A Copper Mine Near Superior and Oak Flat Campground Is Set to Destroy a Unique, Sacred Recreation Area — for Fleeting Benefits

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Ramon Lopez Jr. remembers when Pinal Avenue in Superior was lined with shops and restaurants, but almost no trace of that old prosperity remains. The street is quiet on a recent weekday. A bakery in a rustic building sometimes is open, but on this day it's closed. Lopez's shop, Leo's, a historic general store with an attached stucco-finished home and carport, is open for business — barely.

It was his father's shop, but Ramon Lopez Sr. died a year and a half ago in the adjacent home. His father had owned the store since 1948; it was built 20 years before that. Superior used to live up to its name before turning into a sleepy, economically broken mining town.

Three cans of shaving cream sit on one shelf, a few packs of gum on another. Besides various sundries and convenience-store goods, Leo's has a deli in the back that specializes in chorizo.

Lopez Jr., a former bank manager for 31 years, dumped his retirement savings into the store to save it from closing after his dad died. He grew up in Superior and, like many residents, moved away.

Now that he's back, he says, "I'm just trying to keep on with my dad's legacy. My bookkeeper says I can work it."

He and many other residents hope business picks up because of the mine over the next few years and decades.

"We need help," he says.

While suburban towns just minutes to the west flourished, Superior remained depressed after Magma Copper closed in 1982. Driving from Central Phoenix to Superior takes about as long as driving to Surprise or Fountain Hills, but these communities and the cultures they represent are new.

Superior is an old town filled with decrepit buildings. Neighborhoods on its north side border a mountain of mining waste. Resolution Copper helps maintain the trenches between the homes and the heaps of waste that prevent toxins from streaming into the community when it rains. Many view Superior as a place to pass through on U.S. 60 on the way to the White Mountains.

Yet the town has incredible potential both to residents and to visitors, with or without the mine. Its proximity to metro Phoenix is a huge advantage compared to other Copper Triangle towns such as Kearny, Mammoth, or Miami. Despite the scars and tailings from past mining activity, the giant, rusted mining equipment and historic mining-company buildings are picturesque. The tall, sheer cliffs of Apache Leap east of town loom like the walls of a fantasy novel's fortress.

Superior's mining history, as in Jerome or Bisbee, has been an attraction to certain visitors even as it has left the town steeped in what appeared, until RCM came along, to be a dead culture.

South of U.S. 60, not far from Boyce Thompson Arboretum, dramatic Picketpost Mountain rises to 4,377 feet. The vanished mining town of Pinal City once existed in its foothills near the modern arboretum. It was a bustling place that focused on the rich Silver King mine and attracted the likes of Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday. Nearby, a smaller settlement grew up around the smaller Silver Queen mine. That settlement turned into Superior — named after the Great Lake by Michigan expatriates — and the Silver Queen turned out to be even richer in copper.

Magma Copper, also known as the Magma Mine Company, provided good-paying jobs for decades and helped support Arizona's economy. As all Arizona students used to learn, copper is one of the fabled "Five Cs" that drive the state's economy. Signs of mining in Arizona might not always be obvious, but they're everywhere — like in the name of the world-famous Arboretum, which was started by Magma Copper's top mining engineer, Boyce Thompson.

Then came the mine's closure in 1982. Hundreds were laid off, stores closed, people moved away. Residents recall that the town all but died practically overnight.

What history shows, says Roy Chavez, a former Superior mayor and anti-mine activist, is that mining can't help the town become economically sustainable.

A good example of mining's fleeting benefits came in 1989, when he was mayor, Chavez says.

That's the year Magma's copper mine reopened, employing 400 people and producing "as much or more" copper than before. But the techniques used were more advanced, which meant fewer miners — and fewer locals — were needed. Then as now, Chavez notes, mining was lauded as the savior of Superior.

Instead, "there was no increase in state-shared revenue, because student enrollment dropped," he says. Superior didn't receive revenue from the miners' employment taxes because the mine operated outside town boundaries. Sales tax from bar and restaurant activity increased until the mine shut down again in 1996 after BHP's acquisition of Magma Copper, but the town remained poor.

Chavez describes how he tried as mayor to build up the outdoor-recreation potential of the area by encouraging development of hiking trails. The goal was to provide a long-term revenue source for the town that embraces nature rather than ravages it.

"I said, 'Let's look at eco-tourism,'" he says. "We have to back away from mining mentality." It didn't work.

