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 journalist, author and assistant professor at Northwestern University, where she leads the investigative specialization at the Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications. Her books include Mayor 1%: Rahm Emanuel and the Rise of Chicago’s 99%.

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