A startling discovery in Bill Carter’s backyard led the Arizona author to write his latest book, “Boom, Bust, Boom: A Story About Copper, the Metal that Runs the World.”
Carter lived in Bisbee for nearly a decade. He met his wife and they had two children in the former mining town, which sits nestled in the Mule Mountains, nine miles north of the Mexico border.
In his book, Carter notes a local saying that Bisbee is “100 miles and 100 years from Tucson” with evidence of its past found all over town.
“The big open pit was not far off from our house,” said Carter, who now lives in Flagstaff and who will sit on three panels at this weekend’s Tucson Festival of Books.
“If you live in Bisbee, you just kind of use it as a landmark. You stop thinking about its history. It’s just that thing down the road.”
It wasn’t until the corporation Freeport-McMoRan acquired Phelps Dodge, owners of the dormant mining operations in Bisbee, in 2007, that Carter began thinking about the remnants from the past that he couldn’t see.
In 2008, Freeport offered soil reclamation tests to residents meant to measure the level of contaminants in their yards.
When the Carters received their results, he said they were surprised to discover that their land contained high levels of lead and arsenic from copper mine activities going back nearly a century.
“It was alarming,” Carter said. “The heavy metals don’t go anywhere. We think they do, but they just kind of hang there. Because we don’t see them, it doesn’t register.”
The results served as a catalyst for Carter, who started researching copper to learn more about the people involved in the industry and the part it plays in the world.
“Up to that point, I didn’t have a way in,” he said. “I didn’t understand the copper industry or copper itself. I thought about copper probably like most people think about copper, which was not that often.”
The author, whose past books documented his time working in Sarajevo and as a commercial fisherman in Alaska, began looking into active and dormant mines in Arizona towns such as Bisbee, Superior and Morenci in Greenlee County, which is home to one of the largest active copper mining operations in North America.
He also traveled beyond Arizona, to Cananea, Mexico and the proposed Pebble Mine in the Bristol Bay region of southwest Alaska. Carter estimates he spent three years researching and writing the book from start to finish.
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