Superfund Research Program
Wildfires and Flash Floods: Using Exposure Science to Identify Rural Arizona Mining Communities at Risk from the Release and Remobilization of Contaminants
Project Leader: Monica Ramirez-Andreotta
Grant Number: R21ES034591
Funding Period: 2022-2023
Compound events due to climate change, combined with resource extraction and social justice are exacerbating exiting vulnerabilities and creating new ones. The Telegraph- Mescal fires in Gila County, Arizona in 2021 consumed 180,757 acres and 37 percent of the soil burn severity was moderate to high. These fires occurred in a region with 13 different resource extraction activities, including three copper mines. Shortly after the fires, the area had a record monsoon season, with over 14 inches of rainfall. Most of the mine waste in the area are un- rehabilitated, leaving them prone to mechanical dispersion, which may increase their mobility and bioavailability. Areas that have been burned by wildfires are susceptible to flash flooding and the Town of Miami and City of Globe were severely impacted. Fire events are able to alter the physical, chemical, and biogeochemical properties of the soil and surface materials and release and (re)mobilize metal(loid)s and radioactive materials, and produce polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) that can impact public health. Over 3,000 metric tons of potentially contaminated sediment accumulated on public roads and sidewalks in Miami and some residents reported that 12 inches of sediment settled in their yards and in some cases, entered their homes. The extent of toxic contamination of the soil and dust in the Miami/Globe areas after the fire and flooding have not been assessed. It is critical to determine the extent of post-wildfire debris flows and erosion from mine tailings and whether these geohazards are presenting exposure pathways to metal(loid)s, radioactive materials, and PAHs in neighboring rural, medically underserved, environmental justice (EJ) communities. To do this, the researchers are: (1) surveying families to identify the impacted areas and determine individual- and community-level vulnerabilities and resiliencies, (2) building human capacity through empowerment education and community science, (3) characterizing contaminants released during wildfires in soil and settled dust, and (4) using an equity-centered community design approach to report all findings and provide immediate intervention and prevention strategies. EJ communities refers to areas affected by disproportionate exposure to environmental hazards and increased vulnerability to those hazards. The compound event described has significantly impacted these rural communities that are surrounded by active/legacy mines and smelter operations, further exacerbating the possible exposure to contaminants, increasing their risk, and exploiting the structural inequalities and environmental health disparities in these areas.