At lunch at La Serna on Pinal Avenue, one of the few eateries in town, Dave Richins, spokesman for RCM and a Mesa city councilman, is smug.

"We don't care what you write. It's okay if it's slanted," he tells New Times.

He explains that the company feels it must obtain social license to operate in the community, which includes granting interviews and giving tours to various media organizations. Richins makes a good spokesman for RCM — he's nearly unflappable, a die-hard proponent of the company, and holds himself out as a quasi-environmentalist with a deep love for the state.

Growing up in Thatcher, he and his family sometimes camped at Oak Flat on pilgrimages to the Mormon Temple in Mesa, he says. He worked on issues related to the planned RCM mine while employed at the Sonoran Institute, a nonprofit conservation group, before joining the company.

"We're not a big, evil corporation," Richins says. "Rio Tinto is the top of the shelf. I wouldn't work for just anyone."

RCM has done much for Superior already, he insists. For instance, he points to a $50 million reclamation project in which vegetation is planted on mine tailings north of town, making them more stable and less an eyesore. He and other company officials — whom the firm didn't want quoted for this article — are good at selling the project.

With about 100 mines in the region, the Superior area is "where you want projects like this go," Richins says. "The infrastructure [for mining] already is here. People work for mines for multiple generations. It's in their blood."

Richins argues that the "panel cave" method to be used for the RCM mine is far less destructive that the open-pit method used at Ray Mine near Kearny.

The typically cheaper open-pit method was rejected, he says, because too much earth would have had to be removed. The ore body under Oak Flat is about a mile underground.

A slick RCM video shows the mind-boggling scale of the expected operation: From a depth of 7,000 feet, where the temperature runs up to 175 degrees Farenheit, a network of tunnels is to extend under the ore body like a giant ant farm. High-tech miners, aided by cooling stations, are to make funnel-like cracks in the earth above them and harvest ore in a gravity-induced system of controlled cave-ins. Once chunks of ore fall through these funnels, the miners below are to move it onto trucks, then on a mine railway through a tunnel to RCM property a few feet from Superior's town limits.

From a high hill east of Apache Leap, RCM built a 145-foot-tall tall steel A-frame structure in 2009 that subsequently was used to drill a new shaft for the seemingly inevitable mine. Using a high-tech 160-ton multi-drill digging apparatus suspended from the A-frame, a shaft just shy of 7,000 feet was completed in November. A pebble thrown off the edge would take 20 seconds to hit bottom. RCM plans to build four more shafts just like it.

A second A-frame built 40 years ago by Magma Copper stands next to the new one, and the existing shaft beneath it also is getting extended to 7,000 feet. As RCM officials gave a quick above-ground tour of the place, the older shaft vented a shimmering column of air. Visitors could take in a view of the area to be destroyed from a small wooden platform decorated with graphics of the shafts and logos of RCM's 35 local business partners.

Of the project's fascinating factoids, one stands out: The ore body beneath Oak Flat roughly is the size of Picketpost Mountain, which is more massive than Camelback Mountain and has a higher prominence.

The company aims to remove essentially the entire ore body in the next few decades, which is why the surface above the mine will collapse and leave the crater-like "subsidence zone."

Nobody's sure of the exact dimensions, but an RCM map shows the crater will gobble up a portion of the existing Oak Flat campground on one side, and on the other, it will come to within 1,500 feet of the east side of the Apache Leap formation. Native Americans want to ensure the protection of the Leap, which some believe was the site where 80 Apache warriors jumped to their deaths in 1870 to avoid capture by the U.S. Army.

An estimated 1.6 billion tons of ore sit under Oak Flat. RCM plans to pull out 110,000 to 160,000 tons a day. The ore is to be crushed on RCM property near Superior and the tailings taken by rail to the dumping site. Smelting is to occur at a Rio Tinto facility in Utah unless Arizona smelters now in use by other companies free up.

Site approval for the tailings hasn't been finalized. RCM's plans include spreading rubble over "brown-field" sites (patches of Sonoran Desert that already have been disturbed by farming or other human activities) northeast of Queen Valley, an unincorporated community near the Superstition Mountains. The tailings plan, under review by the U.S. Forest Service, has been a sore point for members of the Queen Valley Homeowner's Association, who worry about toxins from the mine's waste products contaminating Queen Creek, from which the community draws its water.

