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Tucson Weekly Over A Barrel Cactus

Mining Giant ASARCO Sticks It To The Little Guy.

By Tim Vanderpool

ASARCO, INC., JUST adores the little fella. Whether browbeating elected officials or stonewalling regulators, the mining giant is quick to trot out small folk on its payroll, those beloved working Joes who briefly emerge from their lifeless pits to don cute matching caps and talk jobs, jobs, jobs.

On the other hand, even cynical neo-populism has its limits.

What ASARCO doesn't like, it seems, are guys and gals whose social leanings fall somewhere to the left of Ozzie and Harriett.

The latter category includes chaps like Bruce Hart, a mom-and-pop Tucson landscaper and cactus wholesaler who wears his hair flowing, hires different-drummer types, and was silly enough to spout his doubts about ASARCO's current drive to launch a sprawling mine in the beautiful Santa Rita Mountains.

As owner of BK Cacti, Hart had what he thought was a long-term contract to pluck plants from some 3,000 acres of ASARCO land next to its Mission Complex mine in Green Valley, blazing the way for new digs. After winning a bid and forking over $7,500 for rights to sell the succulents, he instead found his agreement terminated. He estimates the dispute will cost his company $400,000 over the next decade.

Meanwhile, he says those tons of plants--including more than 2,500 saguaros--he was slated to yank will now likely just be plowed under.

Hart readily admits some of his staff are gay, most share his own grooming preferences and, more likely than not, also oppose ASARCO's controversial plans to rip up the Santa Ritas' northern flanks in search of copper.

All of which didn't sit well with the mining company's traditionally minded, neatly coifed top honchos, he says. "Out there at the mine, it's pretty redneck and real straight, like the last-of-the-Wild-West kind of thing. Lots of the miners don't have alternative sorts of lives, which I don't think they like too much either, whether it's lesbian or whatever. And we all have long hair, which doesn't help.

"There's just a lot of homophobia bullshit," he says, "You know, macho stuff. I've got one woman who can kick any one of their asses out there working, and some other guys who have a little different lifestyle than the norm, and really, I think that had a lot to do with it."

He says he also had the contract to landscape ASARCO's new Discovery Center in Green Valley, a tourist's shrine to the glories of mining. That job was completed, but not without Hart expressing his views on the Santa Rita controversy to a few company bosses.

ASARCO had earlier announced plans to develop 2,800 acres it holds on the range's northern flanks, and requested a land swap with the U.S. Forest Service to give the company ownership of another 13,272 acres surrounding the site. In exchange, the federal agency would gain several long-sought-after, ASARCO-controlled parcels scattered around the state.

But the proposal has drawn loud opposition, with both the Tucson City Council and Pima County Board of Supervisors casting nearly unanimous, symbolic votes against the land transfer. Of both bodies, only Supervisor Mike Boyd--despite earlier lip-service to environmental groups--favored ASARCO.

That didn't mean Hart could get away with criticizing the company juggernaut, however. When ASARCO officials asked his opinion, he says, "I told them no one in Pima County is going to get any benefit from the swap."

At the same time, he alleges his own company fell behind on workmen's comp and insurance liability payments because ASARCO was late in paying him for the Discovery Center work. He maintains that when ASARCO finally paid up, he did too, emphasizing that BK's insurance never lapsed. Instead, he claims ASARCO simply used that as a pretext to give him the boot.

In addition, Hart charges, the financial backlog also kept him from paying one staffer who also worked for Pinkerton Security and Investigation Services, which was guarding the site. Once the cash was available, the Pinkerton man never showed up for his check, Hart says, but instead alleged to ASARCO officials that Hart's crew was drinking and drugging on the job. Hart calls the charges ridiculous.

On April 28, BK Cacti received a letter from Mission Complex General Manager John Low axing the contract. Hart contends his employees' offbeat aura--coupled with his own Santa Rita comments--probably prompted the move. "Low's pretty hard-core," he says. "The environment's not his forte, you know what I mean? They just want to get to the copper and gold and everything else.

"Now they won't return any of my calls," he says. "They don't want to have anything to do with it."

Lawyers told him it will cost a minimum of $10,000 to fight back in court.

Low was far from chatty when contacted by a Tucson Weekly reporter, either concerning BK Cacti or the future of ASARCO's flora. "I really don't have any comment on it," he said. "This is really a business issue, and I don't need to get into it. We will continue the same policy we've had on the cactus. We have a long history of moving cactus and transplanting cactus here."

ASARCO Property Engineer Jack Gracie was hardly more forthcoming. His comments to the same reporter went like this: "I had no conversations with Mr. Hart on any of the issues, other than contractual issues, which are binding...It (the cactus) will all be removed...Actually, we can do anything we want at any time because it's our land. No comment. You cannot quote me on anything."


So much for the little guy.

Photo by Dominic Oldershaw

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