By Mila Besich Lira
Residents of the Copper Corridor are often reminded of the boom and bust of the Copper industry. They have seen their communities grow with thriving economies when mines were going strong, and they have seen the dwindle as the mines have shut down. That has been the case for the Town of Superior, the town itself has seen its share of challenges since 1982 when Magma Copper first shut down. Residents left Superior in hopes of new jobs outside of the community, that spurred a population decrease.
The community saw some relief when BHP re-opened the mine for a few years, but then once again there was a shut down. The bust seemed short lived after BHP and Rio Tinto announced in 1996 that they would partner to reopen the mine after they found the largest copper deposit to be found in the last 100 years. They would call the mine mine Resolution Copper.
Resolution Copper is 55 percent owned by Resolution Copper a Rio Tinto PLC subsidiary and BHP Copper owns 45 percent. The Resolution Copper project is expected to extract what is considered today to be the largest copper deposit in North America. This large deposit is 7,000 feet below the earths surface, and is considered to be the the largest undeveloped copper deposit in the world. To actually mine this deposit safely, the company needs approval of the Southeast Arizona Land Exchange through the United States Congress.
For over a decade the company and surrounding communities have lobbied Congress to approve the Southeast Arizona Land Exchange and Conservation Act, a bill which will remove the Oak Flats Campground, approximately 2,422 acres of the Tonto National Forest from Federal ownership, in exchange for this land the federal government will receive 5,344 acres of environmentally sensitive lands, which is currently owned by Resolution Copper. This year the land exchange legislation was introduced with bi-partisan support into the House of Representatives by Representative Ann Kirkpatrick from Congressional District 1 and Representative Paul Gosar from Congressional District 4. The bill moved rather swiftly through Congress despite continued opposition from environmental groups, climbers and Native American groups. H.R. 687 the Southeast Arizona Land Exchange and Conservation Act is slated for a vote in the House of Representatives on Thursday, September 26, 2013.
On November 30, 2012, Rio Tinto announced major budget scale-backs throughout their company, Resolution Copper was not exempt from those scale backs and the company was forced to lay off many employees and halt some of the development projects that were slated for 2013. Rio Tinto in their announcement cited that political uncertainty was a primary reason to cut the budget for the Resolution Copper project. Despite the scale-back the company has continued to move forward with educating the public on the project, moving the bill through Congress and completing the rehabilitation of the number 9 shaft and has kept some work focused on further exploratory work on the ore body.
The Resolution Copper mine will utilize much of the existing workings of the Magma Mine but will expand the mine to adapt new mining technologies to accommodate the depth and heat of the project. The mine will use a block cave mining method to extract the copper, this method will cause subsidence to the area. Opposition groups continue to advocate that the ore be extracted by the cut and fill method which was used in the Magma Mine operations.
During the Summer of 2013, Resolution Copper hosted a series of community forums to address concerns assuring the public that the project will not affect local water supplies, and that all aspects of the National Environmental Protection Acts policies would be followed. The forums also covered the economic impacts of the Town of Superior, the region and state. These forums were organized after the Town of Superior, pulled their unqualified support of the project in the early spring. The Town, claimed that their opposition came after members of the council became concerned about the environmental impacts.
The Resolution Copper project is expected to bring in $20 billion in tax revenues over the life of the project which is expected to be 40-60 years of operations. The project will create 3,700 direct, indirect and induced jobs and will pay $220.5 million in annual wages.
The company has stated that they will complete the mine plan of operations this year, once the mine plan of operations is complete and submitted to the Forest Service that will allow the Forest Service to begin a full NEPA on the project. Another challenge for the company this year was the sale of the BHP owned Pinto Valley mine to Capstone Mining, in the original plans for the mine, the tailings from Resolution Copper were going to be put into the open pit at Pinto Valley, these plans fell through when BHP announced that they expect the mine to continue operating, and then sold the mine to Capstone. Resolution Copper has set up a community advisory group to determine another site for the tailings and currently is finalizing those plans. The tailings site will need to be determined in order for the mine plan of operations to be completed and submitted.
Recent polling in Superior and the surrounding areas have shown that the project still has an 80 percent approval from the community members despite attempts by opposition groups to refute that support.