Longform

Poisoned Well

Page 5 of 5

Even if mining resumes, DERM's Mayorga says, there is nothing to worry about. He points out that miners have voluntarily switched to a benzene-free "mineral oil" — a point the newspapers have dutifully repeated. But that might not solve the problem.

The underwater blasting process itself will inevitably generate benzene, according to court testimony by Remmy Hennet, an independent geochemist brought in by the plaintiffs. Combustion always produces benzene, he tells New Times, "even if it is olive oil.... That is well-established science."

Meanwhile, in April, just before judge Hoeveler halted the mining, DERM and officials from WASD — now led by John Renfrow — restarted the five production wells Brant had ordered shut down. In an interview, Mayorga defended the move, saying that when the wells reopened, benzene was not present. "Rock mining was still going on at that time," he said. "Benzene was not detected at that time."

DERM Director Carlos Espinosa said the same in a November 15, 2007 response to questions from county Commissioner Katy Sorenson: "It is worthwhile to note that since the reactivation [of production wells 1 and 2], benzene has not been detected in the raw water."

What they did not mention was that although there was no detectable contamination in the raw water — which is drawn from the entire wellfield — benzene was in fact present in both wells when they reopened in April. The chemical was also found in June, and in July — when it reached 12 parts per billion, more than twice the amount that originally closed the wells down.

The next samples were taken in November, four months after mining was ordered shut down. The benzene was gone.

Mayorga dismisses those findings as "residual contamination."

As to the original contamination, DERM officially concluded this past February that it was "unable to identify the source." Espinosa insists DERM did everything it could to find it.

"The very fact that they failed to reach a conclusion shows the quality of the investigation and what the county wanted to come out of it," said Brad Sewell, a lawyer for the environmentalists. "How can you do an investigation into the finding of a carcinogen at above legally accepted levels in the water supply ... and then, a year and a half later, close the books and say, 'Oh, we didn't figure out what the problem was'?"

Asked why DERM never required the rock miners to account for the benzene that was likely coming from their property, Espinosa said, "If we were going to sit there and argue with the rock miners and their lawyers ... [when] there really wasn't data that you could point to as a smoking gun, what do you do? If we determine that it is the rock miners, then we will go and recover the cost."

With the investigation officially concluded, though, that doesn't seem likely.

Espinosa is undoubtedly right about one thing: Crossing the rock miners, and their lawyers, is no simple task. The mining companies immediately appealed Hoeveler's decision, and the matter is still in litigation. Meanwhile, they've already applied for permits to resume blasting.

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Isaiah Thompson