Exploring a toxic legacy

The town of Rico sits a mile beneath the apex of an upturned geological formation concealing one of the richest deposits of base metals in U.S. mining history. Rico is surrounded by a mantle of talus and debris sliding from the steeply pitched spurs on the 12,000-foot San Juan Mountains.

acid-reignLike the breath of the earth, the wealth of the town – measured in the price of ore mined from her soil – rises and falls regularly.

And with that mining-based wealth has come a host of environmental consequences, some of which are detailed in Patrick Curran’s novel about the Rico Argentine acid plant, “Acid Reign and The Rise of the Eco-Outlaws.”

But although the book is fiction, Curran and some Rico residents say it is based on facts that are all too true.

Glory days

Rico was founded on the glory days of silver-mining and thrived on the economic boom that followed. By 1890 miners trekking out of the high desert country and across the Rocky Mountains swelled the population in the tiny hamlet to 5,000.

Business boomed.

Twenty-three saloons, a flourishing threeblock red-light district, two newspapers, two churches, a theater, 14 hotels and the Rico State Bank sprouted and grew.

By then the Rio Grande Southern Railroad had completed a narrow-gauge line into the camp, adding lines a few years later up to the operations above it in Silver Creek. Rico’s future seemed boundless until the bubble popped in 1893.

The Silver Panic, a market decline in the value of silver, collapsed prices. Production fell sharply just as the Rico camp had hit its all-time peak production and was depleting the rich silver deposits found throughout the district. By 1901 the mines were exhausted of all but low-grade metal ore.

Businesses closed and the population drifted away, but after 1900 the mining companies began to investigate the plentiful base metal ores – copper, zinc and lead – found throughout the existing mines and in other parts of the district. For the first time the combined values of lead and zinc produced in the district exceeded that of silver.

The little town eked out an existence during the following 40 years, never regaining the heyday it had enjoyed.

In the late 1930s, the Rico Argentine Company, which now owned most of the town, built a 135-ton flotation mill. The upgrade created a period of steady production that brought some stability to the mining industry.

With that investment, Rico was poised to take advantage of future opportunities. Then, in 1945, President Truman created the Atomic Energy Commission authorizing the purchase of all weapons-g rade uranium. It signaled the start of the uranium boom and the Cold War that spawned hundreds of mines in the Colorado Plateau and the Navajo reservation west of Rico.

Acid rain

Prospects for another surge in mining at Rico suddenly grew when it was discovered that 15 million tons of sulfur-rich iron pyrite lay beneath Rico – the source ore for sulfuric acid needed to extract uranium from the yellowcake at the mills.

In 1955 Rico Argentine expanded again – building an acid plant for the production of sulfuric acid from pyrite. Because base-metal prices were at a low, the entire mining operation could readily be diverted to the mining of pyrite and then converted at the plant in Rico to sulfuric acid.

The acid was sold to several uranium mills operating in the adjacent part of the Colorado Plateau for nine years until, as official company and government records claim, a cutback in the uranium program destroyed the market for the acid. The plant was put on a standby basis in October 1964.

Between 1955 and 1964 the acid plant produced 316,108 tons of commercial sulfuric acid. Pyritic tailings from a nearby lead zinc mill furnished the feed for the plant for the first year until the suitable tailings were exhausted and massive pyrite was mined for the first time directly for the feed. The total ore for the acid plant amounted to nearly 300,000 tons of mined pyrite and an estimated 80,000 tons of tailings.

Now, 45 years later, Curran has published his colorful account of the facts surrounding the Rico Argentine acid plant. “Acid Reign and The Rise of the Eco- Outlaws” flushes out the human and environmental consequences of company greed and the terrible introduction of acid rain – the plant reactor’s poisonous by-product.

Rotten eggs

The story is legend in Rico, replete with good guys and bad guys, the Navajo miners’ presence in the mines and the final shootout that shut the plant for good.

Curran wrote the book as a historical novel set in the final days of the sulfuric-acid boom and its link to even-larger historical trauma surrounding the AEC and uraniummining contamination.

Four main characters tell the story. All of them are based on real people, their actions, the responses of the acid-plant company personnel and interviews with people who lived in Rico and worked the acid plant.

He included the widows of Cove, near Shiprock, N.M., where almost all the men and teenage boys worked in the Kerr-Mc- Gee uranium mine operations. The subplot in “Acid Reign” tells the consequences of radiation exposure that took their lives, but also links their widows and their families to the acid plant in Rico.

The mining facts, too, told in “extracted tons and ounces” shower light on a murky, almost-invisible business.

Records indicate that the Rico acid plant was fed 150 tons of iron pyrite a day, for nine years.

“The main thing about that plant,” said Cortez resident Glenn Baer, who worked for the state highway department there at the time, “is that they tried to force more product than it was capable of. A lot of gas went out into the atmosphere. You could smell it – like striking matches – that same rottenegg smell.”

Government agencies, he said, even the Department of Game and Fish, promised to do something about the Rico Argentine pollution, but never followed through. “The government didn’t have very good enforceable policies at that time and, well, it was a livelihood for the town.”

The main product, sulfuric acid, was trucked to regional uranium mills on the Colorado Plateau and in the Navajo reservation. To the detriment of the environment and health of the people, sulfur dioxide was released at the acid plant as a by-product of the heating reactor process.

