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Community turns out for USFS meeting on proposed mining

Material cut from Bill Williams Mountain is flown down by a helicopter to an area where it is chipped and then transported by truck off of the mountain as part of a steep slope forest thinning project in 2019. (Photo/Kaibab National Forest)

Material cut from Bill Williams Mountain is flown down by a helicopter to an area where it is chipped and then transported by truck off of the mountain as part of a steep slope forest thinning project in 2019. (Photo/Kaibab National Forest)

WILLIAMS Ariz. — A number of community members packed the cafeteria at Williams High School March 29 to ask questions of the U.S. Forest Service and voice their concerns about proposed mining activities on Bill Williams Mountain.

Emotions ran high for some residents who expressed their deep connection to the mountain and the potential environmental and cultural impacts of Drake Cement, LLC’s proposal to mine pozzolan on the community’s namesake mountain.

“The mining claim stakes come right down to the edge of our property,” said Williams resident Mike Benham. “They follow our fence line. If they mine there, we won’t have any water coming to our stock tanks. That is the biggest thing for us, let alone all the dust, noise and other impacts. The worst thing though is that they will destroy the mountain. It’s what the Forest Service refers to as sky islands, it is fairly untouched.”

Drake Cement has staked mining claims and is in the exploration phase of the project. The company is looking for pozzolan, a cement additive, on the southern and eastern base of Bill Williams Mountain near Perkinsville Road. Before any mining would take place, the company plans to dig eight trenches to collect samples to analyze the pozzolan.

“What’s sad is that if they would explore more, there’s pozzolan in a lot of areas around here that would make less of an impact on the environment,” Benham said. “I’m really hopeful that they move it someplace else, I think they’re going to meet a lot of opposition.”

According to the Forest Service, Drake Cement's representatives were scheduled to attend the meeting, but were unable to do so due to an illness.

In a later interview, David Chavez, a spokesperson for Drake Cement, said the proposed exploration would determine if the quality of pozzolan present can be used in the manufacture of concrete.

“Natural pozzolans feature unique chemistry and morphology (physical shape and makeup) that make their performance in concrete excellent,” Chavez said. “As yet, no decision has been made to mine this claim. This is an exploration.”

Chavez said the plan is for the company to begin the exploration process within one to two weeks after approval.

When asked if Drake is considering changing locations because of the significant concern and opposition to mining on Bill Williams Mountain, Chavez said the company is “sympathetic to the concerns” they have heard.

“Drake always holds being a good neighbor as a strong motivation for what we do,” he said. “Despite the enormous amount of misinformation that has been spread about this exploration, we remain open to answering questions and reassuring our neighbors. This project will follow the law - and it will not harm the residents of Williams. Quite the contrary. We intend to support the economy and create jobs.”

Benny Aja, a third-generation rancher from Williams and chairman of the Coconino Natural Resource Conservation District, and president of the Coconino County Farm Bureau is concerned about the community's water and traffic.

“I have several concerns, most importantly the watershed,” he said. “And also the traffic. They say they are going to take it down south, but that’s not reality. Those trucks are going to end up coming through town. They just need to find other locations.”

Mayor Don Dent, along with city councilmen Mike Cowen and Lee Payne, attended the meeting and shared their opinion of the proposal.

“I think this is a bad thing for the community,” Cowen said. “I think there are other places where it can go, this spot is probably one of the worst spots and the main reason is it’s in the Williams watershed.”

He said the proposed mining is on the side of Bill Williams Mountain that drains into the Santa Fe Reservoir, which feeds into the city’s water treatment plant.

“This spot, not only environmentally, but aesthetic wise, means so much to the people of Williams and the people who drive down South Road,” Cowen said.

Dent said he doesn’t see any benefit of the project to the city of Williams.

“A citizen asked me earlier what positive impacts this could have for Williams,” he said. “I can’t think of anything positive about this. My biggest concern is the water, not only the possibility of contaminating our water, but also the taking of our water.”

Matt Ryan, Coconino County District 3 supervisor, said he understands the opposition to the project.

“We have many concerns, whether it’s the cultural component or what the mountain means to the city of Williams,” he said. “The watershed, the economy and the investment we’ve made in forest fire mitigation is a concern. There are many more important aspects to this mountain than other places in the national forests.”

Ryan said the supervisors are not opposed to mining and they understand the need for pozzolan.

“But they are really picking the wrong place,” Ryan said. “We’re really just trying to get the mining to go elsewhere.”

Kaibab National Forest District Ranger Debra Mollet said the Forest Service hosted the meeting to ensure community members were staying informed about the proposal.

“I was hearing from a lot of community members expressing interest in this project,” Mollet said. “I wanted to make sure people’s questions were answered. I also wanted to make sure they had the right people to talk to.”

Mollet said there will be more opportunities for public comment in the future.

“We want to listen to the community and gather their concerns,” she said. “We will incorporate that into our process as well.”

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