100 years of copper mining industry abuse alienates public

Copper mining was one of the famous “:5 c’s” of Arizona’s economy, along with cotton, cattle, climate and citrus.

Depending on how you look at things, Arizona was blessed or cursed with a lot of copper deposits.

Copper has grown increasingly important for its use in renewable energy systems and electronics. Our modern civilization would not be possible without copper.

So one would think the proposal being made by Rosemont to open up another copper mine near Tucson would be greeted with enthusiasm because of all the jobs and economic benefits a copper mine creates. Nope. Supporting Rosemont today is sort of like arguing for amnesty for illegal aliens already in the United States.

While it is still an important part of the state’s economy, the historic conduct of the copper mining industry in the state has turned this sector into a pariah.

There are four basic problems with how the copper mining industry has conducted itself in the state: labor, water pollution, water use and giant ugly tailings piles. That’s in addition to the giant holes they leave behind.

bisbeedeportationLabor: One attribute of the copper mining industry has been brutal battles between mining corporations and their workers. Arizona is infamous for the Bisbee Deportation. In 1917 over a thousand members of the International Workers of the World (IWW or “Wobblies”) union and anyone who looked like a Wobbly were loaded into box cars and hauled off to New Mexico by a vigilante mob. The role of the mine owner—Phelps Dodge—in the deportation remains a hotly disputed item to this day. [Note: one should remember this event in light of current rabid public opinion supporting deportation of 12 million illegal aliens].

Battles between management and labor continued well into the 20th century with the clear goal on the part of mining companies to destroy the unions that represented mine workers. In one strike the National Guard was called out in 1983 to crush the miners.

For anyone not familiar with the fight between mine workers and their corporate masters, rent the movie Salt of the Earth from Casa Video on East Speedway or buy it on line. This was the strike in Silver City, New Mexico where the wives and daughters of the striking miners held the picket line. I have met some of the descendents of those strikers who live in our area.

In the old days, unionized copper mine workers were a potent political force in the state, aligned with the Democratic Party. While the copper industry achieved the ability to screw its workers with the destruction of the unions, the mining industry lost any political support for their industry from those same workers.

There are lots of ex-mine worker union members around, who haven’t forgotten how badly they and their families were treated by the mining industry.

Water pollution: Water pollution has been another black eye for the copper mining industry in the state. There is a sulphate plume coming out from under the tailings piles in Green Valley that have taken years to get any kind of agreement to mitigate it from the responsible copper mining companies. Just as the industry fought its workers, the industry has fought tooth and nail against environmental regulations and remediation, claiming they can’t compete in the world market against countries that don’t care about worker wages or environmental issues.

Water use: Copper mines use enormous amounts of water, and they are not required to replenish groundwater that they pump. They got major exemptions in the 1980 Groundwater Management Act that allow them to pump without any mitigation. That law also allows new permits to be issued to mine groundwater without any replenishment requirement or mitigation on the drawing down of local aquifers.

Rosemont is actually trying to be a positive solution to Green Valley water issues.

Freeport continues to mine groundwater in Green Valley for its operation at a rate 4 or 5 times what Rosemont proposes, and Freeport is doing nothing to replenish the groundwater they pump. You’d think Freeport would be working with Rosemont in its efforts to get a second CAP recharge project going in Green Valley. I am not seeing this happening.

Besides leaving a big hole in the ground and a big pile of waste rock dominating the skyline, Freeport is digging a giant hole in our aquifer. When they’re done, we are all stuck with the consequences.

minecountry6Ugly tailings piles: The fourth issue are the spectacularly ugly tailings piles created by the copper mining industry all over the state.

The massive piles of tailings west of Green Valley scream at people and remind them of the destructive character of mining.

The thing about copper mine tailing piles is they were deliberately constructed to look unnatural. It is like the engineers who design the tailings piles want to send a message as far as the horizon that says “screw you”. The tailings piles are monuments to an industry focused on profits and little else.

For decades it has been possible to construct tailings piles with natural slopes and revegetate them.

At the time the mines west of Green Valley were approved, there were no requirements to make the tailings piles look natural and revegetate them. It could have been done, but it would have cost the mining companies more money, meaning less profits. The tailings piles west of Green Valley exist so shareholders in the mining companies could get more money and the mine executives could get bigger salaries.

It is only fairly recently that copper mining companies in the United States are being required to create natural looking tailings piles.

mines 050 copyOne of the things Tucsonans value is their horizons….which are “commons” to us all. The typical Tucsonan sees the situation this way: anyone who messes with our horizons is committing an unspeakable criminal act against Nature.

That value structure runs head on into the mining industry’s goal of maximizing profits without a care about the destruction of the commons…our horizons.

minecountry5Right now the tailings piles west of Green Valley continue to grow truck load by truck load of waste rock.

Add to this a lot of problems with managing the tailings piles west of Green Valley. It seems every time the wind blows out of the southwest, clouds of dust from the tailings piles blow over Green Valley and Sahaurita. Pima County’s air quality enforcement folks can cite the mining company that is responsible, and rant and rave, but it seems when push comes to shove, and there’s a wind storm, the tailings piles blow again.

