Payson Ponders Support For Massive Copper Mine

Apaches, environmentalists oppose $11 billion mine near Superior, which could satisfy 20 percent of nation’s

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A foreign mining company wants to drill an $11 billion copper mine next to Superior — and maybe trash some beautiful scenery in the process.

Should Payson care?

The Payson Town Council has already passed a resolution supporting the massive Resolution Copper Mine, which could generate about 2,600 jobs in the depressed mining towns of Globe, Superior and Miami, while injecting tax money into Gila County’s coffers.

On Thursday the council will decide whether to take the next step by joining an alliance of towns backing the vast new copper mine.

Advocates say the mine will boost the economy at an acceptable environmental cost. The company has already spent nearly $300 million on the project. Tests suggest a 1.3-billion-ton mass of copper ore lies 7,000 feet beneath the scenic vistas of Apache Leap and Oak Flat Campground.

The company wants to drill a series of shafts beneath the buried rock, which contains about 1.5 percent copper ore. Automatic operations would then essentially drop the ore down into ore cars, which would shuttle the rock out of the tunnels.

This expensive approach to drilling far underground would avoid the huge, open pit scars left by surface mining, like those that now dominate the landscape around those mining communities. However, the creation of a huge underground cavern could cause subsidence at the surface.

As a result, the mining operation more than a mile beneath the surface could affect the boulder-strewn landscape beloved by rock climbers and a jagged volcanic cliff considered sacred by several Apache groups, which have tried to block the proposed project.

Moreover, environmental critics have opposed the project on the grounds that processing the ore removed from the tunnels to separate out the traces of copper could destroy nearby streams and risk spills of sulfuric acid and other toxic waste.

The Groundwater Awareness League maintains the tailings from the project will generate enough rock to cover 2,389 acres to the depth of a 20-story building.

Moreover, groundwater pumping to service the project could dry up local streams, most of which run seasonally, but also sustain year-round pools critical to wildlife.

However, the recession has undercut opposition to the project in the past two years, especially in the hard-hit Globe-Miami area.

The company estimates the mine will employ 1,100 people directly by the time it starts producing in 2020 and double that total indirectly. If the ore mass proves as rich as preliminary tests suggest, it could eventually satisfy 20 percent of the nation’s copper needs annually.

Although copper prices have dropped 60 percent in the past year, projections suggest the world will run short of copper once recession yields to renewed growth. The world will need an estimated 200,000 tons of additional copper annually over the next decades, according to projections presented last month at a meeting of the world’s copper producers.

Unfortunately, many of the world’s most accessible copper deposits have already been tapped, forcing mining companies to develop new, usually more expensive methods of extracting the ore, which remains vital to a host of industrial uses.

Resolution Copper Mining, owned mostly by British and Australian companies, has been working on getting approval for its massive mine for years.

The company needed about 2,600 acres on the surface to stage its operations, including the popular Oak Creek Campground. The company assembled about 5,500 acres elsewhere in the state to swap for the needed land.

The effort hit a snag when then-Congressman Rick Renzi was accused of trying to manipulate the land exchange to benefit a business partner. Those charges stalled the exchange and ultimately resulted in Renzi’s indictment on corruption charges. He has not yet been tried, but has maintained his innocence.

Moreover, the San Carlos Apache Tribe and others have repeatedly filed actions to try to block the mine. The tribe holds sacred Apache Leap overlooking the Boyce Thompson Arboretum, although it is far from the reservation boundary.

Legend has it that a band of Apache warriors leaped from the cliff rather than let themselves be captured by a pursuing cavalry force. However, no firm documentation exists of that incident and such acts of deliberate suicide would have been almost unheard of among Apache warriors.

After years of delay, the project appears poised to move forward, with a new land exchange bill backed by Arizona Senators John McCain and Jon Kyl making its way through Congress.

As a result, advocates for the mine are working to enlist broad support in the region — even here in Payson.

If the council decides to support the Copper Communities Alliance, Payson would join Gila County, Globe, Miami, Hayden, Winkelman, Pinal County, Superior, Kearny, Florence and Gold Canyon in support of the project.

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