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Column: Paradise may be lost, like it or not

"What's it like living in paradise?" That's what the UPS driver asked me. My husband and I had just bought our place in Skull Valley, Arizona, so I didn't really know yet. Our view across the wash, with volcanic rock spires rising as a backdrop, is breathtaking but I had no idea what it would be like to live here.

What I've learned in the past five years is that my 25-mile commute to Prescott is tiring, especially after a hard day's work, but I find myself defending the long drive to co-workers. "It's beautiful!" I tell them. "People drive it for fun."

And it's true. Anyone who has been on this stretch of Iron Springs Road knows how varied and amazing the landscape becomes, with its rounded boulders and incredible vistas.

As beautiful as the journey is, it's the destination that the UPS driver asked me about. What's it like living in paradise? It's surreal, especially at night, when all that exists is a blanket of starlight, the hoot of an owl, toads singing, and a soft train whistle.

But why am I writing this story of living here? Because it may soon be a story of paradise lost, not just for me and my neighbors, but for everyone. Right in the middle of paradise, on public land, are approximately 320 acres of old mining claims mostly untouched, except for the wildlife inhabiting them and the cattle grazing across them. When most of the houses in the area were built, the only evidence that the 18 claims existed were the remnants of a kitty litter mine, abandoned 30 years ago. Some say the EPA shut down the mine, others maintain that it merely went bankrupt. Whatever the real reason, mining hasn't taken place in the area for over three decades.

A month ago, I noticed a new survey stake stuck into the sandy wash. My curiosity grew as more survey stakes appeared and finally an answer surfaced. A San Diego woman, walking along my neighbor's property, confirmed that her family owns the 18 claims and will shortly begin mining the volcanic rock for pozzolan, an ash material used to make cement. She met with local families and, along with her mining claims, she had a few additional "claims" that were just as surprising.

The Californian maintains that her family has been in the area all along, but anyone who has lived in a tiny town knows that if they were here we would have known it. She said the home she purchased adjacent to her claim was to be razed by the volunteer fire department and a monetary donation had been made to ensure safety. This was news to the four members of the fire department present.

We asked her about the impact an open-pit mine would have on the environment. One by one, our concerns about air quality, well water levels, traffic, noise, light, wildlife, property values and the unique beauty of the area were curtly dismissed with promises that all would be handled with caution but the mine was coming, whether we liked it or not.

Call it a naïve sense of inertia but the abandoned mine didn't give me reason to pause when I decided to move to paradise. I can only assume others felt similarly. My neighborhood has 10 homes, give or take a guesthouse, none of which were here 30 years ago. But this isn't just about my little neighborhood. It involves all of Skull Valley/Kirkland, including the two elementary schools within a few miles of the mine, and anyone who drives Iron Springs Road or breathes the air here.

Of all the possible negative and irreparable changes, the mine opening will bring, and they are broad in scope, the one that scares me most is the dust that will be put into the air. Information from Kirkland Mining Company lists a chemical composition that raises a red flag for possible carcinogens being released into the air during the mining process, and our air is your air!

In a recent community meeting, locals asked a BLM representative to require, at the very least, an environmental analysis of this public land and not to "rubber stamp" Kirkland Mining Company's Plan of Operations with a categorical exclusion. We are working to preserve our health and safety, as well as the unique beauty of the area. If you have an interest in saving paradise, please visit kirklandmineforum.org to learn more.

Denise Bennett is a resident of Skull Valley.