The mining company seeking to acquire a copper deposit just outside Superior wants to help the town prepare for life after the ore body is depleted and the mine shuts down.
“We want to help them be sustainable and self-sustaining,” said Vicky Peacey, Resolution Copper Mining’s senior manager for environment, permitting and community. She notes that the mine has contributed to the town’s efforts to revitalize and has supported the chamber of commerce, local schools and recreation groups. “It’s not just about mining. It’s about diversifying.”
Leaders in the mining town of Superior — who voted last year to revoke the town’s written support for the Resolution mine — agree with the company on that point, at least.
Town attorney Steve Cooper said Superior could become a tourist destination, based in part on the outdoor recreation and natural beauty surrounding the mining town.
“The area in and around Superior is beautiful,” he said, describing a plan to build a trail along Queen Creek from the Oak Flat campground to the Boyce Thompson Arboretum to the west. “We want to basically try to make the town a multi-business community, versus having a one-employer town.”
But outdoor enthusiasts contend that the current mine proposal — which will result in a massive crater on the surface of Oak Flat, a site currently protected from mining by a federal land order — is not compatible with promoting outdoor recreation. They say Resolution has not made assurances that the town will benefit from the mine, nor that its valuable natural resources will be protected.
Opponents cite Resolution’s acknowledgment on its website and in public meetings that the copper extracted from Superior likely will be shipped to copper smelters outside the U.S. for processing. The mining company is a subsidiary of mining giants Rio Tinto Group, based in the U.K., and BHP Billiton Ltd., based in Australia.
“Most of the economic benefits of this mine will be going overseas. The profits will be going to two foreign companies. The copper will be going to China,” said Curt Shannon, Arizona policy analyst for the Access Fund, a national advocacy group that tries to keep U.S. climbing areas open and pristine. “We get this huge crater at Oak Flat and a toxic (waste) tailings pile. On balance, it doesn’t sound like a very good deal to the United States.”
Peacey, of Resolution, said the company would process all of the copper it extracts domestically if the smelting capacity existed in Arizona and the U.S. But the amount of copper to be extracted — about 132,000 tons a day — will likely exceed U.S. capacity.
Since 2005, Resolution has been trying to acquire 2,400 acres of Tonto National Forest, above the copper deposit, through a legislated land-exchange bill. The contentious land swap finally made it through Congress this month, after it was slipped into the must-pass National Defense Authorization Act, to the outrage of opponents. President Obama signed the defense bill Friday.
The latest version of the land swap requires that the mine proposal undergo environmental impact studies under the National Environmental Policy Act before the land becomes private. That condition was a major sticking point for critics; earlier versions of the bill didn’t require analysis of the mine’s impact before Resolution acquired the public land, which is considered sacred to Native American tribes.
But the land-swap language still guarantees that Resolution will get title to the land 60 days after it publishes a final environmental impact statement, regardless of what the analysis finds, said Roger Featherstone, director of Tucson-based Arizona Mining Reform Coalition.
Once Resolution owns the land, the U.S. Forest Service has said it can no longer force the company to mitigate environmental impacts.
Because of the impending privatization and language in the land-swap bill, Forest Service officials say they are uncertain about how the mine’s oversight will work.
“We’re all kind of going, ‘OK, we gotta figure this out,’” said Carrie Templin, spokeswoman for the Tonto National Forest. “We’re going to have to take a very long look at that legislation.”
State mine-permitting regulations apply on private land, and those are much less stringent than the National Environmental Policy Act, Featherstone said.
Arizona Department of Environmental Quality spokesman Mark Shaffer said the agency will need Resolution’s precise plans to determine which permits will be required. But likely the mine will need to get an aquifer protection permit, an Arizona “pollution discharge elimination system” individual permit, a construction storm-water permit during mine construction and multi-sector storm-water permit during operation, he said.
He said it’s unclear whether Resolution will need a 404 clean-water permit — the permit from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers that has held up Rosemont Copper’s proposed mine for about three years.
There will be time for public input and comments, he said: “We do expect a high level of interest in this project, which would mean longer times than the norm before permits could be issued.”
Resolution says its mine will create 3,700 jobs, including 1,400 direct jobs that would include underground workers, geologists and support staff, and indirect jobs like welding-supply vendors, restaurant workers and bank tellers to respond to increased economic activity.
