Fierce dust storm hits Morenci, Clifton

Walt Mares Photo/Gila Herald: The Holy Cross Catholic Church in Morenci is located in front of a copper mining tailings field. A strong wind enveloped the area with a blinding dust storm from the field beginning around 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Aug. 13.

Tailings dust blinding, choking

By Walt Mares

Sand blowin’ I just can’t breathe in this air, Thought it would soon be clear and fair, But dust storms played hell with land and folks as well, Got to be movin’ somewhere

Written By Cindy Walker/Sung By Bob Wills & His Texas Playboys

MORENCI/CLIFTON – Even after the hellacious dust storm that hit Morenci-Clifton last week, it is hard to imagine what misery people faced in the American Dust Bowl of the 1930s.

Imagine breathing and trying to survive in thick dust day after day, month after month and year after year.

Folks in Morenci got a taste of it, albeit it was only for a few hours on Thursday night, Aug. 13.

The dust in the air was choking and blinding. At times visibility was little more than 10 feet. Street lights in the Morenci Plaza loop were hardly visible. From about 20 yards away the sign in front of a coffee shop was barely visible.

It was a hard wind blowing dust from nearby tailings fields. The western part of Morenci is covered with the fields, which are a residual part of the copper mining process.

Walt Mares Photo/Gila Herald: A street light is barely visible because of thick dust blowing through the Moreci Plaza Loop. At times visibility was 10 feet at most. Strong gusts of winds blew dust from nearby tailings fields that are part of the Morenci copper mine complex.

The Morenci copper mining facility is the largest operating open-pit copper mine in North America. It is operated by Freeport McMoran Inc., a global mining giant. Freeport owns a majority of the mine.

The dust storm was a very rare occurrence. Long-time residents in Morenci and Clifton say they do not recall a dust storm such as that of Aug. 13 ever happening. 

FMI reportedly regularly wets down the tailings dump surfaces to prevent such incidents from occurring.

I was with my partner doing some shopping and we were sitting at a table in front of the Bashas’ grocery store in the Morenci Plaza. A wind started kicking up but we thought little of it. However, around 8 p.m., as we left to return to our vehicles parked near the Starbucks, about a quarter-mile distant, we were confronted by a suddenly fierce wind and thick dust.

Walt Mares Photo/Gila Herald: Thick dust makes it difficult to see a car’s headlights during an Aug.l 13 dust storm that hit Morenci and Clifton. Strong winds filled the air with dust from nearby tailings fields that are part of the Morenci copper mine operation.

As we crossed the short distance between Bashas’ and the Morenci Club we were hit with blinding, choking dust that stung our faces. Fortunately, we were wearing protective face masks to deal with the COVID-19 threat. But we could feel dust entering our mouths and noses. Our uncovered eyes were stung by the dust.

As we approached the Morenci Theater, we could barely see the green and white Starbucks sign that was only about 30 yards away. My partner got into her car to get out of the storm. When she turned her car’s headlights on I took a photo showing the dust blowing heavily in front of the lights.

I also took photos of a street light that was obscured by the dust.

Walt Mares Photo/Gila Herald: Air filled with thick dust partially obscures a Starbucks coffee shop sign in the Morenci Plaza Loop. Heavy winds blew fine dust from nearby copper mining tailings fields.

As we left the area, the dust was blowing thickly and made for poor visibility. We stopped at the Conoco convenience store at the other end of town. The wind was blowing, but not very hard. Suddenly, a strong wind hit, and with it came the thick dust.

As we made our way down the highway to Clifton, the air was clear for about half a mile. As we approached the town street lights showed that some dust hovered in the air. There was some dust but nowhere near as much as at the Morenci Plaza.

As we traveled into South Clifton the air was clear.

Later, we learned it had not been that way about an hour earlier. A neighbor who lives on an eastern hillside in South Clifton said there had been a heavy dust storm. It was so thick it was impossible to see across the San Francisco River Canyon, about a half-mile away.

The day after

Walt Mares Photo/Gila Herald: A heavy dust storm left a white, powdery substance on a walkway in front of the Morenci library in the storm’s aftermath. The storm blew copper mining tailings into the area on Aug. 13. This photo was taken Aug. 17.

The following day there was a white, powder substance that covered the sidewalks in the Morenci Plaza Loop. There were white splotches on the pavement where the white powder was embedded. Those were spots where some sort of substances from vehicles had previously leaked on to the pavement.

In front of the Morenci library, the white powder had collected on and close to benches and chairs. The white stuff also affected wild bird food dropped on the sidewalks by a man who feeds the local winged population.

He said he noticed that where seeds he had left the previous day became mixed up with the white powder the food remained untouched. Places where he dropped seeds that were untouched by the powder had been eaten.

Walt Mares Photo/Gila Herald: A fine, white powder substance remains around a chair in front of the Morenci library four days after a wind storm that covered the area with dust from a nearby tailings field. The fierce storm occurred Thursday night, Aug. 13.

“It’s like there must be poison or something in that white dust. Them birds must have not touched it for a reason,” he said.

Tailings reportedly include some arsenic, which is found in many metals. It can be deadly for people who have been exposed to it for long periods of time. It has also been used in some medications.

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