When it mixed with the humidity in the air it created acid rain.

Dead fish

The workers tried to get the company to clean up the acid plant, to use new technology. They even asked the company to just back off the steep production schedule, to use the reactor more efficiently, but the plant owners didn’t. They said they would, but they never did, and, in fact, the owners pressed the plant beyond its capacity even more until it exploded twice.

“Acid Reign” introduces Johnny and Roy, two miners from coal country in West Virginia. When they hit town in 1958, the sky was brown, the river yellow and the lights never went off at the Acid Plant, writes Curran. They fought with the company many times to get the plant cleaned up, but the company did nothing about it.

Then one final, fateful day, they went one more time, politely requesting the company to fix the acid plant or shut it off. The company refused and the two workers went outside to their pick-up. They loaded their rifles and walked back into the plant. One shot at the door; officials shut the plant on that day, Sept. 11, 1964, and it never started up again.

Today, Carole Rychtarik lives half of the year in her Rico home, where she has been since 1954.

“The government needed the acid for the Cold War policies, and maybe they overlooked the problem. Window frames were rotting out, roofs and clothes lines rusting, and all the trees were dying. We just lived with it.”

Baer believes that the acid rain killed the macroinvertebrates and plants that fish eat in the river. “In was different in those days. Nearly every car you saw had fishing poles sticking out the back window. But you’d catch a fish and it’d be all skin and bones. Starved to death in the river.”

Rychtarik disagrees. She said simply that the fish were killed during night releases of the water from the tailings ponds. “One day you’d notice the tailings ponds were almost overflowing and then the next morning they would be mysteriously empty. You could see it,” she said, “after the release the river rocks turned green and the fish died. It was a terrible time and nothing was done about it until it affected Dolores downstream.”

“There were 12 to 15 ponds up above Rico. You can still see them,” said Curran. “The mines were all around the hills just north of town. They’d mine the iron pyrite up there and bring it down to the mill, grind it and cook it up in the reactor to sulfuric acid and then the acid rain would escape and flow out all over the valley.

“But the tailings were also chemically nasty stuff that leached out in the water. When the plant was overproducing beyond its capacity, the ponds would overflow and contaminate the river.”

Roughneck research

Putting the research together for the book was no easy task, said Curran. “I had a lot of help from the community and from people who had moved away but were still willing to talk about it. I even spent a lot of time with the real Johnny, who now lives alone in Virginia. That meant a lot to me.”

The two eco-outlaws are an anomaly of frontier justice, writes Curran in the prologue of his book. “Call it a noble mutation … like the real life characters in the book, Johnny and Roy, roughnecks from coal camps of West Virginia, Chee Benally and the Widows of Cove from the Navajo Nation … all educated outlaws who fought to clean up the acid plant … and against a mining industry that killed thousands of uranium miners.

“Some say we won the Cold War, but not without grave public health and environmental consequences. Rivers were polluted, the land was poisoned and more than 1500 white and Navajo uranium miners died of lung disease on the Colorado Plateau. None of them were buried at Arlington National cemetery. There were no flag-draped coffins, no drum rolls, no flyovers.”

The acid plant never re-opened. Even though the river ran clear within weeks of the shutdown, 46 years later the breaching tailings ponds and acid drainage from the tunnels and adits exceed standard loads and add to the water contamination, Curran said. Attempts have been made to improve water quality with some success, according to Curran, and continue today. Atlantic Richfield Company, the primary responsible party today, has recently been directed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to participate in the clean-up.

Molybdenum in the wings

Like all the boom-and-bust stories threading through the historic veins of ore in the Rico District, more boom is yet to come. “Unfortunately the largest deposit of molybdenum in North America is right behind my house,” said Rychterik. “When the government’s need arises, believe me, they will mine it.”

Baer added that he’s heard “China will buy every bit of molybdenum our country can produce. You know what it’s used for?” he asked. “To harden steel!”

Mining is Rico’s legacy. Think Rico. Think mining. It is possible that whatever is needed to harness energy could be found, with a little luck and ingenuity, in the greening hills around the town. But today a different natural resource is attracting the attention of the clean-energy mining investors.

The Colorado School of Mines is studying the geothermal energy trapped 5,000 feet beneath the overburden at Rico. Equal to the heat found in Glenwood Springs, Colo., if tapped by an energy company, it could be used for the production of power – possibly enough to light the whole town while at the same time fueling a long-lasting economic expansion.

It’s not too hard to imagine Rico, “rich and green,” as the charmed poster child for clean energy resurrected as a success story that grew from a nine-year acid rainstorm.

Curran’s book connects the town’s contamination to uranium contamination on the Colorado Plateau. The miners’ experiences there have never before been written down, only passed from person to person on the front porches of the tiny frame houses.

“Acid Reign and The Rise of the Eco- Outlaws springs” from that rich, factual local lore, deepening the recorded impact of the uranium boom that seized the heart of the Navajo reservation’s natural resources and the soul of the surrounding border lands in Utah, New Mexico, Arizona and even Colorado.

Copies of “Acid Reign and the Rise of the Eco- Outlaws” are available at the Rico Museum, Let It Grow Nursery in Cortez, and online.

From February 2013.