Despite Promised Jobs, Desert Town Opposes Giant Copper Mine

Kari Lydersen

Roger Featherstone surveys federal land that Rio Tinto is seeking for its mine near Superior, Arizona.

As the first rays of dawn fall on the red rocks and turquoise lichen of Oak Flat camp­ground, locat­ed on the edge of the Ton­to Nation­al For­est in Ari­zona, no one stirs in the small tents and RVs arrayed below the scrub­by trees. The only move­ment comes from the hand­ful of white pick­up trucks mak­ing their way past the plateau en route to twin tow­ers strung with light­ing on the hill­side above.

These tow­ers are Shafts 9 and 10 of Res­o­lu­tion Cop­per, which could even­tu­al­ly be the largest cop­per mine in the coun­try. That is, if its own­er, the multi­na­tion­al cor­po­ra­tion Rio Tin­to, can con­vince the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment to let it mine beneath the camp­ground and sur­round­ing land.

Rio Tin­to is already doing explo­ration and build­ing infra­struc­ture for min­ing on land that the com­pa­ny owns in these rugged hills. But Rio Tin­to says the most valu­able part of the ore body lies below land owned by the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment. In 1955, Pres­i­dent Dwight D. Eisen­how­er pro­hib­it­ed min­ing in that area; Pres­i­dent Richard M. Nixon lat­er renewed the decree.

For a decade, Rio Tin­to has been push­ing leg­is­la­tion that would allow a land swap” to cir­cum­vent the ban. The com­pa­ny would gain con­trol of the 2,400 acres of gov­ern­ment-owned cop­per-rich land near Oak Flat; in exchange, Rio Tin­to would give the Ari­zona gov­ern­ment about 5,300 acres among var­i­ous parcels in oth­er parts of the state. The com­pa­ny has said that with­out the land swap, it wouldn’t be eco­nom­i­cal to mine at all.

Res­i­dents of Supe­ri­or, the small for­mer min­ing town five miles down­hill from Oak Flat, are firm­ly opposed to the new cop­per mine and to the land swap leg­is­la­tion. Supe­ri­or was built by min­ing — Shaft 9 was part of the Mag­ma Mine, an under­ground oper­a­tion where many Supe­ri­or res­i­dents worked until it closed in the ear­ly 1990s. The oth­er for­mer Mag­ma Mine shafts are defunct; Shaft 10 is a new one Rio Tin­to is con­struct­ing. Most peo­ple in this area sup­port min­ing as a con­cept, and many were dev­as­tat­ed when the Mag­ma Mine closed.

But many Supe­ri­or locals see Rio Tinto’s cur­rent plan as a very dif­fer­ent sto­ry. They are furi­ous that it would block pub­lic access to the beloved camp­ground of Oak Flat and that it will irrev­o­ca­bly alter the frag­ile high desert land. The mine would use a method called block cave min­ing that involves remov­ing a huge amount of ore and allow­ing the land to col­lapse in its stead, rather than fill­ing in the cav­i­ty or bol­ster­ing it with pil­lars. Ulti­mate­ly, this would leave a pit 2.5 miles in diam­e­ter and 1,000 feet deep where the large­ly pris­tine land­scape used to be.

While Supe­ri­or res­i­dents are strong­ly opposed to Rio Tinto’s plan, there is sig­nif­i­cant polit­i­cal sup­port for the mine from civic lead­ers in sur­round­ing towns and state elect­ed offi­cials. They point to the company’s claims that the mine would cre­ate 1,430 direct jobs, gen­er­at­ing $61.4 bil­lion in eco­nom­ic impact and $20 bil­lion in tax­es dur­ing its six-decade lifetime.

Local crit­ics argue, how­ev­er, that giv­en mod­ern min­ing meth­ods and employ­ment struc­tures, few of those jobs would go to Supe­ri­or res­i­dents them­selves; even few­er would be qual­i­ty posi­tions. For one thing, the work pre­vi­ous­ly done by indi­vid­ual min­ers would now be high­ly auto­mat­ed, as the com­pa­ny itself has tout­ed at its oth­er oper­a­tions. More­over, locals fear that the com­pa­ny would fill any non-mech­a­nized posi­tions with engi­neers from Rio Tinto’s oth­er sites and non-union sub­con­trac­tors — as the cor­po­ra­tion is already doing dur­ing the mine’s con­struc­tion and explo­ration phase.

A lot of local kids are doing the grunt work,” says Roy Chavez, for­mer Supe­ri­or may­or and town coun­cil mem­ber who now leads local oppo­si­tion to the mine. Rio Tin­to has no inten­tion of hir­ing [many] employ­ees; they’ll be using sub­con­trac­tors and temps. They are part-time employ­ees, they don’t have any rights, any perks, any ben­e­fits tied to Rio Tinto.”