The tailings will be an eyesore visible from miles away, requiring mitigation and maintenance for many years.

Members of the San Carlos Apache Indian Reservation also worry that toxic chemicals will leach from the mine into their groundwater supply.

Richins and RCM brush off concerns about the potential for out-of-control environmental disasters, even as they acknowledge the physical damage that will be wrought. The mine won't poison the state's water or foul its air, they insist.

As the text of the Southeast Arizona Land Exchange and Conservation Act shows, RCM will give up title to areas from southern Arizona to Cave Creek that need protection from development. But because the land getting traded away by RCM is environmentally sensitive, it's no sacrifice for a mining company. The company would face impossible hurdles if it tried to excavate such acreage, which includes sections of the delicate Clear Creek wilderness and the threatened San Pedro River.

"We could never earn a social license to operate there," Richins acknowledges.

Richins argues that Arizona will benefit plenty from the mine, even if the state doesn't receive a direct cut of the profits, as it does with Indian gaming.

Yet despite Richins' assurances about the RCM project, mining in Arizona has caused its share of catastrophes.

News archives contain abundant records of unexpected toxic spills and dumps related to Arizona mines. In 1998, for example, BHP was one of three companies ordered to pay $100 million because of a toxic plume in Pinal Creek near Globe. The problem was caused by a century of mining. But as New Times reported, BHP caused a blowout of toxic material at nearby Pinto Creek after piling debris on top of old tailings, a move called "stupid" by the state's mining director ("Cleaning the Creek," May 7, 1998).

Kennecott Exploration, a Rio Tinto property that has done work on the Resolution ore body, was sued in 2011 over the release of toxic levels of metals in a well and stream near the Flambeau copper mine in Wisconsin that occurred more than a decade after operations there stopped in 1997. Before the discovery of high levels of copper and zinc in water supplies, Flambeau had been called a model mine.

As an April 2014 article in the Engineering and Mining Journal describes, workers drilling RCM's 7,000-foot shaft hit a large subterranean water source at 4,000 feet that consultants had missed in geological surveys.

Let's hope nothing major has been overlooked by RCM's experts in planning for the Oak Flat mine.

Environmentalists like Amy Harwood, one of several activists who drove from Tucson to Superior on March 25 for a U.S. Forest Service presentation related to the mine, see zero justification for the Resolution project.

"[It] infringes on my right to public land," she says.

Display boards with photos and information are set up around the auditorium of Superior Junior/Senior High School. Three company officials are on hand to answer the public's questions. About two dozen people show up during the two-hour, open-house presentation.

Daisy Kinsey of the U.S. Forest Service talks to the Tucson anti-mining activists about the agency's finding that RCM's planned exploration of the possible tailings site (including road building and drilling) later this year will have minimal impact. But the agency can't say just how bad the environmental impact of the tailings will be because the mining company hasn't finalized its decision on where the waste will go.

"It's frustrating," she tells New Times a few minutes later.

As for RCM's planned mine, the Forest Service intends to try to mitigate effects to environmental resources, she says. She agrees with a common complaint of critics that the General Mining Act of 1872 means the Forest Service has no discretion over whether RCM moves forward.

The preliminary review is part of the greater National Environmental Policy Act analysis on the project that will be conducted as part of the swap deal. It will result in a final impact statement in two or three years that calculates damage. The full process hasn't started yet — that will come after RCM gets initial approval for drilling and road-building on swapped land it soon will own.

Unlike in the NEPA process that has held up the Rosemont Copper Mine near Tucson for eight years, terms of the land exchange state that RCM will receive title to its desired 2,344 acres 60 days after publication of the final impact statement. There's no provision for halting that transfer based on anything found by the environmental review, a fact decried by critics.

Colette Bos, a geology and environmental science teacher at Central Arizona College in Coolidge, isn't one of those critics. A former mining geologist, she leans toward mining, she says. The Gold Canyon resident says she's at the March 25 meeting so she can better inform her students about RCM's plans. She believes the company and Superior will have a mutually beneficial relationship for many years.

Roy Chavez suddenly appears wearing the same "No 1872 Mining Law" pin on the baseball cap he wore earlier that week at Oak Flat campground. He intrudes on Bos' conversation, standing close to the shorter woman and forcing her to look up at him. He appears agitated.

"Who pays your salary?" he demands. She doesn't shy away, explaining that the college pays her salary. But she acknowledges a little later that RCM "pays for kids' books" at the college.

