The planned Rosemont Copper Mine just south of Tucson isn’t the only mining controversy in Arizona.
It isn’t even the biggest.
About 100 miles north of Tucson, Resolution Copper Mining wants to build a mine in Superior, a town of 2,800 people, that could yield 1 billion pounds of copper a year. That’s more than four times the projected output for Rosemont Copper’s planned mine in the Santa Rita Mountains, which would produce an estimated 243 million pounds of copper annually.
Resolution — owned by mining giants U.K.-based Rio Tinto and Australia-based BHP Billiton — says the mine would create 1,400 jobs and generate $61 billion over its 40-year lifespan, plus construction and clean-up time. It would extract enough copper to meet 25 percent of U.S. demand.
“If you can imagine five Super Bowls in Superior every year for 60 years, that’s the level of economic boost and economic activity this mine is going to generate,” said Andrew Taplin, Resolution Copper Mining’s project director since October 2012.
But the project would also permanently alter an outdoor destination popular with Southern Arizonans. At the Oak Flat campground, five miles east of Superior, stone picnic tables are shaded by centuries-old oak trees. Manzanita shrubs and Mojave yucca dot the volcanic-rock boulder fields. Mountains on the horizon give way to forested canyons, where streams flow and natural pools form in the summer.
Tony Huerta, 83, who has lived in Superior since 1966, recalls days with his family grilling hot dogs or steaks at the picnic area.
“It’s beautiful,” he says. “That place is packed on holidays.”
Resolution and its parent companies have been trying for eight years to trade 5,400 acres they already own for 2,400 acres of the Tonto National Forest, which sit above the massive ore body. They’ll have another chance this fall if their land-exchange bill makes it to the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives.
But leaders in Superior and nearby Queen Valley question where Resolution will dump a projected 1.7 billion tons of mine waste tailings. Mine opponents argue that Resolution is pushing the land exchange to avoid key environmental studies that are mandated for mining on public land. They question why those studies haven’t begun after more than a decade of mine planning.
“The tide is turning,” said Roger Featherstone of Tucson-based Arizona Mining Reform Coalition, which has been fighting the proposal for nearly a decade. “As more and more people are aware of just exactly how destructive this proposal is, people are waking up.”
Resolution estimates that the crater on Oak Flat resulting from the underground block-cave mining would be 2 miles wide and 1,000 feet deep at the center.
“It will take away everything about Superior that draws people to Superior, which is the beauty, the recreation and the inspiration for artists and photographers,” said Anna Jeffrey, 54, a native of the area.
The land Resolution wants includes the 760-acre Oak Flat Withdrawal Area, which was deemed off-limits to future mining by a 1955 land order signed by President Dwight Eisenhower. The bill would overturn that order.
Critics say the mine would devastate the surface of Oak Flat, an area sacred to American Indian tribes and beloved by birders, hikers and rock climbers in the region. It would also drain a rare riparian habitat at Gaan Canyon and Queen Creek Canyon, which border the parcel of land Resolution wants to acquire.
“It’s a very green and dazzling canyon set amidst the Sonoran Desert,” said Mitch Stevens, a Tucson resident and weekend hiking guide with the Sierra Club. The Sierra Club fears the mine “is going to destroy the water table and the biodiversity that exists.”
Tucson resident Steven Gibb, 57, is planning his fourth trip to Gaan Canyon this month. On past trips he’s led between 20 and 30 Tucsonans down the canyon, rappelling down cliffs to the three cool pools at the base of the canyon. Tucson hikers clamor to join these excursions, he said.
“How often do you have those types of pools and that type of terrain in Arizona?” he said.
Resolution’s proposed method of mining is also controversial.
The company wants to use block-cave mining, a cheaper and less labor-intensive method than the cut-and-fill mining used in Superior for 100 years.
Block-cave excavates a large amount of rock and leaves a mountain-sized void underground, making it more likely the surface will collapse, said Roy Chavez, former mayor of Superior and spokesman for the Concerned Citizens and Retired Miners Coalition, which opposes the mine. Cut-and-fill extracts a tunnel of rock, removes the ore above ground and returns 80 percent of waste into the ground, stabilizing the surface and reducing waste, said Chavez, a former miner.
It’s still unclear where Resolution will dispose of the projected 1.7 billion tons of waste tailings the mine will produce. Sixteen miles west of Superior, Queen Valley residents bristled at a proposal to dump tailings at the nearby Florence Junction. In January the Queen Valley Homeowners Association approved a resolution opposing the proposal, saying hazardous dust could pollute their community and hurt property values.
