It’s raining nearly 7,000 feet underground.
The slick, sprayed concrete “rock” in this man-made cavern is striped with Mars-orange and alien-green algae. Calcification blooms into what look like bleached coral and barnacles clinging to the ceiling beams and emergency phone. More than a mile closer to the Earth’s molten core than their colleagues above, the miners raise their voices over the roar of pipes pumping 180-degree water and steamy air to the surface.
When the men first bored this tunnel, their machines pierced the aquifer, letting rip torrents of hot water. The resulting 90-degree temps in the cavern were so onerous that the miners had to swallow sensors to monitor their heat stress. Now, the downpours have softened, cool air is blown in, and it’s not entirely unpleasant in this bizarre underworld near Superior.
This is shaft No. 10 – the beginnings of the planned Resolution Copper Mine. If all goes to plan, it will be the biggest copper mine in the U.S. It’s also the most controversial. And it’s at the core of Arizona’s complex copper story: a tale of money, power, success, danger, development and destruction.
Historically, copper was the greatest of the Five Cs, Arizona’s largest economic drivers.
The Copper State still produces 66 percent of the country’s copper, and mining has an approximately $4.4 billion annual impact on our state economy. But copper mining has changed dramatically since it fueled Arizona’s founding more than a century ago. In the next 100 years, booming international copper demand, advancing methods and environmental pitfalls will transform the state even more. To find out how, we have to go deeper.
Copper was forged billions of years ago in fiery exploding stars, which seeded space with elements that coalesced into Earth. About 55 million years ago, the Pacific tectonic plate plowed beneath the North American plate, triggering volcanic activity that churned up copper close enough to the surface to be reachable but not so close it eroded. Much of that magmatic Goldilocks Zone would eventually rest under Arizona. “Geologically, you can think of us being at the right place at the right time,” says Dr. Mary Poulton, director of the University of Arizona’s Interdisciplinary Institute for Mineral Resources.
In 19th century Arizona, prospectors first chased gold and silver, which could be unearthed with little more than pickaxes and pans. Copper was an afterthought – so little in demand, its ore had to be shipped to Wales, where the nearest smelter was located. Mining it wasn’t economically practical until a series of events literally electrified the world.
Copper is so malleable it can be pulled into wires and coiled. Scientists discovered that if you move a magnet through such a coil, called a solenoid, it generates electricity. And copper is so conductive it carries that electricity without heating up. In the mid-1800s, engineers began stringing telegraph cables across the Atlantic and the continents, connecting the world in a web of copper wires.
This sparked a copper bonanza in Arizona, where companies sank capital into roads, railroads, processing plants and the country’s first smelters. Mining towns like Bisbee, Jerome and Globe-Miami boomed. In 1910, copper production grossed more than $50 million, and one in four people in Arizona was a miner. The territory became the nation’s leading producer of copper.
Conditions in early mines were dismal. Miners did backbreaking work in tunnels lit by pale pools of light from a couple candles. Due to hazards like falling rocks, explosives and hauling accidents, copper mining had the highest death rate of any job in America.
But the companies were undeterred, given the immense profits generated by Arizona’s remarkable copper ore. (Rock that contains 2 percent copper is considered high-grade – at the time, ore in Arizona sat between 5 to 20 percent, slashing production costs.) When that low-hanging fruit was depleted around the time of World War I, companies turned to open pit mines to extract lower-grade ore. Then even the low-grade ore disappeared. Starting in the 1970s, many companies closed operations. The mining busts extracted the life out of towns like so much ore. The “Copper Triangle” southeast of Phoenix was hit particularly hard. Superior’s Magma Mine laid off 1,200 people in one day in 1982.
Meanwhile, copper demand was ever-increasing. As developing nations roll out electrical grids and grow their middle classes, they need more copper. Renewable energies such as solar and wind require more copper than traditional power. A Toyota Prius, for instance, uses about twice as much copper as a Cadillac Escalade.
Look around your home. What you can’t see – behind walls and inside cords – is about 439 pounds of copper. Everything from computers to cars, electric toothbrushes to the Large Hadron Collider, runs on copper. “Anything with an on/off switch has copper in it,” Poulton says. “Anything that has a motor uses copper. Copper is absolutely fundamental to the global economy.”
So companies continue chasing the metal. Arizona has 10 major working copper mines (the largest in Morenci and Ray), plus two in development. But these days, mining has changed dramatically.
Randy Seppala, project manager for the Resolution Copper venture, is a lifelong miner whose mustache is a dead-ringer for the gray A-shaped headframe above shaft No. 10. When he began mining decades ago, he wasn’t trained in safety. He didn’t have to wear the protective gear we’re donning today: overalls, steel-toed boots, hardhat, plastic glasses and a breathing device we’re taught to use if carbon monoxide fills the mine. Everything changed in the 1990s, he says. Now, the importance of safety is drilled into everyone constantly. The results are striking. In 1911, 883 miners died on the job in the U.S. (excluding coal miners). Last year, 17 died.