Opponents question whether the mine makes economic sense for Superior in the long run. The mine is expected to contribute to Arizona’s economy $1 billion per year over the mine’s 40-year lifetime, plus a decade of construction and clean-up on either end, totaling $61 billion. The Arizona Mining Association says mining contributed $4.6 billion to the state’s economy in 2011.
Shannon counters with Outdoor Industry Association figures: Americans spent $10.8 billion on outdoor recreation in Arizona in 2013. The mine will inevitably close, while the recreation area would generate economic activity in perpetuity, he said.
“Outdoor recreation contributes roughly twice as much to Arizona’s economy as all of mining does,” Shannon said. “This doesn’t mean there shouldn’t be any mining, but trashing a great recreational resource for mining doesn’t even make any economic sense.”
Resolution project director Andrew Taplin said in a Dec. 12 statement that as many Resolution jobs as possible will go to workers locally and regionally.
That doesn’t sound reassuring to opponents. Shannon noted that Resolution refused to amend its land-swap bill to require any remote operations center be located in or near Superior. (The company said it doesn’t plan to have a remote operations center.)
Resolution also has not agreed to pay Superior a one-tenth of 1 percent mining tax, Town Attorney Cooper said. Mine officials would not comment on ongoing negotiations with the town.
Cooper doubts that most of the mine’s employees will end up living in Superior. Since most families need two incomes, many will opt to live in nearby cities with jobs for their spouses, he said.
The Superior Town Council revoked its written support for the mine in February 2013. Cooper said the town is grateful Resolution has donated at least $450,000 in Superior, but that’s a tiny fraction of the company’s resources and the amount it stands to gain from the mine.
“Our lack of support right now is based on the fact that there has to be a fair trade of what you do to the community, versus what you receive when you mine,” Cooper said. “The benefits they are telling us, as far as jobs and people coming into the community, I don’t believe it will materialize to the extent they believe.”
One woeful day in 1982
Superior is a town built on mining. When the Magma Mine in Superior first shut down in 1982, laying off 1,400 residents in one day, the town was economically destroyed, said Roy Chavez, a former miner and past mayor of Superior. The mine reopened in 1989, this time with only 400 employees. It was then was purchased by BHP Billiton, which operated it until its closure in 1996.
Many Superior residents see Resolution as the town’s salvation. Some talk about desperate families needing jobs and basic necessities, and they praise the mining company for keeping local businesses alive with its support.
“I have a restaurant and bar and they (Resolution employees) are probably my best customers,” said Lynn Heglie, owner of Porter’s Cafe in Superior and a former Town Council member. “I trust them. They’ve never given me a reason not to.”
But mining is a different industry than it was in the 20th century, said Chavez, who also is director of the Concerned Citizens and Retired Miners Coalition, which opposes the mine. High-tech equipment allows access to deeper ore deposits but requires far fewer workers. The proposed method of mining will have a devastating impact on the environment, he said.
“We should be demanding that these foreign companies pay their fair share for our blood, sweat, labor and environmental damage,” he said.
Peacey emphasized the job projections take into account the automation in modern mining. She says Resolution has invested hundreds of thousands in education initiatives, particularly related to science and engineering, to train Superior’s youth to be the mining employees of tomorrow.
NOT GIVING UP
Conservationists, outdoor enthusiasts, Native American tribes and other opponents say they aren’t defeated by the land-swap’s passage.
The mine’s agreement to conduct Natonal Envionmental Policy Act studies gives the public at least a few more years of access to Oak Flat, said Shannon, of the Access Fund, which works to protect access to rock climbing areas.
Oak Flat — which for 15 years was the site of an international bouldering competition — contains thousands of bouldering and rock-climbing routes that will be inaccessible when mining begins. The area is also a popular site for hiking, birding and canyoneering. Nearby riparian areas and canyons are green with grasses and vegetation in the rainy season, when streams flow and swimming holes fill with cold water.
Opponents plan to press Resolution for environmental protections and cleaner mining techniques, and to seek a legal or legislative avenue to revoke the land swap.
“We’re obviously going to insist that if any mining is done, it be done in a way that maintains the integrity of the surface of Oak Flat,” Shannon said. “Nobody’s giving up.”