Florence Copper is not a traditional copper mine; faces steep opposition

Photo Aug 08, 11 52 23 AM.jpg

An injection site at Florence Copper.

By Mila Besich Lira

Copper Area News

Arizona’s economy was founded on the five C’s, climate, cattle, citrus, cotton and copper, and it is very true that the community of Florence has contributed at least four of the five C’s over the past 101 years of statehood. Sitting right in the Town of Florence is a copper mine, the fifth C in Arizona’s economy. Mining isn’t necessarily foreign to Florence, the community has several sand, rock, gravel and granite mines in the area however the community’s economic roots and history lie in government, corrections and ranching.

When one thinks of a copper mine, many may think to the mines of the past, slag piles, tailings and black smoke flowing into the sky from a smelter. Someone may envision huge dump trucks and massive holes in the ground, or maybe think of dark caverns where miners work in extreme heat in the depths of the earth. The copper mine is Florence is not your traditional copper mine, it isn’t even a mine of the future, in fact the operation does not fall under the Mine Safety Health Administrations regulations for a mine. The in-situ mine is monitored by the same environmental agencies such as the Federal Environmental Protection Agency and the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality as a traditional mine but is classified as a water treatment facility because the surface of the Earth is never broken. The Occupational Health and Safety Administration monitors the working conditions of the operation, because it not considered a mine.

The process of mining copper via the in-situ method is somewhat of a simple process, the company will use a series of wells to inject a water based solution into the ground to break up the minerals and extract the copper. The solution injected into the ore body is 99.5 percent water and .5 percent sulfuric acid. “It is the strength of household vinegar,” explained Loren Locher the communications director for Florence Copper. The solution breaks up the mineral and allows it be pumped to the surface through a continuous loop system. The in-situ method can be used for this particular mine due to the geology of the rock, it does not need to be blasted or crushed to retrieve the ore.

The continuous loop system also aids in the re-use of water and the wells will be constructed to protect the aquifers in the area to ensure there is no contamination of the water supply. “This project gives me no environmental heartburn,” Locher said. The company will be required to follow very strict guidelines and monitoring to ensure that environment and water supply will be protected. Unlike traditional mines, this type of in-situ mining operation will be reclaimed as the ore body is mined. Once the areas are completely mined the wells will be closed and the land will be revegetated to its native appearance. Traditional mines are required to reclaim their operations upon closure, leaving the areas blighted until mining no longer exists.

Florence Copper is an established Arizona corporation, and is an initiative of Curis Resources based in Canada. Currently the project is managed by a dozen Arizona residents, some of which live in the Florence – San Tan Valley region. These staff members have been responsible for managing and monitoring the project as the company has applied for their environmental permits to operate their test facility. Florence Copper officials reported earlier this month that they are one permit shy from operating the test facility on their property. That permit is the Underground Injection Control Permit which is approved by the Environmental Protection Agency. The company expects for the permit to be approved in early 2014. This final permit will allow the company to begin operating their phase one test facility for nine years on the 160 acres of State Trust Land that Florence Copper has the mineral rights to.

A recent economic study conducted by the L. William Seidman Research Institute at Arizona State University reported that the project will create 2.2 billion dollars in economic activity in the State of Arizona over the next 28 years. The project is expected to create 170 direct jobs in Florence with another 681 jobs being created throughout Arizona. Recently the company has joined Central Arizona Regional Economic Development Foundation and Arizona Forward, both groups have a mission of developing sustainable economic development. “We believe that our vision for the future is closely aligned with the missions of both Arizona Forward and CAREDF, and we are looking forward to being actively involved with these groups as they continue to grow and improve the Pinal County region,” explained Locher.

One of the only typical characteristics that Florence Copper has with a new or traditional mine is its ability to attract some kind of opposition. The Florence Copper Project has received opposition. Residents in the local area fear water contamination. They also fear that the project will have adverse affects on home values. The Florence Town Council voted to affect eminent domain on the property that is owned by Curis in the town limits. The town reports that they need access to that property to construct a new waste water treatment facility on that land. The town also contends that Curis purchased the property after the land no longer had a mine overlay allowed in the zoning code.

On Dec. 3, Florence Copper Inc. filed a Notice of Claim arising from the Town of Florence’s eminent domain action from earlier this year. The Notice of Claim values Florence Copper at $403 million, based on third-party valuation completed by Deloitte LLP, one of the world’s largest and most respected accounting and financial advisory firms.

State law requires parties that have been damaged by a government’s action to file a claim within 180 days of the harmful act. The Florence Town Council passed an ordinance last spring seeking to take nearly 1,200 acres of Florence Copper Inc.’s private land for “public facilities” including a proposed wastewater treatment facility. In October, the town filed a lawsuit in Pinal County to initiate the attempted taking of Florence Copper’s private property.

The Town of Florence remains committed to its opposition of the project in a recent press release. Jess Knudson, Florence assistant town manager, dismissed the notice of claim as grandstanding: “The whole point of the existing lawsuit is to determine whether Curis has any right to compensation, and, if so, in what amount. The only reason to file a $403 million notice of claim saying you have a right to compensation in that amount is to grab headlines.”

“We would like to continue to work diligently to develop a relationship with the Town of Florence, have a meaningful conversation, create a development agreement and go forward,” explained Locher “But, we cant get a dialog.”

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