Conditions underground have improved so much that Seppala says, “I don’t get to go down as much as I’d like to… It’s like a lot of jobs – you get used to it, and you like it. Camaraderie is a big part of it. It’s really good people to work with.”
“Time flies when you’re underground,” says project engineer Rob Tobin, referring to the lack of circadian clues. “Before you know it, your day’s done and you feel like you accomplished something… Most people who start working underground, they don’t want to do anything else.”
Technology has also transformed mining. Mark Twain is credited with saying, “When there’s a gold rush, it’s a good time to be in the pick and shovel business.” Today, it’s a good time to be in the mining software business. Computer modeling predicts mine yield and engineering effects. Haul trucks and other equipment contain sensors that stream terabytes of data about efficiency and location. “We mine as much or more data as we do rock,” Poulton says, adding that some of the world’s best mining technology companies are based in Arizona. “Not only do we have world-class mines, but we are probably the technology hub of copper mining in the world.”
Cutting-edge technologies are also allowing companies to dig deeper and extract more elusive copper. But at what cost?
Rainy shaft No. 10 rests beside a sleeping giant: a 1.7-billion-ton, brain-shaped blob of rock veined with 1.5 percent copper. It’s the fourth largest deposit in the world.
Seppala points to one end of the cavern, where engineers plan to drive 60 kilometers of tunnels and use a method that has never been employed at this depth: block caving. Miners tunnel underneath the ore body, then blast funnel-shaped holes in the ceiling. Gravity pulls the crumbled rock down like seed in a bird feeder. It falls into conveyors that haul about 100,000 tons of rock out of the mine each day.
But there’s a consequence to pulling out the Earth’s stuffing: About five or 10 years after production starts, the ground above will begin to subside. Several decades from now, this cave-in will create a crater 1,000 feet deep and up to two miles long.
The copper deposit lies beneath the Tonto National Forest and a dramatic stone-scape called Oak Flat. The San Carlos Apache Tribe considers Oak Flat sacred. The area is a premier spot for rock-climbing and bouldering that has hosted national competitions. It’s a favorite spot for campers, hikers and birders.
President Dwight D. Eisenhower decreed Oak Flat off-limits to mining in 1955. For nearly 10 years, U.S. Senator John McCain tried to pass an act that would swap 2,400 acres including Oak Flat for 5,300 acres of conservation lands purchased by Resolution Copper (largely along the San Pedro River), thus freeing the company to mine. The bills all failed to pass in Congress. Then at the 11th hour, McCain and Senator Jeff Flake buried the land swap inside the 2015 federal military spending bill, secreting it away from public scrutiny like the Lost Dutchman’s Mine.
Now shaft No. 10 is in purgatory. Because the shaft sits on Resolution’s private property, the company was free to begin its construction pre-emptively – as a trial project to prove operational performance at this depth. But before the company can spend seven years constructing the copper-extracting part of the mine under National Forest land, the Forest Service must conduct an environmental assessment and seek public input – a process they anticipate will finish in 2020. However, a condition of McCain’s rider is that the Forest Service cannot prevent the mining; it can only advise mitigations.
At two public Forest Service meetings in March, several attendees stormed out once they realized this. The meetings were held to evaluate what to do with Resolution Mine’s tailings – 1.5 billion tons of dirt-like waste left over from mining. The company plans to pump the tailings into National Forest land between Superior and Queen Valley. The tailings’ storage area would eventually span 4,400 acres – roughly the size of six Arizona State University Tempe campuses.
At the meetings, attendees expressed concern that acid-forming chemicals and trace toxic heavy metals in the tailings might seep into the water table and blow through the air. Resolution’s project proposal says the tailings area was selected for its “very small permeability, which would limit tailings’ water seepage and potential for migration of tailings water,” though it acknowledges some areas are more permeable.
“There are lots of reasons to oppose this project,” says Curt Shannon, policy analyst for the Access Fund, a national organization that protects the rights of mountaineers and rock climbers. “It tramples on the religious rights of Native Americans. It will cause a huge amount of destruction to recreational areas that are used by climbers and others. The mine as planned would result in the largest loss of a climbing resource in the history of the United States. It will cause vast pollution to the air and to the water.”
Others argue there are lots of reasons to support the project. Resolution estimates it will create 3,700 jobs (1,400 jobs at the mine with an average salary of $75,000, plus 2,300 jobs from supporting industries) over the mine’s 64-year life, from construction to operation to reclamation. Over the same time period, the company projects the mine will have a $61 billion impact on Arizona’s economy and will generate $20 billion in tax revenue.