Polls have shown support by Superior residents as high as 80 percent for RCM's project. Residents interviewed by New Times generally support the mine, with caveats.

In 2013, the town council voted to withdraw support for the land-exchange bill. But "there's never been any division in the council with the mine," says John Tameron, a Superior councilman and owner of Los Hermanos, one of the largest of the hamlet's few restaurant-bars. "We're all in favor of it."

Financial negotiations with the mine continue among council members in non-public executive sessions, he says. Tameron says he looks forward to the mine for its likely boost to businesses. But he thinks a different method of mining should be used, one that stuffs tunnels and prevents land from subsiding. He's got concerns about the "tailings dump," and he's skeptical of the mining company's employment claims.

Town attorney Steve Cooper says Superior's expected economic benefit from the mine will be diluted because it must share with the rest of the state — all while, he notes, Superior and Pinal County absorb all environmental risks.

Cooper says RCM had been paying Superior up to $200,000 a year, which has been "appreciated but is not a fair exchange for the mine and the impact on the surrounding environment and what they leave behind after the mine is closed."

One option that's been discussed is a mining tax. Superior and other Arizona mining towns once enjoyed a tax of one-tenth of 1 percent on Magma Copper, which had a "drill-and-fill" operation that actually ran underneath part of the town. Since RCM's headquarters is just north of town limits, Superior can't levy its tax on the company.

RCM, benefactor to the town though it may be, refuses to pay it.

The San Carlos Apaches funded their own economic study in 2013. Conducted by Power Consulting of Missoula, Montana, it found the mine's supposed benefits highly exaggerated. Most of the earnings will flow out of Superior and out of Arizona, the study maintains. Mine production is subject to fluctuations and may be unreliable, and tax revenues shared with communities statewide will be modest in the Copper Triangle, the study states.

As for average Arizonans, "our conclusion is that no, they aren't going to notice this," says Donovan Power, one of the firm's researchers.

The Pollack study didn't subtract such probable negative factors as future cleanups, public services such as roads and schools for the employees' children, and the mine's massive yearly water usage (estimated to be nearly half the amount used annually by the city of Tempe), he says.

No doubt the mine will bring some benefit, but it will be dispersed from the local area, Power says.

The Phoenix Bouldering Contest was a big deal for rock climbers, though it never drew much mainstream attention despite the annual presence at Oak Flat of thousands of climbers and spectators.

For 14 years, it was the largest outdoor rock-climbing competition in the world, operating partially on land owned by RCM. The mile-long subsidence crater from the future mine nearly is centered on what is shown on maps of the contest area.

"It's very sad to hear that the battle to save Oak Flat is ending this way, with the mining company winning only to exploit and destroy the area for profit," world-renowned climber Lisa Rands, who won the PBC in 2003, tells New Times. "It always felt a bit magical to turn onto the road and see the refreshing water in the flowing creeks, the oak mini-forest offering shade from the sun, and, of course, the climbers' playground full of boulders and cliffs."

The mining project may have hastened the event's demise, causing friction between climbers and event sponsors. On a web post in 2011, Marty Karabin, a noted local climber and guide-map author, wrote that the mining company's eventual sponsorship of the event did not sit well with others involved with the competition.

The event's sponsors threatened to pull their funding in response, and the Arizona Mountaineering Club threatened to withhold 100 volunteers, he wrote.

Jim Waugh, the competition's founder, agrees that RCM partly was to blame, though he says it's possible the contest sponsors used the mine as an excuse to pull their support. In any case, Waugh — the driving force behind the event — held the last contest in 2003 and took a job for the Asian X-Games in Thailand.?On March 21, the Queen Creek Boulder Comp held its second annual event at Oak Flat, hoping to revive the popularity of Waugh's contest.

Scottsdale resident Zach Levy, 16, was among several dozen competitors that day. He says he's "sad and pissed and angry" that the area seems destined to be destroyed.

"I used to come here when I was a little kid," says the lanky teen. "It's not fair they can do that to the land. And it's sacred."

The land will be available to climbers, as usual, for the next several years. RCM says it will keep Oak Flat campground open as long as possible.

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Ray Stern has worked as a newspaper reporter in Arizona for more than two decades. He's won numerous awards for his reporting, including the Arizona Press Club's Don Bolles Award for Investigative Journalism.