Environment

The Ugly Canadian, or: turnabout isn’t always fair play

WALTER STEWART July 1 1976
Environment

The Ugly Canadian, or: turnabout isn’t always fair play

WALTER STEWART July 1 1976

The Ugly Canadian, or: turnabout isn’t always fair play

Environment

The dragline wrenches at the ground, its massive scoop tearing out 100 tons of soil at a bite, once every 55 seconds. The land around looks like an old meteor crater; great piles of grey muck lie pocked with pools of brackish water and surrounded by a barren plain of drying mud. On the edges, a fringe of wispy grass struggles to survive. “We try to be a good neighbor,” the man is saying, while the dragline gobbles, trucks shunt, wires strum, and a sulphurous stink drifts by. “We try to get along with everybody.” The trouble is that strip-mining does not make good neighbors. It is impossible to wrench off the face of the earth, smash trees, tear away 100 feet of overburden, strip out 50 feet of phosphate-bearing rock, mush it up with millions of gallons of water and then try to

clean up the mess without creating a certain amount of disturbance. And when it’s done just outside of town, the townsfolk may get edgy.

They have. The town is Aurora, North Carolina, population 629; occupation: farming, servicing and bitching about Texasgulf Inc., the strip-mining company. Texasgulf is a Canadian-dominated concern; its largest single shareholder is the Canada Development Corporation, the federally owned investment firm, which has a 30.2% interest. Individual Canadian shareholders own another 14%, according to Texasgulf estimates. Few of Aurora’s citizens know that, which is just as well. They have no idea that the company that threatens their town is dominated by foreign nationals, or they might have some

strong things to say to Canadians who object to the bullyboy tactics of American firms operating in Canada.

Aurora’s problem really began millions of years ago, when this patch of northeast North Carolina was covered by ocean, and marine deposits built up a huge body of phosphates—1.5 billion tons—along what is now the drowsy farmland bordering the Pamlico river. Phosphates make fertilizer, the price of fertilizer has been soaring in recent years, and Texasgulf has just finished another $46-million expansion of what it calls its Lee Creek operation (Lee Creek is long gone, but the name clings). It is now in a position to produce 680,000 tons of phosphate annually out of the debris of the Aurora area. The land-stripping operation is currently six miles outside the town, but the townsfolk believe—though the company denies—that it may soon be in their own backyards. Texasgulf owns 50,000 acres of land here, 3,600 acres within a one-mile radius of the town, and several hundred acres inside the corporate limits. It even owns the stretch between the town’s public and high school, the presentday site of a park. What if the company rolled its 4,435-ton dragline in there to cut a 150-foot wide swath? Ah, but it won’t, says Wilton W. Smith, Texasgulf public relations supervisor. It is “ridiculous to suppose we would ever mine inside the town, simply ridiculous.” However, Jim Paden, Lee Creek operations manager, says, “We bought the land to mine, everybody knew why we bought it; we have never pretended otherwise.” Paden adds: “Our mining is a quiet, inoffensive procedure.” The town’s mayor, Grace Bonner, says, “Hearing him talk like that makes the hair stand up on the back of my neck.”

Bonner’s neck hair got a good workout last fall, when the town zoned a one-mile buffer area around Aurora, in which no mining would be permitted. An earlier zoning plan, drawn up while the manager of Texasgulf was a member of the planning board, encouraged mining within this one-mile zone, but that plan was rejected; Texasgulf was not consulted about the new version. It has been objecting ever since. Says Paden: “Texasgulf will use all legal means to stop any attempts to restrict our use of the land. Our position is perfectly clear. That is our property and we bought that property to mine. Now they want to say we can’t mine it. We’re certainly going to object to that.” Paden can’t see why the town should be upset. After all, the locals took good money for land over the past

decade, when Texasgulf was paying up U $635 an acre—$400 over the market price—for farmland. Besides, “We have no immediate plans for that area.”

During various public and private hearings, Texasgulf has given its target dates for Aurora as never, 60 years, 20 years, and indefinite. If the company has no immediate plans for Aurora, why doesn’t it accept the town’s zoning restriction, at least as a basis for bargaining? “It’s a question of property rights. It’s as if you bought land for an apartment building, and then the municipality came along and said you couldn’t build there.” But that happens often, doesn’t it? “Yes, and when it does, you fight it.”

Not only is Texasgulf fighting—filing objections to the town plan at every level of government—some Aurora residents

claim it is fighting dirty, cutting off business to local supporters of the zoning plan. W. B. Thompson, chairman of the planning board that drew up the zoning restrictions, owns a farming supplies store, and has done a steady business with the farm division of Texasgulf (the company runs the farms it buys until they are ripe for mining). “After this dustup started,” says Thompson, “there were no more orders from Texasgulf. It looks like a straight cutoff.” Two other staunch supporters of the plan claim they have also been hurt, but are reluctant to discuss the issue. Before the plan was made public last August, their company did about $ 1.5-million worth of business annually with Texasgulf, aver aging 28 orders a month. Since then, orders have virtually disappeared. But maintains Paden, “If anybody has lost Texasgulf business, it is because they were underbid by somebody else.”

Frank Bonner, real estate agent, member of the county commission, and husband of the mayor, thinks Texasgulf “just doesn’t care about the town ... They’d just as soon we weren’t here, so they could go ahead and mine the land. We’ve been a good neighbor to them for 12 years. But as soon as we put in the zoning, we became just a nuisance ... I have nothing against Texasgulf, hell, I welcomed them here when I was mayor [back in the 1960s], but I don’t see why they won’t accept our right to protect ourselves.”

Such talk grieves Jim Paden, who believes “It isn’t really the town that’s upset, just a few people, like the mayor, who don’t realize how much good this industry is doing.” When it arrived in 1964, Texasgulf did, in fact, seem like a savior to the town, promising capital, contracts, jobs, expansion. In fact, Aurora has not expanded, the Texasgulf jobs—about 300— have barely replaced those who left, the big contracts have gone to outside suppliers, and all Aurora has gained is a suburban wasteland. Yesterday’s dreams of prosperity lie somewhere under a few million tons of muck. “It isn’t what we expected,” says Frank Bonner. “It isn’t right.” WALTER STEWART