By Stacy Gramazio
Manager of Communications & Public Affairs
Nearly 2,000 people have toured the Florence Copper property since 2011. Site tours are a high priority for our staff. This is not a typical copper project, and we recognize that there’s nothing like a first-hand visual experience to get a true understanding of how Florence Copper will operate once the permitting process is complete. Tour attendees visit an existing well field, examine core samples, and watch a demonstration model of the technology that will be used.
On tours, our guests get an understanding that this is “Mining without Impact”: There is no large open pit, no blasting, no tailing ponds – Nothing that you’d typically associate with a traditional mine. Although we are known locally as the Florence Copper Mine, it is more accurate to call us an in-situ copper recovery operation. This deposit lies in naturally shattered bedrock, which allows us to dissolve the copper in-situ, or “in place” without altering the ore deposit in any way.
Right now, the Florence Copper Project is in the advanced permitting stages for the initial phase of in-situ copper recovery (ISCR) operations. We often call this “Phase 1” or the “Production Test Facility.” The PTF will require approximately 40 employees. Essentially, it will be a pilot test facility that will operate for about one to two years.
Inevitably on tours we are asked, “Why does the project need to start with a test facility?” There’s a lot of enthusiasm and excitement about the benefits of this project for Florence once we enter “Phase 2,” or full commercial production. Yes, Florence Copper will create approximately 480 jobs for Pinal County and operate for 25 years during Phase 2. But the Phase 1 PTF is an important first step. Take a peek at some frequently asked questions about Phase 1 to learn why.
What is the PTF?
The Phase 1 Production Test Facility will be a pilot-scale demonstration of commercial ISCR operations. It will incorporate the drilling of 24 wells, the injection and recovery of ISCR solution, the manufacture of up to 99.999% pure copper cathode, and the observation and monitoring of groundwater quality and other environmental conditions. ADEQ, the state agency that regulates the PTF, issued a temporary Aquifer Protection Permit (APP) to Florence Copper on August 4, 2016. Florence Copper’s PTF also requires a final Underground Injection Control (UIC) permit from the EPA, the federal agency that regulates the project. We are hopeful we will reach this last milestone soon. When both state and federal permits are in hand, Florence Copper can begin construction of the test facility. The PTF will produce between 1 and 2 million pounds of copper cathode over 12-18 months of operation.
What are the main goals of the PTF and why is it necessary?
After careful consideration of the company’s options, the engineering staff at Florence Copper made the decision to start this in-situ copper recovery operation with the PTF. They recognized the importance of demonstrating that the project is environmentally sound and that it is in full compliance with the stringent permit conditions enforced by ADEQ and the EPA. Phase 1 will optimize the process used by previous property owner BHP Copper Inc. between 1997 and 1998 to recovery valuable copper minerals. It will also optimize and continuously improve best water management practices and new treatment technologies for commercial-scale operations.
How will ISCR work during the PTF?
ISCR for the pilot test will be similar to how Florence Copper will operate during Phase 2, but on a much smaller scale. Our team will drill and operate 24 wells on a well field that will occupy about two acres. The wells will inject and recover a water-based solution that is similar in pH to household vinegar from up to 1200 feet below the ground in the copper-bearing bedrock of the deposit. The injection and recovery wells are triple-cased with concrete seals between the casing materials to ensure that all ISCR solution is injected and recovered in the oxidized copper-bearing zone. Once the copper is fully dissolved underground, it is known as a Pregnant Leach Solution (PLS) and transported to be processed into large sheets of nearly pure copper called copper cathode.
What facilities will be constructed during the PTF?
In addition to the well field, we will build processing facilities and install equipment needed for Phase 1 and commercial-scale operations:
• Tanks for processing and managing ISCR solutions
• Water treatment tanks and equipment
• Storage and off-loading facilities
A highly engineered Solvent Extraction/Electrowinning (SX/EW) plant will also be constructed for the manufacture of up to 99.999% pure copper cathode. The majority of the jobs created by the project will be for the SX/EW.
What is Florence Copper doing to protect water quality during the PTF?
First and foremost, we will strictly abide by the stringent requirements of our permits issued by ADEQ and the EPA, in accordance with the law. To satisfy these permits, the project must demonstrate “hydraulic control” of ISCR solutions at all times. Triple-cased, concrete sealed wells will ensure that ISCR solution is injected and recovered in the copper-bearing zone only. Groundwater zones used for drinking or irrigation water will not be impacted.
What can residents expect to see when travelling Hunt Highway during the PTF?
The PTF will be low profile and low impact. Residents should not expect to notice any effects related to noise, light, or dust during construction or operations. One to two trucks per day will be necessary for delivering supplies to and transporting copper cathode from Florence Copper. Overall, the PTF – much like full commercial operations – leaves a very small environmental footprint as there is limited disturbance to the land.
When will the PTF finally start?
Our favorite question! We understand that local residents are anxious for hiring to begin and have been very patient. Permitting for an in-situ copper recovery project is a multi-year process. We always knew it would be a long process, but we too had hoped to bring the benefits of jobs, taxes and revenues, and overall economic impact to the area sooner. The receipt of the APP from ADEQ was a good milestone. We are confident that the EPA will finalize our UIC in the near future and we can begin construction at that time. The timeline for the permit’s issuance is up to the EPA and we cannot say exactly when the PTF can begin construction. Once the PTF is underway, we will start the permitting process for full-commercial operations – over the 25-year life of Florence Copper’s operations there will be 2.1 billion dollars in economic activities and 480 jobs generated for Pinal County. The future looks bright here in Florence – the PTF is just the first step on the road to more opportunities.
Often in the mining industry, a lot of acronyms are used. We know it can be confusing! Here’s a handy list with some key terminology often used to describe Florence Copper’s Phase 1.
ADEQ – Arizona Department of Environmental Quality. This is the state regulatory agency that issued a temporary Aquifer Protection Permit to Florence Copper.
APP – Aquifer Protection Permit. Florence Copper received a temporary APP from the state of Arizona in August of 2016.
EPA – Environmental Protection Agency. This is the federal regulatory agency that issued a draft Underground Protection Control permit to Florence Copper.
ISCR – In-situ Copper Recovery. In-situ is Latin for “in place.” Florence Copper is not a mine in the traditional sense, and we are not hauling the copper away from its natural area to extract it. The project will recover the copper “in-situ” using a series of water wells that extend a few feet out of the ground.
PLS – Pregnant Leach Solution. Once the copper is fully dissolved from deep in the bedrock, we call the solution a Pregnant Leach Solution. In other words, the water-based solution is now loaded with copper and ready to be transported for processing.
PTF – Production Test Facility. Florence Copper is in advanced permitting stages for a one to two-year pilot test facility. The purpose of this facility is to demonstrate to residents and the regulatory agencies that the copper will be recovered and processed using responsible technology.
SX/EW – Solvent Extraction/Electrowinning. SX/EW technology was developed in Arizona. Florence Copper will construct a highly engineered SX/EW plant to manufacture up to 99.999% pure copper cathode on site.
UIC – Underground Injection Control. The EPA issued a draft UIC permit to Florence Copper almost two years ago. The project is awaiting its final issuance, which is expected in the near future.