What are all the yellow sandbags around Bisbee for?

By Gary Dillard

One aspect of Bisbee which I point out to our riders is the proliferation of yellow sandbags around town, with an explanation of the history and process.

Freeport soil cleanupBisbee had a smelter between 1880 and 1903, located where the Queen Mine Tour is today. As well as putting out gases, it emitted particulates. (Later, smelters would be able to install electrolytic precipitators to removed these solids from the gas stream, both because of their value and for health considerations.) Some of these particulates were heavy metals, such as lead, and some of them settled into the local soil.

Smelter emissions weren’t the only cause of lead in the soil. House paint used to contain lead as well, and every time someone scraped the paint off into the yard, the lead remained in the soil. Nevertheless, a few years ago, Freeport McMoRan Copper & Gold Inc. began its local soil program, testing all of the soil in greater Bisbee. Where metals were found to be above a certain threshhold, the company has dug up the soil, disposed of it, replaced it with clean soil and planted it to prevent erosion.

As the accompanying photo shows, sometimes that means working on the steep slope of a hill. This photo was taken of work on Tombstone Canyon from the switchback on High Road.

Freeport’s heritage

Freeport is a direct descendant of Copper Queen Consolidated Mining Co., which ran the smelter. Over the past few years, it has been spending 10s of millions of dollars on the Bisbee soil program, work that is voluntary. One of the side benefits of this work has been a lot of people working throughout the community, spending money here.

But the program will be over by the end of 2014. On the upside, Bisbee will have cleaner soil. On the downside, we’ll have less employment. Currently the number of workers on this project is about 40, but it has been considerably more, perhaps well over 100.

Testing on soil in Douglas, about 25 miles east of Bisbee and home of the copper smelters after they left Bisbee through the mid-1980s, began in June. The company expects to start cleanup there to begin at the first of 2015, just after the work has closed out in Bisbee.

This is just one aspect of reclamation work that Freeport is undertaking around the Warren Mining District. You can see this work on the Historic Bisbee Tour, the Greater Bisbee Tour and the Mining Landscape Tour; on the last we spend some time talking about reclamation.