Special to Copper Area News
What does a century’s worth of mining activity do to a landscape?
David Lira, a lifetime Superior resident, knows firsthand the impacts a booming mine has on a community and the families that call it home.
“If it wasn’t for the mine there would’ve never been a Superior,” he said. “With the mine come the jobs and all the people who make it their living. And that also brings the disadvantages mining has on the land,” he said. “But that’s what mining is.”
Superior lies in the heart of the historic Pioneer Mining District, nestled between the border of Tonto National Forest and the red cliffs of Apache Leap. Its saguaro, arroyos and barrel cactus-covered hills are dotted with the remnants of more than a century-worth of legacy mining endeavors.
Lira was the quintessential jack-of-all-trades when it came to mining; he spent 47 years in the business. A mechanic and welder by trade, he worked as a maintenance supervisor at the mill under Magma Copper Company and for a brief stint, served as Superior community liaison for BHP Billiton.
He was on the front lines the day in 1990 when heavy rains caused Magma’s #3 and #4 tailings north of town to fail and the sand-like material breached low-laying properties between Pinal Street and the company fence line.
“When that happened, every underground miner had to come up and start shoveling tails off people’s property,” he remembers. As part of his job, he had to individually survey and test more than 120 affected private parcels for traces of metals and contaminants.
“Before then, we [Magma] never had an environmental person. Improvements to the monitoring system were implemented by the company around the late 80s,” he says.
To many lifetime Superiorites the acres of waste-rock piles, process ponds and tailings impoundments to the north of town are as familiar a landmark as Picket Post Mountain to the west.
To Resolution Copper Mining these legacy mining remnants are part of the extensive cleanup the company pledges to accomplish before commencing operations on the proposed mine at Oak Flat, explains Casey McKeon, environmental manager at Resolution Copper. Reclamation and cleanup work is especially important to McKeon; she moved to Superior to work on the project and wants to see her town thriving and healthy.
“Resolution Copper plans to be part of the community for decades. We want our presence to contribute to a better future, which is why we remain dedicated to reclamation work and to permitting and building a modern mine that is safe and a showcase of environmental stewardship,” she said.
To date, Resolution Copper has spent more than two-thirds of a $50 million reclamation budget and plans to clean up about 1,500 acres of previously affected lands near Superior. The company will simultaneously do reclamation work as it progresses exploration, engineering and environmental studies.
“Our focus for the future is to continue rehabilitating the West Plant site north of town until the job is done, and the majority of that cleanup work is being completed by local contractors such as CRC [Copper Resource Contracting], Albo Guzman Trucking and Superior Environmental Solutions,” said McKeon.
Lira has high expectations for the future of Superior. He’s hopeful that future will include many lifelong careers at Resolution Copper for Superior’s youth. The project is expected to create 3,700 American job – 1,400 of those working directly for and at the mine. The mine will generate $1 billion annually in economic benefits for Arizona, and create more than $19 billion in federal, state and local tax revenue over its lifetime.
Staggering economic figures aside, for Lira, it all comes down to staying true to one’s roots.
“When Resolution gets going, and I hope they do, they need to take a good look at the community,” he says with conviction. “They need to hire locally as much as possible… and just respect the hometown.”
He has an ally in McKeon. “We all have family and friends who call Superior home,” she says. “We want it to prosper. We share a sense of pride in the community. Our investment in and commitment to proper land rehabilitation is one way we have of demonstrating that pride.”