Miners, foes fight over project near Superior - East Valley Tribune: Business

Miners, foes fight over project near Superior

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Posted: Sunday, December 7, 2008 12:49 am | Updated: 9:44 pm, Fri Oct 7, 2011.

 Hit by the declining price of copper and slowing demand for the metal, Resolution Copper Co. is throttling back development of a huge and controversial mine near Superior.

VIDEO: Sierra Club voices concerns over mine development

VIDEO: Take a tour of the Resolution mine near Superior

 Hit by the declining price of copper and slowing demand for the metal, Resolution Copper Co. is throttling back development of a huge and controversial mine near Superior.

But company officials still say they’re maintaining a long-term commitment to the underground project, which could cost billions of dollars to develop before it opens in 2020.

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“We take a long-term view,” said Chief Executive David Salisbury. “The price of copper could rise and fall many times between now and 2020, so we’re not overly concerned about the price of copper today.”

Still, Salisbury said the company will be cutting back the number of contract employees working at the site. The exact number has not been determined, but it will be greater than 50, he said.

As a result, development work at the mine will slow down, he said.

Resolution, which is a joint venture of international mining giants Rio Tinto PLC and BHP Billiton Ltd., supports a total of 419 jobs, of which 349 are employed by subcontractors. Roughly 110 of the company and contract employees live in the East Valley, according to company figures.

Subcontractors are doing much of the construction work at the site, including drilling a $1 billion exploratory shaft, which is scheduled to reach 7,000 feet below the surface in four years and will determine the feasibility of developing the entire mine.

Click for full version
Resolution copper mine near Superior Map by Scott Kirchhofer / East Valley Tribune

Resolution officials believe they have found one of the world’s largest untapped copper deposits, potentially supplying 20 percent of the nation’s copper needs for at least five decades. But its great depth makes it difficult and expensive to extract.

Once developed, the mine would provide 1,400 jobs and inject nearly $800 million into the state’s economy each year. Resolution officials say it’s potentially one of the largest single development projects ever in Arizona, and so far they have spent about $300 million in pre-feasibility work. But the project has drawn intense criticism from environmentalists, rock climbers and Native American tribes, who believe it will damage the scenic landscape near the Apache Leap cliffs and other traditional tribal homelands. The company concedes there could be land subsidence resulting from the block cave mining method planned for the site, although the extent of the damage is unknown.

That opposition has so far prevented passage in Congress of a federal government land exchange that Resolution says it needs to develop the mine. All of the activity so far has been on private land, but the company wants 3,025 acres of adjoining federal land in the Tonto National Forest to complete the project.

The property being sought includes the 746-acre Oak Flats campground, from which mining was banned by a presidential order signed by Dwight Eisenhower in 1955.

Resolution officials said that restriction would be lifted if they obtain title to the land.

Resolution has proposed giving the federal government more than 5,000 acres of “environmentally sensitive” land that it has acquired in Arizona in exchange for the land it needs for the mine. The company also has made various commitments to protect the environment around Superior. But continued opposition has prevented the land-exchange bill from passing Congress every year since it was first introduced in 2005.

Salisbury said the company will push again for passage in 2009 if no action is taken in the current lame-duck session.

“We are ready to invest several billion dollars and create thousands of jobs,” he said. “We see this project as an opportunity for economic stimulus at no cost to the government.”

He added the company has “a high level of confidence” the project is feasible “or we wouldn’t be spending a billion dollars in preparation.”

OPPONENTS SEE FLAWS

But the environmental protections offered so far by the company are insufficient, said Sandy Bahr, conservation outreach director for the Sierra Club’s Grand Canyon chapter. She called the version of the bill currently before Congress “a joke” and “a huge rip-off of the public.”

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There is no way to determine if the value of the land being offered by the company is comparable to the land it is seeking, she said. Also, the bill provides only “minimal” payment of royalties to the public for the copper production that would result, she said. And the bill doesn’t call for a detailed study of the environmental impact on the scenic surroundings until after the exchange takes place rather than before, she said.

“This land has been protected from mining for 50 years, and we should not give it up easily. It is too hard to get those kinds of areas protected,” she said.

As for the economic benefits, Bahr said they would be only temporary.

“There is a boom and bust effect that goes with mining. If you have a town that is so focused on a single activity, it can be really devastating, not to mention the environmental and health effects,” she said.

“Long-term sustainability is important. This project doesn’t cut it from that perspective.”

NATIVE AMERICAN CONCERNS

In testimony before the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources earlier this year, Shan Lewis, president of the Inter Tribal Council of Arizona, focused on the danger of the collapse of the land surface in an area “of unique cultural, spiritual and archeological significance to American Indian tribes in the region.”

In addition to the threat of destruction to Oak Flats and Apache Leap, the mine could damage Devil’s Canyon, through which U.S. 60 runs east of Superior, Lewis said.

“This land and its environmental beauty and resources are national treasures. There are times that our government should just say 'no,’ and this is one of them. This type of mining in this location should not occur.”

MINER RESPONDS

Salisbury said the company so far has not been able to open a discussion with the tribes about what the company could do to mitigate their concerns. He said Resolution plans to hire a Native American representative on its staff to try to build a relationship with the tribes.

Among the actions taken by the company to try to reduce the environmental impact is construction of a water treatment plant to treat runoff from the site that might be contaminated and treat water from a flooded existing shaft left over from previous mining.

The treated water would be used to irrigate farms southeast of Queen Creek. And the company has been allowing access by rock climbers into the area because the mine is near a popular rock-climbing spot. But attempts to create a new state park for rock climbers away from the mine site have collapsed under the weight of the state’s budget crisis.

As for the potential damage to Apache Leap, Salisbury said the company’s shaft and surface operations are located between the ore body and the cliffs. Any collapse of the cliffs would also destroy the company’s infrastructure, which couldn’t be allowed to happen, he said.

ELECTION IMPACT

The fate of the land-swap bill could be influenced by the makeup of the new Congress. Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Tucson, a critic of the legislation, could be tapped by President-elect Barack Obama to be Secretary of the Interior, a move that would take him out of the process in Congress.

However, he still could lobby members regarding the bill.

Ann Kirkpatrick, D-Flagstaff, whose congressional district includes the mine site, is replacing Republican Rick Renzi, who chose not to run for re-election and who is charged with trying to arrange the land exchange to benefit himself and a partner.

Kirkpatrick indicated in a written statement she would support an exchange if environmental and tribal concerns are addressed.

“I’ll continue to meet with supporters and opponents of the … exchange in order to thoroughly weigh all their positions,” she said. “At the end of the day, I believe that it’s very important that we find agreement so we can continue to move forward on this critical project.”

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