This grunt work,” which Rio Tin­to has under­tak­en as part of pre­lim­i­nary con­struc­tion in the past few years, is just part of the company’s increased com­mit­ment to open­ing Res­o­lu­tion Cop­per as soon as possible.

Last fall the land swap” bill that would give Rio Tin­to access to the land it wants to mine was intro­duced in the House and the Sen­ate; after it was passed in a House com­mit­tee, U.S. Rep­re­sen­ta­tive Ben Ray Lujan (D‑NM), who oppos­es the mea­sure, insert­ed a poi­son pill” amend­ment into the mea­sure. Lujan’s addi­tion would have allowed the Inte­ri­or Sec­re­tary to remove from the deal any land con­sid­ered sacred by Native tribes. The Apache tribe whose reser­va­tion sits near­by con­sid­ers parts of the land Rio Tin­to wants to mine sacred, includ­ing a land­mark called Apache Leap. Hence, the amend­ment could pre­vent min­ing in the areas the com­pa­ny says are most cru­cial. The bill was revoked short­ly after Lujan’s amend­ment; it will like­ly be intro­duced again this year. In total, mem­bers of Con­gress, includ­ing U.S. Rep­re­sen­ta­tive Paul Gosar (R‑Ariz.) and Sen­a­tor John McCain (R‑Ariz.), have intro­duced sim­i­lar leg­is­la­tion 12 times.

Mean­while, in Supe­ri­or, for­mer min­ers, envi­ron­men­tal advo­cates, rock climbers and min­ing watch­dogs con­tin­ue fight­ing Res­o­lu­tion Copper’s expan­sion on a num­ber of fronts.

By 9 a.m. on a Sat­ur­day in ear­ly May, the campers at Oak Flat have risen. Some have head­ed out for hik­ing through the sur­round­ing bluffs or rid­ing ATVs on dirt roads. Oth­ers are prepar­ing for a fam­i­ly reunion at the camp­ground. This is God’s coun­try,” said an old­er man, who came ear­ly to get ready for the reunion. 

For three years, long-time envi­ron­men­tal activist and car­pen­ter Roger Feath­er­stone has been mak­ing month­ly vis­its to that so-called God’s coun­try” to check on the 10 cam­eras he has installed through­out the land Rio Tin­to wants to mine. The cam­eras, which save hun­dreds of images record­ed after motion sen­sors are acti­vat­ed, are mar­ket­ed to deer hunters look­ing to track their prey. But Feath­er­stone wants to use them to instead quan­ti­fy the way humans and ani­mals, poten­tial­ly includ­ing pro­tect­ed species, uti­lize the land that would be for­ev­er altered if Rio Tin­to gets its way.

So far, Featherstone’s cam­eras have cap­tured dozens of fox­es with bushy tails trot­ting by or gaz­ing inquis­i­tive­ly straight at the cam­era, sur­prised by its flash. He’s seen coa­t­imundis — exot­ic-look­ing mon­key-like desert ani­mals with long ringed tails — rab­bits, deer and sleek moun­tain lions. Plus, at some loca­tions, there are also hik­ers, sci­en­tists and off-road dri­vers. Though there have been reports of endan­gered ocelots seen in the area, Feath­er­stone has found no endan­gered species so far that would be grounds for a law­suit stop­ping the mine. Nonethe­less, he hopes the log of activ­i­ty helps con­vince leg­is­la­tors and oth­ers that this land is worth saving.

It’s clear that there’s a lot of four-legged, two-legged and four-wheel uses of Oak Flat,” and the sur­round­ing area, Feath­er­stone says. All of that stuff is more valu­able in the long term cer­tain­ly than destroy­ing it for the mine.”

Feath­er­stone is the Tuc­son-based founder and sole paid staff mem­ber of the Ari­zona Min­ing Reform Coali­tion, which keeps tabs on exist­ing and pro­posed mines across the state, includ­ing in the south­ern region known as the Cop­per Tri­an­gle” that includes the pro­posed Rio Tin­to mine. On his April trip a month before we meet, he dis­cov­ered that one of his cam­eras was water­logged and bro­ken — dur­ing heavy rains in ear­ly March, it was caught up in a swollen stream. Quick­ly flow­ing water also acti­vat­ed the motion sen­sors on sev­er­al oth­er cam­eras, leav­ing images that seem sur­re­al viewed lat­er when the gul­lies are bone-dry.

