Boomerang Bust

More than 700 of the belly buttons in San Manuel are the handiwork of Dr. Robert Brower.

The 71-year-old staff physician has worked at the San Pedro River valley town's small hospital since 1961. It was called the Magma Copper Company Hospital until 1987, when TMC HealthCare bought it and rechristened it the San Manuel Healthcare Center.

Then Magma sold its copper mine to an Australian company in 1996, and that company has now shut the mine down, throwing 2,200 people out of work immediately -- and jeopardizing the future of the hospital where Robert Brower has worked for 38 years.

If the hospital does shut down, it would seem like an ideal opportunity for Brower to finally retire. He says the best thing about getting old is he gets to ski and fish for free. Retirement would give him time to do both.

He wants no part of it.

"I'm the last of the Mohicans," he says. "I could retire if I wanted to, but I like seeing patients. When I first got here, I asked the chief surgeon at the time how long the mine will be there. He said, 'Longer than you'll be alive.' I guess he was wrong."

Even if the mine were to reopen, Brower still might outlive it. He's Jack Palance with a stethoscope and smock. Before coming to San Manuel, Brower did his internship with the Army in Korea. He slept with a .45 strapped to his side.

But when he talks about what is happening to his town, it wears on him. He almost looks his age.

"It's been depressing to everyone in the community," says Brower. "These are my people. Miners are the backbone of America. They're good people. I've always enjoyed being with them. I grew up with them. My sons went to school with their sons and daughters.

"This will never be a ghost town. San Manuel is here to stay."

The small, unincorporated mining town of San Manuel used to be known for producing copper. No more. Faced with an extended global depression in copper prices, Australia's Broken Hill Proprietary Limited shut its mine in San Manuel on June 24.

The only thing coming out of San Manuel since then has been a bumper crop of rumors:

BHP will reopen the mine when the price of copper goes back up.

Phelps Dodge Corporation will buy BHP's San Manuel properties, consisting of the mine, smelter, refinery and rod plant.

PD already owns the mine and is keeping the purchase quiet. Once the miners and their families get hungry and desperate, PD will swoop in and play savior. For reduced wages, of course.

The union will buy the mine and run it.

There's bitter dissension in the union. When PD comes in, a broken union will buckle under the demands of the new owners.

The hospital will shut down. The nearest health-care facility will be almost an hour away in Tucson.

Riot police are mobilizing.

Everyone will board up the windows and abandon San Manuel.

All complete speculation. The people who know what will happen to the copper operation aren't talking. So the laid-off workers and the residents of San Manuel feast on rumor. They stand by for a decision that affects the fate of their town.

They take some solace in the knowledge that in July -- even after the layoffs -- BHP finished a $54 million upgrade of the San Manuel smelter. The flash furnace was rebuilt. Conveyor belts were improved. New and better air pollution control systems were installed. The smelter is the jewel of San Manuel's copper facilities. It's too nice to sit idle.

Unless BHP's asking price is exorbitant, it will be bought.

Only this much is certain: Friday, August 27, is D-Day. That's when BHP's 60-day severance package runs out. Workers who kept their families fed by toiling in the mine will humbly wait for unemployment checks from the government. Embarrassed faces will exchange food stamps for groceries at the check-out line.

The loud gulping coming from the northeast slope of the Santa Catalina Mountains is the sound of a town swallowing its pride.

The headquarters of the United Steelworkers of America, Local 937, is located a few miles from San Manuel in the town of Oracle.

At the union office, Richard Muñoz is on a rant. He'd worked at the San Manuel mine for almost 29 years before the layoff. He was three years from collecting his pension.

Manuel Medina, chair of the Mine Grievance Committee, patiently listens to Muñoz. Medina knows that Muñoz's anger isn't directed at him.

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Matthew Doig