However, a 2013 report prepared for the San Carlos Apache tribe questions those impacts. The report estimates 71 percent of taxes would flow to the federal government, not to Arizona. It says Resolution’s projections are much too high because they don’t figure in copper’s rollercoaster prices, which have triggered about eight boom-bust cycles over the past century. Resolution acknowledges the impossibility of predicting prices, and its economic impact study says “a conservative approach to projecting revenues and employment impacts was utilized.”
The 2013 report also predicts many employees would work remotely or commute from the Valley, reducing benefits to the economically struggling Copper Triangle. Others worry that because Resolution is owned by Rio Tinto and BHP Billiton – British/Australian corporations – the profits and copper will go offshore. Resolution says its preference is to utilize copper smelters in Arizona and Utah first, but if and when production exceeds capacity, it will look abroad. Once smelted, the copper will go on the international market.
In addition, some question how much human power this mechanized mine will require. Resolution insists its mechanization does not replace jobs. “People fear technology takes jobs away,” says project director Andrew Lye. “Before I left Australia, we built one of these [mines], and we put automated equipment underground, and it didn’t change our labor force [numbers] at all. It changed the makeup of our labor force.”
That change in makeup is a shift toward white-collar work, which is occurring not only in mining but in most industries. The bulk of Resolution’s jobs – instrument technicians, electricians, mechanics – will require at least a two-year technical college degree. The mine will also employ engineers, geologists and biologists with advanced degrees, plus construction workers, administrators and IT employees. That’s a different skill spectrum than was seen at Superior’s Magma Mine, which closed in 1996. On the other hand, most miners who worked Magma will be retired by the time Resolution would start operations circa 2027.
“Our employees of the future are in elementary school right now,” says Melissa Rabago, Resolution’s community and social performance adviser. She says that’s one reason Resolution has partnered with area schools to sponsor STEM education, a robotics program, teacher training, new textbooks and scholarships in higher education. Resolution and Copper Triangle towns are working together to grow a qualified local workforce.
However, Superior’s residents and government “don’t want to put all their eggs in the mining basket ever again,” says Rabago, a native Superiorite who saw nearly all Main Street businesses get boarded up after Magma closed. “We learned the hard way. You can’t be just mining.”
Superior is trying to diversify into tourism centered on outdoor recreation. But recreation advocates worry the giant crater and toxic tailings pile will forever destroy the town’s ability to attract tourists. “After this mine closes,” Shannon says, “if it goes ahead the way it’s planned, it’s gone. It’s trashed. There’s no opportunity to diversify into anything else.”
Could recreation alone resurrect Superior? It hasn’t so far. The population is less than half of what it was during Magma’s heyday. Only a few businesses have opened on Main Street. People on both sides of the issue say that’s partly because the town is in limbo regarding mining.
There’s no question Superior has potential. Paint murals on its chipped and faded buildings, replace the boarded windows with OPEN signs, and it could be another Bisbee. Roy Chavez, a former miner and former mayor of Superior, believes this could happen – if Superior puts mining in its past. “While theoretically I support the industry, this particular project is so destructive for environmental concerns,” he says. “If we can move toward [tourism] it may be better for all of us because it will take care of the environment and provide probably more jobs.”
Chavez and mine opponents like Roger Featherstone, director of the Arizona Mine Reform Coalition, hope to stop the mine. This, Featherstone says, could be done through legislation such as a bill introduced by U.S. Rep. Raúl Grijalva, D-Tucson, that would reverse McCain’s rider, or through Dakota Access Pipeline-level protests that could lead the company to decide the multi-billion-dollar project isn’t worth it. “I don’t think Rio Tinto has factored in the calculus of what a pissed-off population here in Central Arizona can do.”
Not everyone in the area is pissed off. Resolution says recent polls revealed 83 percent of locals support the mine. Rabago says the company has endeared itself to the town through its school programs and a $50 million investment in cleaning up and reclaiming 130 acres of the Magma site. “With the mining company being here, the overall sentiment in the community is much more positive,” she says. “People are feeling more energetic. They want jobs. They want futures for their children.”
There are no easy answers when it comes to this copper mine, or any of the others in Arizona and the world. Every time you flip a light switch, drive to work or talk on the phone, you’re benefiting from holes dug somewhere in the Earth. Those pits come with pros and cons. Sometimes the benefits outweigh the costs; sometimes they don’t. To decide which scenario is which, you have to wrestle with consequences as charged and complex as the web of copper wires connecting the world.
There’s a lesson in shaft No. 10: When you delve deep into the copper issue, you can find yourself in hot water.
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