But spring rain­storms and sum­mer mon­soons notwith­stand­ing, this is a desert, and water is far from an unlim­it­ed resource, mak­ing it anoth­er cru­cial issue for Rio Tin­to. The pro­posed mine would use large amounts of water, and the shafts would have to be con­stant­ly de-watered. There is also a risk of pol­lut­ing aquifers or frac­tur­ing them, alter­ing the area’s hydrol­o­gy. Rio Tin­to offi­cials note that they have pur­chased future water rights under the Cen­tral Ari­zona Project canal sys­tem to cov­er their use, and that their stud­ies show no risk to the local aquifers. But Feath­er­stone and oth­er locals, includ­ing retirees in a neigh­bor­ing com­mu­ni­ty called Queen Creek, are not convinced.

The whole issue of buy­ing water cred­its to use 10 to 20 years in the future in a state like Ari­zona is just ludi­crous,” says Feath­er­stone. There’s no guar­an­tee how much water will be avail­able then, he points out, espe­cial­ly giv­en increas­ing droughts expect­ed with cli­mate change. Not only would there like­ly be a short­age of water for peo­ple, the ecosys­tem would just be ham­mered out there if the mine went in. Not nec­es­sar­i­ly even from water usage, just from the dewa­ter­ing they’d have to do to keep a mile-deep hole in the ground dry.”

The night before Featherstone’s jaunt check­ing cam­eras, he joined a gath­er­ing on for­mer may­or Chavez’s sister’s patio. The 15 or so peo­ple clus­tered around the bar­be­cue are mem­bers of the Con­cerned Cit­i­zens and Retired Min­ers Coali­tion, a local orga­ni­za­tion formed to oppose Rio Tinto’s plans.

Chavez knows the town well and every­body in it — he can’t walk through pop­u­lar local restau­rant Los Her­manos with­out greet­ing and chat­ting with some­one at each table. He also worked for years in the Mag­ma Mine. So he feels con­fi­dent, he says, in the knowl­edge that the new mine would be dev­as­tat­ing for the town.

As Chavez grilled hot dogs and ham­burg­ers for the small crowd, his sister’s four small dogs yap­ping around his feet, artist and writer Anna Jef­frey passed around a white binder full of pho­tos of Oak Flat camp­ground and the sur­round­ing area. It fea­tured shots from a recent boul­der climb­ing com­pe­ti­tion, includ­ing one of a man walk­ing on a high wire strung between two rock faces. The area Rio Tin­to wants to mine is extreme­ly pop­u­lar with rock climbers from around the region; they have also recent­ly joined the fight, some of them trav­el­ing to Wash­ing­ton, D.C. to tes­ti­fy against the min­ing plan.

Like most Supe­ri­or res­i­dents, Jef­frey grew up in the town and has count­less fond child­hood mem­o­ries of explor­ing the Oak Flat area. She still goes there con­stant­ly, espe­cial­ly a series of clear swim­ming holes where she throws a cloth over Featherstone’s cam­era before jump­ing in.

At the meet­ing, oth­er res­i­dents and for­mer min­ers lament­ed the pos­si­bil­i­ty that High­way 60 which runs through Supe­ri­or and up to the mine site, would like­ly be closed if the plan goes through, since land under the road could col­lapse. That would mean an alter­nate high­way would be built that wouldn’t go through Supe­ri­or, poten­tial­ly dev­as­tat­ing the town’s small businesses.

We’ll be a dead end — no one will get off the exit to come to Supe­ri­or,” said one retired min­er at Chavez’s meet­ing. The town will die.”

Feath­er­stone told the group about his recent trip to Lon­don, where he tes­ti­fied at the Rio Tin­to annu­al share­hold­ers’ meet­ing along with oppo­nents of Rio Tin­to oper­a­tions from West Papua and Mada­gas­car. Feath­er­stone said he intro­duced him­self to Rio Tin­to CEO Sam Walsh at the meet­ing, and he said Walsh indi­cat­ed he was eager to nego­ti­ate” with the mine opponents.

You come to town and want to take this place we love, and now you want us to nego­ti­ate the terms of our sur­ren­der?” Feath­er­stone said, speak­ing hypo­thet­i­cal­ly to Walsh and oth­er Rio Tin­to officials.

Chavez’s sis­ter Kim­ber­ley Lopez Byrd, whose patio played host to the meet­ing, has spent her whole life in min­ing com­mu­ni­ties. For three decades, she was a pub­lic school teacher in Hay­den — a tiny, impov­er­ished town 30 miles from Supe­ri­or where cop­per ore is milled — and in San Manuel, home to anoth­er for­mer mine that closed down when cop­per prices dropped, prompt­ing thou­sands of layoffs.

A few days before the Con­cerned Cit­i­zens cook­out, Lopez Byrd had tak­en a dri­ve through Hay­den and San Manuel. In the liv­ing room filled with fam­i­ly pho­tographs and memen­tos, she flipped through images on her iPad of the rem­nants of the San Manuel mine, which used the same block cave” method Res­o­lu­tion would: a vast area fenced off with signs warn­ing of dan­ger from unsta­ble” land.

