese-owned company called Gold Paradise Peak (GPP) was planning to mine the area.

Trudeau knows the history of the former Senator Mine and about the residual toxic metals that are typically disturbed at legacy mining sites, and was understandably alarmed. He, his wife, child and extended family live close by, and rely on five wells for their water. He decided to keep an eye on the activity and talk to others in the area about what they observed.

“He said that they were going to dig up minerals at this Sundance site and haul them down into Slate Canyon to the Azurite site, where they’d process them … using a big centrifuge that had very little wastewater production associated with it,” Trudeau said. The plan was for any minerals removed from the site to be shipped to China.

Trudeau said the Senator mine site was never cleaned up from when it was in operation in the 1880s, and has been in violation of the federal Clean Water Act since it was instituted in the '70s.

The first complaints of legal noncompliance were filed by the Yavapai chapter of the Sierra Club in 2021, when activity at the mine ramped up, says Stephen Cook, the chapter’s vice chair. The group has monitored reports from the state Department of Environmental Quality on the site ever since.

Flash-forward to January 29, 2024: during a rainstorm, Trudeau witnessed mustard-yellow water flowing down the Hassayampa River four miles downstream from the GPP site. One of three retaining ponds for mining sludge had failed, sending contaminated water down the river that serves as a water source for hundreds of area residents.

“When Gold Paradise Peak bought the land, they inherited the (EPA violations) problem,” Trudeau said. “They didn’t want to deal with it, so the Attorney General (Brnovich) took them to court and said you have to deal with it. And so now they’re dealing with it, in a poor way.” Three of the mine’s shallow retention pools failed.

“This system could have been built to tolerate the stressors …, like precipitation from a big storm or three, and (the pools) could have been sized to do that,” Trudeau said. “Instead, they just did the shoddiest job possible. The sad part is … that’s actually made the problem worse.”

Trudeau and other residents banded together to see what could be done to stop the mine from polluting the water. Their research on the mining company yielded some discouraging results.

The principals of the company that owns the mine have a pattern of polluting activity, then bankruptcy from resulting fines. Under various company names the owners have purchased mines in seven states. Most have ceased operations and their LLCs have wound up in bankruptcy.

The ADEQ has been monitoring the mine since the company began operating it in 2018 without proper permits. The agency discovered high levels of metals, including cadmium, copper and zinc, as well as concrete slurry being discharged into Slate Creek. It levied a fine of $600,000 and, through the Attorney General’s office, obtained a state court order for the mine to stop operating in 2020. The company has been doing remediation and road-widening since then.

On April 18 a community meeting at Yavapai College arranged by Yavapai County Supervisor Mary Mallory drew about 400 people from the area for discussion of the site with public officials, including Leigh Padgett and Natalie Mullenberg of ADEQ, State Mine Inspector Paul Marsh, Prescott Forest Supervisor Sarah Clawson, Bureau of Land Management District Manager Leon Thomas, and Prescott Public Works officials. Several elected officials attended as well.

The upshot of the presentations is that June will be the make-or-break month for GPP. A hearing is set for June 7 as Attorney General Kris Mayes pursues the ADEQ fines. Another federal agency, the Mine Safety and Health Administration, has logged over 150 workplace-safety violations by GPP since 2022, racking up nearly $100,000 in fines. So far the company has avoided being shut down, but if it can’t pay its fines, it could be in trouble.

Adding to those woes, on April 15 the Center for Biological Diversity notified GPP and its related ownership entities that it intends to sue over the company’s violation of the Endangered Species Act, because its activities threaten the Mexican spotted owl. An agency press release alleges that GPP has been logging the forest, excavating land and operating mining haul trucks during breeding season, all legal violations.

While the odds seem stacked against the mine continuing operations, several residents of the affected area expressed outrage that it took years for the company’s water-polluting activities to be stopped. Trudeau notes that no government entity has made any effort to test or monitor private wells, an expensive proposition for individual homeowners.

Regardless of what transpires at the hearing, Cook of the Sierra Club promises that the mining site will remain under the group’s watchful eye, even if it’s sold to another company, which is being rumored. “This is a battle we’re prepared to take on,” he said.

Journalist Toni Denis is a frequent contributor.

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