Federal officials and American Indian tribes say the land-exchange bill disregards the detrimental effect the mine will have on sacred tribal land. The San Carlos Apache Tribe says its spiritual beings live within the Oak Flat, Gaan Canyon and Queen Creek area.
Towering over the town of Superior, the steep cliffs at Apache Leap — where in 1870, dozens of Apache warriors are said to have jumped rather than be taken prisoner by U.S. troops — would be vulnerable to collapse if block-cave mining is permitted around it, said the Inter Tribal Council of Arizona in a letter opposing the bill.
Tucson’s neighboring Tohono O’odham and Pascua Yaqui Nations also oppose the land exchange.
Opposition from town
The land exchange no longer has the written support of the town adjacent to the project site. In February the Superior Town Council notified Resolution it was terminating an agreement that outlined the terms of cooperation between the mining company and the town. The following month the Town Council passed a resolution opposing the land-exchange bill.
Superior Mayor Jayme Valenzuela said the town supports mining, but the land-exchange bill serves the mining company more than Superior and leaves too many questions unanswered. Resolution hasn’t yet completed an official mining plan of operations, which is necessary to start an environmental impact study.
“We can’t move forward on a handshake and a promise,” Valenzuela said. “We are in favor of the copper company moving forward. But there are assurances the town needs to be sure it’s beneficial and addresses air, water and environmental issues.”
Also among the town leaders’ concerns: If Resolution decided to sell the Forest Service land after it was privatized, “all of Resolution’s promises of monetary contributions to the town may be cancelled,” a February town council press release said.
Town leaders point out the previous agreement was invalid anyway: It was approved with the vote of a former councilman who had a financial interest in the mining company. A 2012 Attorney General’s office investigation found the former councilman — Hank Gutierrez — guilty of conflict of interest because he had a paid contract with Resolution at the time he voted to support the agreement. Gutierrez resigned from the council in October 2012.
Taplin, Resolution’s project director, said the town council’s opposition is a “serious concern to us.”
“We’re actively reaching out to the town council to see how we can sit down and take our relationship forward,” he said. “We highly value the relationship and it’s going to be very important for the long-term development of the mine.”
Many Superior residents support Resolution’s project and its promises to pull the town out of its economic slump. They point to vacant storefronts and jobless young people and speak of their faith in Resolution Copper, which has already brought money and jobs to Superior as it began preparations for the mine.
Lynn Heglie, owner of Porter’s Cafe and former Town Council member, says the company has proven itself dedicated to the well-being of the town and so he supports the mine.
“I trust them. I know them,” he said, eating lunch at his restaurant’s bar. “That’s all I can base it on.”
Once a booming mining town when the now-closed Magma Mine operated, Superior is now more than $4 million in debt.
On Main Street, historic brick and adobe buildings are boarded up. The stately Magma Hotel sits empty behind a chain-link fence. More buildings are vacant and for sale than are open for business.
“When I first got here I thought, ‘Oh, we don’t need a mine,’” says Nancy Vogler, a six-year resident of Superior. “But you’re in the copper corridor, for God’s sake. Right now the poor little town has no income. We see more restaurants and businesses close up than have opened.”
About 70 of Resolution’s 300 employees and contractors live in Superior. That’s after the company laid off 200 people this year, pointing to the costly delays in passing the land-exchange bill.
Mine employees are “the main reason why we’re still open,” said Kathy Long, owner of the Rolling Rock Gallery, a gift shop and mining supply store. Oak Flat “is a nice place, but right now I feel that the jobs are more important than that.”
Not everyone agrees.
Superior residents Mary Catherine Adams and John Weber display a large sign on their fence: “We absolutely do not support Resolution Copper’s land exchange.”
“Money — that’s an easy-come, easy-go thing,” Adams said. “Land is forever.”
BOOM AND BUST
For decades, Superior has weathered the “boom-and-bust” cycle of mining, and residents have suffered for it, said Kiki Peralta, a former Superior Town Council member. She argues preserving Oak Flat — which gets about 6,000 campers each year — will generate more long-term benefits than a mine with a 40-year lifespan. Last month Peralta lost a recall election and her place on the council, an action she says is directly related to her opposition to the mine.
More than 2,000 rock climbing routes around Oak Flat would become off-limits to climbers if the land exchange is approved.
But Pam Rabago, a Superior real estate agent and mine supporter, said most opponents live outside Superior and are only concerned with access to outdoor recreation — not the town’s survival.
“I don’t really care about the rock climbers. They’re not from this area. This is not their economy,” Rabago said. “This is our economy. This is our home.”
Curt Shannon of the Access Fund, a national nonprofit devoted to conserving access to rock climbing areas, says public input on the issue should not be limited to Superior residents.
“This is national forest land,” he said. “This is not a local issue.”