She also took shots in Hay­den of the mas­sive piles of pow­dery waste rock, or tail­ings,” stored there from near­by min­ing oper­a­tions. If Rio Tin­to gets its way, there would also be a mas­sive tail­ings pile not far from Supe­ri­or, near the pop­u­lar Boyce Thomp­son arbore­tum. Lopez Byrd doc­u­ment­ed clouds of grit­ty tail­ings blow­ing in the wind near Hay­den; Supe­ri­or res­i­dents fear they could be exposed to air­borne tail­ings if Res­o­lu­tion Cop­per goes for­ward. The tail­ings them­selves are made up of tox­ic met­als, and fine dust of any type is known to cause seri­ous res­pi­ra­to­ry heath effects.

Sev­er­al days after their cook­out meet­ing, Feath­er­stone and Chavez head­ed to Alas­ka for a meet­ing of the West­ern Min­ing Action Net­work, a region­al coali­tion of non­prof­it orga­ni­za­tions and activists opposed to envi­ron­men­tal­ly destruc­tive min­ing. There, the two of them shared infor­ma­tion and strate­gies with peo­ple fight­ing mines in Alas­ka and oth­er parts of the Unit­ed States.

We talked about Rio Tin­to and did some orga­niz­ing across com­pa­ny lines,” says Feath­er­stone in a fol­low-up inter­view a few weeks lat­er. The com­pa­nies basi­cal­ly work off the same play­book for all the dif­fer­ent issues at all the mine sites. So it’s always good to com­pare notes.”

Over­all, Feath­er­stone and some of the oth­er res­i­dents think they may be win­ning the bat­tle against the mine. For years they have been demand­ing that Rio Tin­to pro­duce a Mine Plan of Oper­a­tions, a doc­u­ment required when a com­pa­ny mines on fed­er­al land. (Under the 1872 Min­ing Law which gov­erns hard rock min­ing, pri­vate com­pa­nies can extract min­er­als on pri­vate land with­out pay­ing for them.) Last fall Rio Tin­to did sub­mit a min­ing plan, and the U.S. For­est Ser­vice is cur­rent­ly review­ing it. The plan does not show min­ing in the banned area, but the com­pa­ny itself has made clear through their infra­struc­ture and leg­isla­tive efforts that min­ing there is their inten­tion. To that end, Feath­er­stone thinks the min­ing plan shows the com­pa­ny is disin­gen­u­ous­ly going through required motions with the expec­ta­tion they will even­tu­al­ly get their way.

Even though Oak Flat is with­drawn from min­ing, the min­ing plan clear­ly shows that half of it would be destroyed,” says Feath­er­stone. The com­pa­ny is plan­ning on destroy­ing an area that’s with­drawn from min­ing and think­ing they can get away with it.”

Regard­less of what the For­est Ser­vice deter­mines, oppo­nents hope the details in the min­ing plan, includ­ing the water use and extent of sub­si­dence, will ulti­mate­ly help them con­vince leg­is­la­tors not to pass the land swap bill. Mean­while, they’ll con­tin­ue work­ing to try to bol­ster the oth­er assets of Supe­ri­or and to cel­e­brate Oak Flat, so peo­ple from out­side the area will real­ize the town and the land are worth sav­ing. Events are fre­quent­ly held at Oak Flat, includ­ing rock climb­ing fes­ti­vals, East­er pic­nics, Boy Scout con­ver­gences and Apache com­ing-of-age cer­e­monies. For his part, Chavez is already gear­ing up for the Mex­i­can Inde­pen­dence Day cel­e­bra­tions to be held in town in mid-Sep­tem­ber, at which time vis­i­tors can camp at Oak Flat or stay at the his­toric, new­ly ren­o­vat­ed Mag­ma Mine hotel downtown.

There are things going on here,” said Chavez. The com­pa­ny tries to sell this idea that it’s the mine or noth­ing, it’s all about the mine. That’s what these com­pa­nies do all over the coun­try. But we can have a diverse econ­o­my. We can live with­out the mine.”

This sto­ry was sup­port­ed by a grant from the Fund for Envi­ron­men­tal Jour­nal­ism.

Kari Lyder­sen is a Chica­go-based reporter, author and jour­nal­ism instruc­tor, lead­ing the Social Jus­tice & Inves­tiga­tive spe­cial­iza­tion in the grad­u­ate pro­gram at North­west­ern Uni­ver­si­ty. She is the author of May­or 1%: Rahm Emanuel and the Rise of Chicago’s 99%.
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