FLASHBACK: Gore Made $500K from Toxic Zinc MinesAl Gore, Environmentalist and Zinc Miner
Originally published in The Wall Street Journal, June 29, 2000.
BY MICAH MORRISON
Nov. 25, 2009
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"The lakes and rivers sustain us; they flow through the veins of the earth and into our own. But we must take care to let them flow back out as pure as they came, not poison and waste them without thought for the future." --Al Gore, "Earth in the Balance"
"He taught me how to plow a steep hillside with a team of mules. He taught me how to clear three acres of heavily-wooded forest with a double-bladed axe. . . . He taught me how to stop gullies before they got started. He taught me how to drive, how to shoot a rifle, how to fish, how to swim. We loved to swim together in the Caney Fork River off a big flat rock on the back side of his farm." --Al Gore on his father, Sen. Albert Gore Sr., from algore2000.com
CARTHAGE, Tenn.--On his most recent tax return, as he has the past 25 years, Vice President Al Gore lists a $20,000 mining royalty for the extraction of zinc from beneath his farm here in the bucolic hills of the Cumberland River Valley. In total, Mr. Gore has earned $500,000 from zinc royalties. His late father, the senator, introduced him not only to the double-bladed ax but also to Armand Hammer, chairman of Occidental Petroleum Corp., which sold the zinc-rich land to the Gore family in 1973.
It also seems that zinc from Mr. Gore's property ends up in the cool waters of the Caney Fork River, an oft-celebrated site in Gore lore. A major shaft and tailings pond of the Pasminco Zinc Mine sit practically in the backyard of the vice president's Tennessee homestead. Zinc and other metals from the Gore land move from underground tunnels through elaborate extraction processes. Waste material ends up in the tailings pond, from which water flows into adjacent Caney Fork, languidly rolling on to the great Cumberland.
Mining is intrinsically a messy business, and Pasminco Zinc generally has a good environmental record. But not one that would pass muster with "Earth in the Balance," Mr. Gore's best-selling environmental book. As recently as May 16, the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation issued a "Notice of Violation." It informed Pasminco that it had infringed the Tennessee Water Quality Control act due to high levels of zinc in the river.
Those zinc levels exceeded standards established by the state and the federal Environmental Protection Agency. A "sample analysis found that total zinc was 1.480 mg/L [milligrams per liter], which is greater than the monthly average of .65 mg/L and the daily maximum of 1.30 mg/L." Pasminco "may be subject to enforcement action pursuant to The Tennessee Water Quality Control Act of 1977 for the aforementioned violation," the notice stated.
This was not the first time Mr. Gore's mining benefactor had run afoul of environmental regulations. In 1996, the mine twice failed biomonitoring tests designed to protect water quality in the Caney Fork for fish and wildlife. Mine discharge "failed two acute tests for toxicity to Ceriodaphnia dubia," a species of water flea, according to a mine permit analysis by Tennessee environmental authorities. "The discharge of industrial wastewater from Outfall #001 [the Caney Fork effluent] contains toxic metals (copper and zinc)," the analysis stated. "The combined effect of these pollutants may be detrimental to fish and aquatic life."
Tests for The Wall Street Journal by two independent Tennessee laboratories, conducted in September 1999 and this month, showed trace amounts of zinc and other metals in the Caney Fork that were in compliance with federal standards. But soil tests revealed what one lab called problematic "large quantities" of heavy metals in the riverbank soil downstream of the Caney Fork effluent. In both sets of tests, samples of water and soil were provided to the labs by the Journal.
Soil samples drawn from the mine effluent and downstream "contained large quantities of Barium, Iron, and Zinc, as well as smaller amounts of Arsenic, Chromium and Lead," Warner Laboratories found in September. "The soil from each of these sites seems to have some problems according to our findings. The levels of Barium, Iron and Zinc far exceed any report limit [a detection threshold within the testing system] and it should be noted that these results are extremely high compared to typical soil found in a populated neighborhood."
Tests conducted in June by the Environmental Science Corp. found similar traces of heavy metals in the water and soil. The report found the soil samples to contain relatively high levels of "Barium, Iron, Zinc, and several of the other metals, including Aluminum, Calcium and Magnesium." The ESC report also noted traces of cyanide in some water and soil samples.
Pasminco is not required to test soil along the banks of the Caney Fork. Both labs, while noting anomalies in the soil, believe the results do not warrant concern as environmental hazards. The water and soil clearly are not, however, "as pure as they came," as Mr. Gore demands in "Earth in the Balance."
A 1998 study by the Environmental Working Group, a Washington-based organization, criticized the zinc-mining operation for purchasing a toxic waste that included sulfuric acid and reselling it as fertilizer. The mine buys acid waste from steel plants, uses it as purification agent in zinc processing, and then sells the waste to fertilizer companies, according to a report in the Tennessean, a Nashville newspaper. Most soil scientists say the procedure is safe.
In a valley next to Al Gore Jr.'s farm near Carthage, Tenn., ground limestone left over from zinc mining spreads out like a white blanket.
Tennessee environmentalists disagree. "Clearly, when you spread those types of chemicals around on a farm or on the land, you're going to get a lot of runoff," Brian McGuire, executive director of Tennessee Citizens Action told the Tennessean. "So it's going to get into the water. We're poisoning ourselves."
