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Arizona looks to make a penny on copper industry

Remaining rock from Copper Queen mine in Bisbee, Ariz. on Sept. 11. Bisbee’s Copper Queen mine produced a significant amount of the state’s copper until production shut down in 1975. (Photographed by Leah Gilchrist)

Copper’s value is on the rise, and equipped with new mining technology, Arizona has a promising future in producing the nation’s copper.

The value of copper hit $3.20 in mid 2014, before taking a dive to $2.50 in early 2015. It took a significant dip into an all time low of $1.60 in 2016. Now, copper value is rising again, passing $3 for the first time since 2014, according to the NASDAQ stock exchange.

Arizona produces 65 percent of the nation’s copper, leading the copper industry in the U.S. As mining continues to become economically feasible, new mine sites have been proposed across the state.

New technology for mining had made the production process more sustainable after the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency set the Clean Air Act into place in 1970 and the Clean Water Act in 1972. 

“We better hope it’s very sustainable, because mining is in the foundation of society,” said Brad Ross, the Co-director of the Lowell Institute for Mineral Resources.

Ross said technology to pull copper from the ground is always changing and improving as new technology is created. Copper has become a staple not only in its consumption, but also as a source for jobs and the economics of the state.

“We use the most up-to-date technology, and control on technology helps sustainability.” Ross said, describing methods modern technology used to keep environmental impact low.  

Ross said technology developed for mining today helps keep dust down to keep the air clean, and keeps water clean through checking for water contaminants. 

There are five proposed copper mining sites in Arizona, including the Resolution Copper Project, Rosemont Copper, Florence Copper, Gunnison Copper and Mineral Park Copper Mine on the way, according to Suzanne Kinney from the Arizona Mining Association.  

Mining companies have faced the challenge statewide of producing copper without doing significant damage to the environment around the site.

Save the Scenic Santa Ritas is a non-profit organization, which assembled in 1996 to protect the scenic area on and around the Santa Rita mountains. The proposed Rosemont mine has challenged the group because of the environmental impact it would have on the region.

“It would be a regional disaster,” said Gayle Hartmann, the president of Save the Scenic Santa Ritas.

Hartmann said the new mine would impact clean water, air quality, local economics and traffic.

The organization is against the proposed Rosemont mine, and has worked with members of the community to ensure education and awareness is spread on potential harm the project might cause.

“The damage is permanent.” Hartmann said, “We as human beings need to learn to coexist with our environment.”

Hartmann said Save the Scenic Santa Ritas is working to educate members of the surrounding communities of the harm mining can cause to the environment.

The Florence Copper Project, a Florence based copper mining project, is using new technology in-situ copper recovery in order to preserve the environment above the bedrock. The company is looking to tap into copper in the Historic Copper Corridor in Arizona.

The project is in permitting stages and will then enter a 1 to 2 year testing process.

“What makes us unique is we do this in-situ copper recovery,” said Stacy Gramazio, the Manager of Communications for Florence Copper.

The process will leave very little environmental damage when the mining wells are removed. The in-situ recovery method digs beneath the bedrock and injects a solution, which dissolves the copper and allows it to be pulled up through the ground.

This method will allow the company to recover 55 million pounds of copper a year the first six years of the project and 85 million pounds of copper a year the final 14 years of the project. The project is expected to last around 25 years, following passing regulation and a testing period.

The Florence Copper Project is expected to create over 700 direct and indirect jobs in Arizona, with 480 jobs directly related to the mine. The Florence Copper Project is expected to bring a $3.4 billion in economic uplift to the state, with $2.1 billion economic uplift to Pinal County.  

According to Kinney, the hard rock mining industry has created 31,800 jobs in the state, with 12,000 directly related to the mines. In 2014, mining brought a total economic impact of $4.29 billion.

While mining is deeply rooted in the history of Arizona, it won’t be returning to any of the historic mining boomtowns any time soon. The proposed mining sites are new sites built with new technology to pull untapped copper.

“There’s a very slim possibility.” said Carrie Gustavson, the director of the Bisbee Mining and Historical Museum.

In many of the towns in the southeastern region that originally supported the state’s copper mining, there are now environmental reclamation processes taking place to recover the environment after years of practice that was not sustainable.

“There’s a huge difference between the mining we see now and the mining we saw 100 years ago.” Gustavson said.

Bisbee, home to the Copper Queen mine, was built on mining copper. The mine that served as the foundation of the town shut down in 1975, and is now used for tourism and education

Leah Gilchrist is a reporter for Arizona Sonora News, a service from the School of Journalism with the University of Arizona. Contact her at leahgilchrist@email.arizona.edu.

Click here for a Word version of this story and high resolution photos.

One Comment

  1. hardly an all time low…..

    “It took a significant dip into an all time low of $1.60 in 2016.”

    still an insightful article…. and a good update on whats going on in the Copper State.

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