Sierrita Mine

Truck traffic heads toward Freeport-McMoran’s Sierrita Mine along Duval Mine Road, west of Interstate 19 near Green Valley.  

Mike Christy / Arizona Daily Star 2015

Copper giant Freeport-McMoRan Inc. has put on hold plans to close its mining and mill operations in Green Valley this year, saving about 500 jobs for now.

The news that the Sierrita Mine will continue operations for now is a boost to area officials who are working to set up an employment center for displaced miners.

A company spokesman said future decisions on Sierrita will be based on market conditions going forward.

“Sierrita continues to operate at the reduced rates implemented during 2015,” Freeport spokesman Eric Kinneberg said in an email.

“We continue to carefully monitor operating results and market conditions and future decisions will be based on these factors. In the interim, employment is anticipated to remain at the current level of approximately 740.”

Kinneberg did not elaborate in response to a request for more details.

Phoenix-based Freeport-McMoRan said in December that it would close its Sierrita Mine this year, as it cut costs to deal with falling oil and metals prices.

Sierrita employed more than 1,300 workers before Freeport announced last October it would immediately cut operations there in half, lay off 430 employees and consider closing the mine. That came after the company announced 130 job cuts at Sierrita in August.

Jim DiGiacomo, president and CEO of the Green Valley-Sahuarita Chamber of Commerce, said the decision to keep Sierrita running for now is welcome news for the area.

According to Freeport, the Sierrita Mine pumps $357 million a year into the local economy, including $255 million in taxes, wages and spending by the company and its employees.

“They’re doing everything they can to keep the people. You have to give them credit there,” DiGiacomo said. “They’re good community partners, and they’re doing everything they can to keep things going.”

PREPPING FOR THE WORST

The town of Sahuarita recently commissioned the University of Arizona Economic and Business Research Center to make a financial impact statement on the possible effects of Freeport’s Sierrita Mine closure.

Freeport has said that closing the Sierrita Mine would cut about 500 jobs from the current workforce of about 740, as about 250 workers would remain to maintain the site.

Using that “worst-case scenario” projection, the statement found the Sahuarita Trade Area, which is home to the majority of Sierrita Mine workers, would suffer a 1.2 percent decrease in total income and a 1.2 percent decrease in per-capita income, according to Victor Gonzalez, economic development manager for the town.

“A percentage-point decrease is actually substantial for a small area such as this five-ZIP-code area that we’ve defined,” Gonzalez said. That area includes ZIP codes in Sahuarita, Green Valley, Amado and Tubac.

Also, in the event of a full mine closure, the area’s unemployment rates would go up from 9.2 percent to 10.6 percent, according to the impact statement.

The roughly 500 jobs already cut have had a significant effect, Gonzalez said about the Sierrita job cuts made in 2015.

The purpose of the impact statement is to create a compelling case for a federal grant project to help displaced workers, he said.

“The proposed project would create an employment center that would provide an employment option for displaced Freeport employees,” Gonzalez said. “The basis of the federal grant program is to assist communities by creating a project that would address that need or that situation.”

The proposal envisions a 30,000-square-foot advanced manufacturing and technology center to house multiple small companies that would collectively employ as many as 70 people, he said.

Sahuarita will request authorization to submit its pre-application at a Town Council meeting on Monday.

PRICE SLUMP, BREXIT HURTS

Freeport also has been selling assets in a bid to cut its debt as copper prices continue to slump.

Since the start of 2016, the company has announced more than $4 billion in asset sales, including the sale of part of its interest in its Morenci mine joint venture to partner Sumitomo Metal Mining for $1 billion.

Copper dipped below $2 per pound in January, or less than half its 2011 high, and has traded at a spot price below $2.30 per pound most of the year.

Copper had been on an upswing in the past week on signs of more demand from China. But on Friday, following news of Britain’s vote to leave the European Union, spot copper fell 5 cents or more than 2 percent to $2.11 per pound on the New York Mercantile Exchange.

Shares in mining companies including Freeport took a beating Friday in the wake of Britain’s vote.

Freeport shares closed Friday at $10.58 per share, down $1.19 or more than 10 percent, in trading on the New York Stock Exchange.

Canada-based Hudbay Minerals, parent of the company trying to build the Rosemont copper mine in the Santa Rita Mountains southeast of Tucson, also saw its U.S. shares fall more than 10 percent Friday, to $4.60 per share.

Danyelle Khmara is a University of Arizona journalism student who is an apprentice at the Star. Contact her at

starapprentice@tucson.com

. Contact Assistant Business Editor David Wichner at dwichner@tucson.com or 573-4181. On Twitter: @dwichner

Senior reporter covering business and technology for the Arizona Daily Star/Tucson.com