For Pleasant Valley High School grad Bill Carter, living since 2000 with his wife, Leigh, in the old mining town of Bisbee, Arizona, it begins with a backyard vegetable garden. Carter feasts on salads though Leigh, pregnant with the couple's second daughter, "doesn't trust the dirt."
Bisbee "is a dormant mining town, located eight miles from the Mexican border as the crow flies. The copper mine closed down more than thirty years ago, but the effects of its existence remain. Mine shafts pockmark the hillsides and sulfuric acid runoff stains the cliffs a burnt orange." Back in the day the mining company "took more than $8 billion in copper from this place. You don't take that much from the earth without leaving a scar or two."
Carter's account is told in "Boom, Bust, Boom: A Story About Copper, The Metal That Runs The World" ($26 in hardcover from Scribner; also available in Amazon Kindle and Barnes and Noble e-book formats).
Soon Carter is suffering stomach cramps, and worse. His wife and daughter have avoided the salads and are fine. Then he receives a letter from an environmental cleanup company, hired by the owner of the mining operations, that his backyard dirt is contaminated with arsenic.
The illness passes only to be replaced by intense curiosity. Carter details the dangers of copper mining, investigates the copper market, interviews mining CEOs and environmental protestors, charts the influence of big money on small communities, and discovers, as he says in an interview, that because of an 1872 law "the U.S. does not charge foreign companies for extracting copper on our public lands."
Carter's reportage takes him to active Arizona copper mines and to Alaska, "because there is talk of developing one of the world's biggest copper and gold mines near the watershed of Bristol Bay, which is home to the world's largest sockeye salmon run, with almost forty million fish returning every summer." It's called the Pebble mine.
Civilization runs on copper (the average house has "four hundred pounds of copper pipe and wiring") and Carter acknowledges he is caught in hypocrisy. Yet, as he says toward the end, "the battle to stop Pebble mine is really a battle to define what we believe is the sensible stewardship of our resources."