Bottom line is the copper mining industry has not been a good neighbor to Tucson and Green Valley.

And on top of their environmental issues, the mining industry is always looking out for ways to weasel out of paying state property taxes to support the schools the miners’ kids go to.

Rosemont’s campaign for approval of its mine attempts to address the problems the other mining companies have created in the region…they plan to create more natural looking tailing piles (which will not be visible from Green Valley as many believe), they are mitigating their water related impacts, they are trying to replenish the water they pump in Green Valley with a new CAP recharge project, and they are arguing the jobs they create are important for our economy.

The problem for them is no one believes a word they are saying because the mining industry in Arizona has a record of 100 years of abuse here.

And no one trusts the government to hold Rosemont’s feet to the fire on the promises being made.
Will the US federal government have the cojones to make sure the conditions of any permit they might grant to Rosemont will be vigorously enforced?

Americans want cells phones and hybrid cars and all the other goodies that require copper, but Americans wants the ugly mess of mining done in Chile or China or somewhere else they will never see. The heck with natural resource independence if we’re going to have to deal with more of the same crap we’ve experienced from the mining industry for the last 100 years. Americans would rather risk being held hostage by China than to have another copper mine in this country.

Opponents to the Rosemont project complain about the copper being taken to China or Chile or India to smelt….and why is that happening? No smelter capacity inside the US to process their ore. If you think proposing a copper mine can stir up a storm of opposition, imagine someone showing up and suggesting a new copper smelter be constructed in the United States.

So the opposition to Rosemont is not so much specific to that company…which is actually trying to do things better than what was done in the past….it is opposition to mining in general.

One of these days the other mining companies that continue to operate in Arizona and expect to continue mining need to wake up, and recognize that an extractive industry in an urban area is really problematic.

Arizona’s existing mining companies need to do a heck of a lot more for their workers and for the environment than they have been willing to do in the past.

mines 040Every day the tailings piles west of Green Valley grow a little bigger.

Of course the industry continues to argue they can’t compete in the world market if they have to mitigate their negative impacts. So should we lower our standards to Chile or China? Or should we enact tariffs on imported copper that eliminate the competitive advantage foreign mines have in paying cheap wages and avoiding mitigation of environmental problems?

Our national policy is basically to import the negative externalities of our natural resource needs to other countries so we can continue to have cheap stuff.

All the pretty brochures we got in the mail and the television ads saying what a good deal a new mine really is will not overcome a century of abuse by Arizona’s mining industry.

This may explain why virtually no one in Southern Arizona is willing to work with Rosemont to come up with a mitigation plan that would allow that mine to go forward.

Lets take one example—obviously Rosemont will trash about 6 square miles of land for their project. If this were a master planned community project, Pima County and others would be busy making deals to get public benefits from the project. In the case of Rosemont, one would expect the County to be demanding the mine buy at least 6 square miles of prime habitat to replace what would be lost. Not happening. Why? Because Pima is willing to spend huge amounts of money to block the mine rather than negotiate. That is one of the legacies of the problems the region has faced from dealing with the other mining companies.

Even though Rosemont is doing everything possible to eliminate any negative consequence of its project on Green Valley…solving water problems for example…the opposition in that area is relentless. Many Green Valley residents believe Rosemont will create another massive tailings pile mess in the Santa Ritas that they will be able to see from their homes…when in fact the mine is on the other side of the mountain range and no tailings piles will be visible from Green Valley. Truth is not getting in the way of people’s visceral reaction against the mining industry. Green Valley people just have to look west to see how the mining industry has treated their environment.

The fact that many Green Valley residents see Rosemont’s 6,000 acre feet of proposed groundwater pumping as a greater threat to their future than FICO’s 28,000 acre feet of groundwater pumping   says a lot. It is apparently ok to blow off nearly 5 times the groundwater for pecan trees than for copper mining.

Maybe Rosemont’s arguments would have more credibility if the other mining companies operating around the area started acting responsibly. The first tangible step would be for Freeport to join in on the Rosemont CAP recharge project and agree to replenish all the groundwater they pump for their mine. Another positive step would be for the mines west of Green Valley to agree to reconstruct their tailings piles so that a more natural horizon would be created.

Since those mines don’t have to recharge CAP water or reconstruct their tailings piles one assumes they will refuse to do this because “it costs too much”. There is no local jurisdiction with any authgority to force the existing mines to replenish their groundwater pumping or reconstruct their tailings piles. So this frustration with the status quo is being vented on Rosemont.

Actually, I kind of suspect the other mining companies want Rosemont to fail, because by Rosemont promising to do what the other mining companies have refused to do, Rosemont is making it pretty clear the degree to which the other mines are really screwing us.

And, instead of trying to run Rosemont out of Pima County, I suggest local leaders ought to do everything possible to help Rosemont create a 21st century responsible mining project, and then use the precedents achieved with Rosemont to shove them down the throats of the other mining companies in the county that continue to operate like this was the 19th century.


About Hugh Holub

Attorney and writer.
This entry was posted in economy, environment, hugh holub and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

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