A Pasminco official noted that the mine has had few violations and works to uphold a "very strict standard" of environmental quality. The Gore campaign did not respond to requests for comment. But some Tennessee residents say Mr. Gore becomes testy when questioned about the zinc mine. Tom Gniewek, a retired chemical engineer from Camden, Tenn., has studied the zinc mine for years and tried to question Mr. Gore about it at town-hall meetings. "He gets real angry," Mr. Gniewek says. "Instead of answering the question, he attacked my motives and accused people like me of vandalizing the earth."
Mr. Gore's original purchase of the zinc-rich land is of some interest as well, shedding light on his long relationship with Mr. Hammer, the former Occidental Petroleum chief. A controversial influence peddler who trafficked in politicians of all stripes and parties, Mr. Hammer pleaded guilty in 1975 to providing hush money in the Watergate scandal.
Mr. Hammer cut a wide swath across Washington from the 1930s until his death in 1990 at 92. His controversial career was marked by decades of profitable business dealings with the Soviet Union, which were closely watched by the FBI. He leapt into the big time by acquiring Libyan oil rights for Occidental Petroleum through what biographer Edward Jay Epstein has characterized as a combination of shrewd business dealings and bribery. After his 1975 conviction, Mr. Hammer spent the rest of his life campaigning for a pardon, which President Bush granted in 1989.
Mr. Hammer cultivated close relationships with many politicians, but he was closest to Mr. Gore's father, a U.S. senator from 1953 until 1971. Mr. Hammer's Occidental Minerals snapped up the zinc-bearing property in 1972. The senior Mr. Gore's farm is on the opposite bank of the Caney Fork. Mr. Hammer paid $160,000, double the only other offer, according to the Washington Post, which first disclosed details of the arrangement during the 1992 presidential campaign.
According to deed documents in Carthage, a year later Mr. Hammer sold the land to the senior Mr. Gore for $160,000, adding the extremely generous $20,000 per year mineral royalty. Ten minutes after that sale, the former senator executed a deed selling the property, including the mineral rights, to his son, the future vice president, for $140,000. Albert Gore Sr. told the Post he kept the first $20,000 royalty for himself, evening up the father-son transaction.
The purpose of the sale appears to have been transferring the annual $20,000 payment from Mr. Hammer to the young Mr. Gore. The Post reported that the "$20,000 a year amounts to $227 an acre, much more than the $30 an acre Occidental Minerals, part of Hammer's oil company, paid the senior Gore and some neighbors a few years before the 1973 arrangement."
In 1992 then-Sen. Gore told the Post that although he had been working for "slave wages" as a newspaper reporter, he quickly came up with a $40,000 down payment from two previous real-estate investments. In 1974, the zinc mine began annual payments of $20,000 to Mr. Gore, an important source of income to the young politician for many years.
After the senior Mr. Gore lost his 1970 Senate re-election bid, Mr. Hammer named him chairman of Island Creek Coal, an Occidental subsidiary, and appointed him to the board of directors of Occidental Petroleum. The late Mr. Gore's estate is conservatively valued at $1.5 million, including a block of Occidental stock worth between $250,000 and $500,000. The vice president is executor and trustee of his father's estate, with "sole discretion" to manage a trust on his mother's behalf.
As Albert Gore Jr. rose through the political ranks, Mr. Hammer continued to assist him. The Hammer family and corporations made donations up to the legal maximum in all of Mr. Gore's campaigns, according to Mr. Hammer's former personal assistant, Neil Lyndon, writing in London's Daily Telegraph. Mr. Gore regularly dined with Mr. Hammer and Occidental lobbyists in Washington, Mr. Lyndon wrote. "Separately and together, the Gores sometimes used Hammer's luxurious private Boeing 727 for journeys and jaunts." The former Hammer aide noted that the "profound and prolonged involvement between Hammer and Gore has never been revealed or investigated."
Mr. Hammer was famous for his dealings with the Soviet Union, and received a humanitarian award in Moscow in 1987 from International Physicians Against Nuclear War. Mr. Gore, who had been elected to the Senate in 1984, delivered a speech to the same convention, saying conventional arms should be cut along with nuclear weapons. As vice president, Mr. Gore became the Clinton administration point man on relations with Russia.
Mr. Gore would be well served to get the facts out about his relationship with Mr. Hammer, beginning with the zinc bounty. The issue is bigger than whether there is a pollution problem in Tennessee. When Mr. Gore's zinc riches are at stake, he appears unwilling to live by the standards he sets out for others in "Earth in the Balance."
His record of uncompromising environmental rhetoric seems another instance of the kind of hypocrisy that has dogged his campaign for months. He's been accused of being a slumlord for providing substandard housing to a tenant on a rental unit adjoining his farm. A well-remembered 1996 speech to the Democratic National Convention, invoking his sister's death by lung cancer and attacking the tobacco industry, also contributed to his reputation for slippery sanctimony when his close ties to Tennessee tobacco were revealed. And of course Mr. Gore has been sharply criticized for posturing on campaign finance reform while under investigation for possible fund-raising crimes in the 1996 campaign.
No mention of the zinc mine appears in "Earth in the Balance," on Mr. Gore's campaign Web site or in his speeches. At this point the story of the Tennessee farm, the zinc mine, the politician and the influence peddler is largely one of cant and hypocrisy. This is not a hanging crime in the political world, but the vice president, among others, might note that Bill Clinton's problems also began with a murky land deal and a shady financier.
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