The Answer, My Friends, Could Have Been Blowing in the Wind GRIP’s Petition for Temporary Restraining Order Forces Phelps Dodge to Improve Hurley Smelter Stack Demolition Plans
by Sally Smith, Director of Responsible Mining
It’s not an every day occurrence that 500-foot smelter stacks are demolished within 500 feet of a residential area, let alone in our own Grant County. Yet last May, executives of mining giant Phelps Dodge (PD) expected the public to blindly trust them when they announced their intent to drop the two deteriorating structures in Hurley, east of Silver City. The public was not eve informed of any of the details of this event until three days before the originally scheduled demolition.
When notified last spring that the demolition had been moved up and was to take place in two weeks, GRIP staff filed a petition for a Temporary Restraining Order (TRO) to force the company to provide the community its demolition, evacuation, and air quality monitoring plans. GRIP staff’s perspective was that the public had a right to know the details of a hazardous activity taking place in their community. Although its petition to halt the demolition until the public’s health and safety had been adequately protected was denied in court, GRIP’s action forced Phelps Dodge to provide some additional information to the public, take a second look at their plans, and make some procedural changes.
Since PD’s announcement in September 2005 that the stacks would eventually come down, GRIP has raised concerns about exactly how the company planned to demolish the stacks. GRIP’s primary concerns were protection of the health of the citizens of Hurley and prevention of recontamination of the recently cleaned-up residential yards in Hurley.
In a January 2007 Silver City Daily Press article, PD spokesperson Richard Peterson said that the company had not yet begun to plan this event. So when GRIP was notified that the demolition date had in fact been moved up to May from the 2nd quarter to 3rd quarter of 2007, GRIP’s staff was understandably surprised and felt compelled to take action.
GRIP staff had been in contact with the New Mexico Environment Department (NMED) Air Quality Bureau (AQB) and NMED Water Quality Bureau (WQB) since September 2005, inquiring about NMED’s regulatory role in the demolition and precautions that were planned. More than 4,000 people, 26.8% who are disabled, live very near to the stacks, and although they were cleaned prior to the blasting, according to PD, both stacks had processed a variety of potentially hazardous metals. GRIP was informed by NMED that some soils around the facility had more than 30% copper content.
Because there were no written documents publicly available on PD’s plans for the stack demolition, the public received conflicting information from newspaper reports and rumors. GRIP staff was shocked to find out from NMED staff in April that neither the WQB nor any other Federal or State regulatory authority had jurisdiction over the way the actual blasting and collapse of these structures would occur. GRIP staff was further shocked to find that the older of the two stacks had 33 feet of asbestos mastic remaining near the top.
Additionally, GRIP staff learned from NMED that there were no contingency, safety or evacuation plans specifically related to the demolition and available to the public. GRIP raised these concerns at a May 3rd Community Meeting in Silver City hosted by NMED Secretary Ron Curry. There was no response to GRIP by NMED or PD at this meeting. GRIP staff expected that NMED would issue some sort of Heath Advisory for residents, but this never occurred.
GRIP also learned that PD expected a crowd of up to 10,000 spectators at the demolition event. The originally scheduled date was the Friday of Memorial Day Weekend and the opening day of the Silver City Blues Festival. GRIP staff feared that the four Hurley police, in charge of traffic and public safety, might be strapped for police manpower. Later GRIP staff learned that the extra police force would be partly voluntary and the majority paid for, not by PD, but by the municipalities involved and the state and therefore your tax dollars.
GRIP received concerned calls from residents of Hurley wondering what to do. Should they leave town and if so, for how long? Should they seal their houses or take valuables off walls and shelves? Would there be seismic activity reminiscent of an earthquake? GRIP staff didn’t know what to tell them.
With just weeks to spare, GRIP staff got busy researching procedures of other similar demolitions and watched videos of these events. The examples found included precautions that had not been discussed in the Hurley preparations, such as 1,000 foot safety zones where no one was permitted and use of water for dust suppression before, during and after the demolition.
On May 14th, GRIP filed for a Temporary Restraining Order (TRO) to give the public more time to become informed. After GRIP filed its petition, PD finally met with the Air Quality Bureau (AQB) one week prior to the originally scheduled demolition to discuss air quality monitoring during the demolition event. Between PD and the AQB, particulate matter, metals and asbestos were to be monitored before, during and after the demolition event. However, two outstanding issues remained. The company confirmed that it would not use any dust suppression, and there was no procedure in place for determining if Hurley soils needed to be re-sampled as a result of the demolition event.
Due to the GRIP petition (and perhaps due to the weather) PD canceled the May 25th demolition and rescheduled it for June 5th. GRIP executive Director Allyson Siwik and President Sally Smith were in Hurley that June day, and they reported that the local sentiment was that luck was with the people of Hurley.
That’s because right after the blast, as the stacks were going down and a huge plume of dust and smoke was rising, the wind shifted for just a few minutes toward town. Just as quickly it thankfully shifted again taking the particulate south, away from town, but it was a reminder of the potential dangers of fickle winds. The days immediately after the demolition were some of the gustiest, most violent winds many could recall in 30 years. Thanks to the persistent efforts of GRIP, NMED and EPA required that PD water down the site before and after the demolition to keep asbestos and dust down. Results of ambient air quality monitoring showed no problems with asbestos or particulate matter in the town of Hurley that day. Given these results, it is expected that soils will not be retested.
While GRIP was not able to obtain a Temporary Restraining Order, additional time permitted GRIP staff to alert EPA about its concerns regarding the stack demolition and question the Agency and NMED on issues related to the demolition. The day prior to the June 5 demolition, PD was notified that it indeed had to implement dust suppression during the demolition event.
GRIP was very disappointed that NMED failed to effectively communicate about the stack demolition. We sent a letter to Environment Secretary Ron Curry describing our concerns and dissatisfaction with how the Department had handled communication with the community. We expect to meet with the Secretary to discuss these issues further.
GRIP staff was also extremely disappointed that while communication between PD and GRIP has in general improved, the organization was left out of the loop about this rush job demolition that could have had serious public health and safety impacts on the Grant County community. In our opinion, a disastrous result was avoided by vigilance and a bit of good luck.