BISBEE, Ariz. — The Renaissance Cafe buzzes with the conversation of half a dozen lunchtime patrons typical of this artisan community chiseled a mile high in the top of the Mule Mountains. But owner Tom Cichelli is packing up his yogurt and moving out.
His 5-year-old son has been in and out of the hospital and, he says, the town is struggling economically.
Bisbee, pop. 8,000 and 100 miles from the nearest city, Tucson, is a quaint, restored country town with ugly, urban air pollution.
Near the base of the mountains lies the nation's oldest copper smelter and the West's most prolific producer of sulfur dioxide pollution.
"When it really gets bad, your lungs feel slimy," Cichelli said. "I can't really consider staying because I don't think they'll (federal officials) close it down. If it wasn't there, I'd probably hang in here a few more years."
300,000 Tons of Pollution
The twin smokestacks of the Phelps Dodge Co. smelter, inactive because of a labor dispute in 1983 when Cichelli moved to town from San Francisco, spit about 300,000 tons of sulfur dioxide into the atmosphere each year.
The plant, which has no sulfur dioxide control devices, is located in Douglas near the border with Mexico, which already operates one copper smelter about 60 miles away and is preparing to fire the furnaces of another.
Environmentalists claim that the smelter causes acid rain in the central Rockies and health problems among asthmatics near Douglas and Bisbee.
What's more, they assert, conditions will worsen when the third smelter comes on line in Mexico and emissions drift north from the "Gray Triangle."
In 1972, the federal Environmental Protection Agency approved an Arizona pollution plan that included tight limits on copper smelter emissions. But the Phelps Dodge facility has had the rules waived over the years through a variety of legal maneuvers, political pledges and promises to operate at certain levels or hours.
That changed July 9 when the EPA and state officials denied Phelps Dodge its waiver and shut down the smelter. The closing may be short-lived, however, since the company and authorities continued negotiations to reopen.
EPA spokesman Terry Wilson said two major remaining issues were tighter controls to protect asthmatics and compliance with a U.S.-Mexico agreement to limit pollution in the border area.
Since 1977, the smelter has exceeded federal standards 88 times, but has not been penalized by either state or federal officials, records indicate. Last September, EPA tests showed that emissions from the two stacks were about seven times greater than allowed.
Phelps Dodge officials say it would be more economical to close the aging facility and lay off its 300 workers rather than invest $600 million in pollution controls.
Phelps Dodge spokesman Pat Scanlon says the smelter doesn't pose a health problem because it cuts back production when weather conditions indicate, such as when atmospheric pressure would keep pollution from escaping.
Bisbee physician John Abbott is skeptical. The smoke is so bad, he said, that he believes he is putting patients at risk by putting them on exercise programs because of the heavy breathing they would do.
Abbott told some of his asthma patients to move. "I don't think people can afford to wait for state or federal health authorities to protect them. They will be crippled before that happens."
Decided to Fight
June Hewitt is one of those patients, but she has decided to stay and fight by testifying at public hearings and talking to reporters.
When Hewitt moved from Phoenix to southeastern Arizona for her health, her Douglas ranch seemed to be as close to paradise as she could get, a place where she could raise pigs, goats and chickens as well as teach English riding.
But her spread is only eight miles downwind from the smelter. She moved at about the same time as Cichelli, when the smelter was closed and the air was clean.
"One day I had a terrible shortness of breath and was coughing," she said. "I ended up spending a week in the hospital, and there's no doubt in my mind of the reason why."