Killer copper

Chicoan’s book chronicles the devastation wrought by copper mining

The Bingham Canyon Mine near Salt Lake City, Utah.

The Bingham Canyon Mine near Salt Lake City, Utah.

About the book:
Bill Carter’s book about the copper industry comes out in paperback on April 1. To learn more about the book, visit

Chico native Bill Carter began growing his own vegetables in a backyard garden soon after he moved in 2000 to Bisbee, Ariz., where he met his wife and would eventually have a small family. But just weeks after his first garden harvest, Carter found himself in the hospital—poisoned, it turned out, by his own home-grown vegetables.

Specifically, he was poisoned by arsenic, a common byproduct of open-pit mining. For just adjacent to the town of Bisbee is the Copper Queen Mine. Operations at this massive open pit first began in 1881, were closed in 1975, and produced heaps of poison-laced waste rubble over what would later be residential neighborhoods. Though Carter and his family eventually left the town of 6,000 people and resettled in Flagstaff, keen on living a healthier life, Carter’s fascination with the copper industry persisted.

Now, the author and activist—who is known for having teamed up with Bono and U2 in the 1990s to help bring peace to the war-torn Balkans—is about to release the second edition of Boom, Bust, Boom: A Story About Copper, the Metal that Runs the World. The book, updated from its 2013 release, details the gritty reality of the global mining industry that produces one of the world’s most essential metals.

To extract copper, which is used in electronics, piping systems, and various tools and coins, landscapes are turned inside out. Truckloads of raw earth are washed with cyanide and mercury to loosen the target metal. These toxins often find their way into waterways. From there, mercury ascends the food chain and accumulates in fish like tuna, swordfish and sharks. Meanwhile, the heaps of discarded debris—called tailings—left at defunct mines leach out sulfuric acid, lead and arsenic. This poison may flow into major waterways, killing wildlife. Or, it may remain onsite, tainting soil where an investigative journalist may one day plant a vegetable garden.

In an interview with the CN&R, Carter said that many mining operators take responsibility for their sites, restoring them to some degree of intactness after the mine is fully tapped of its valuable metals and closed. But thousands of mining sites small and large, defunct and active, have caused immeasurable pollution throughout the American West.

The retired Berkeley Pit Mine near Butte, Mont., and the active Bingham Canyon Mine not far from Salt Lake City, Utah, are two of the most appalling examples—each a huge scar on the Earth’s surface that bleeds poison into the environment. In Indonesia, the Grasberg Mine, owned by Freeport McMoRan, is one of the most infamous open-pit mines.

California’s worst relic of the copper mining era is the Iron Mountain Richmond Mine, just north of Redding. First begun in the 1860s, mining operations there wreaked their usual havoc on the landscape as laborers and rail cars undid millions of years of geologic mountain building. Huge piles of tailings were deposited in the adjacent hills as miners went deeper into Iron Mountain to extract ore. The copper mine became the biggest in California.

Bill Carter’s fascination with copper mining began after he was poisoned from eating veggies he’d grown in his backyard. It turns out the arsenic in his soil that made him sick was the byproduct of a nearby open-pit mine.

photo by Sarah Neyhart

Today, it is one of the most toxic sites in America, and one the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is working to clean up.

Such a blight to the landscape may have just been averted in Alaska, where an enormous mining project was recently rejected by the EPA. The proposed Pebble Mine project had been looming over environmentalists and resident Alaskans for years and likely would have destroyed watersheds that support the most prolific salmon populations in the world—those of Bristol Bay. But the agency ruled the project to be a serious threat to natural resources and a violation of the Clean Water Act.

The decision, Carter says, was monumental and a tremendous sign of hope.

“There is no history of shutting down a mine of this size,” he said. “To me, it’s a very good sign.”

But the world, in its modern age, needs copper—or wants it, anyway. After detailing the environmental and social injustices of the global mining industry in Boom, Bust, Boom, Carter writes in the book’s epilogue that 9 million iPhones were purchased by Americans virtually overnight in September of 2013, when Apple released its 5s and 5c models. These phones, he points out, each contain 16 grams of copper.

“This is why stopping Pebble Mine, or any mine, is hard to do,” Carter writes. “Consumer demand drives mining companies’ appetites for rich new deposits. They know our demand will grow, an insatiable craving … ”

Fortunately, explains Carter, there are appropriate and relatively safe places to mine for copper—like uninhabited deserts. Chile’s Atacama Desert, for example, is one of the better places in the world to mine. “There’s no water there,” Carter explained by phone.

But copper mining in Indonesia, Africa, Central America and Columbia is a different story. Mines there are hotspots of deforestation, death and pollution. As the population grows, and as more and more people plug themselves in to the modern digital world, more copper will be needed to keep the electricity flowing. Pollution of water and soil will follow.

“We’re eventually going to get to a place where we need to decide what’s more important, our iPhones or our water and food,” Carter said.