Longform

What Do You Do After the Company Leaves?

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"There is hatred against us and it hurts," he says, "but I think we are a good citizen, contrary to a lot of opinion. You hear a lot of stuff, though they don't say it to your face. The feeling here was that we were never going to close, even after we closed. You don't know how traumatic it was for me to let those people go.

"We had made it through the Great Depression, through everything. Then I got the word to close it up. That hurt. But Magma's not different than any other mining company or any person, for that matter. We are dollar-conscious, and we reacted to economics. Doesn't everyone?"

Sure, agrees Superior's town manager, Tom Harris. Being philosophical comes easily to the 38-year-old Harris, a long-haired native of Virginia. He likes to quote Bobby Kennedy and Thomas Merton. But he's also a doer.

"What we have in Superior isn't Magma anymore," he says. "The reality of our situation is apparent. We'll either make it or we won't. We have clean air and proximity to Tucson and Phoenix. We can make this a quaint village-type atmosphere or maybe attract another, cleaner industry. The only thing we have left here is the air. Ultimately, that's going to be our salvation, not Magma."

It sounds goofy, but Harris may be right. Superior, once shrouded in smelter smoke, has clean air and a reasonable climate. Nearby is the lovely Boyce Thompson Southwestern Arboretum. And Superior is closer to east Mesa than downtown Phoenix is.

Property is cheap. In the past year, Tempe attorney Joe Clark has bought six buildings--old bars and a former Main Street department store--at bargain prices. Clark's plan, he told the locals, is to buy property that is "distressed," rehabilitate it and rent it.

"If we can just hold on, we'll be all right," Harris says. "Closing the mines took away this community's sense of identity. They're not real trusting of anyone anymore. Magma took so much out of this community. The biggest problem is that our best and brightest move on. Dollars talk. We're lucky to retain a social and political fabric at all. There's excessive negativism here. The initial response is, `It can't be done.' There's so much fear that things could get worse. But deep down, we know we'll survive. We're starting with the little things."

HARRIS HAD A BRAINSTORM a few months ago. For a time, he toyed with calling his idea the "John Lennon Peace Park." Then he decided to pitch it as the "Superior Peace Park." Last November, he convinced the town council to set it up at U.S. 60 and Main Street.

While they were at it, the councilmembers proclaimed Town Hall and the town itself as Arizona's first "Peace Sites." It's vague what it all means. But the local Veterans of Foreign Wars post got behind it after the council dedicated the sites "to the memory of the people of Superior who lost their lives fighting to preserve peace." In the spirit of glasnost--and hopefully some publicity--the council also sent a copy of its peace resolution to Soviet boss Mikhail Gorbachev.

For now, the Superior Peace Park is just a patch of ground with a flagpole in the middle. Harris informed media in Phoenix and Tucson about the new park's November 12 dedication; no one showed up for it. But Superiorites have their own reason for liking it.

"It's the first thing that's ours," says Manuel Ruiz, Superior's mayor and long- time high school boys' basketball coach. "It wasn't Magma's. It wasn't the state's. It's ours. It's kind of enlightening to do something and complete it in two weeks. It gives me a feeling that we don't strike out every time on everything."

VICE MAYOR MIKE URQUIYO glares at the state bureaucrat and says: "No one tells us anything. For all practical purposes, we're here and that's it. We've heard everything from atomic waste to God knows what. You know how rumors are. We want to know what's going on."

The packed house of fifty or so at the Superior Town Council's regular meeting wants to know about the Tailings Project: eighty truckloads of cyanide-laced scrap metal on its way from Apache Junction to Superior.

Town manager Harris bounces his six- year-old son on his lap and takes his turn. "I have some real concerns," Harris tells the bureaucrat, Ty Canez of the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ), "that the Magma Copper Company will see this as an alternative process, that Superior will end up as a dumping ground for hazardous wastes."

Magma planned to treat the three-and-a-half million pounds of metal at its old mill and dump the dross--supposedly rendered harmless by then--into an area near the company's existing tailings piles and waste ponds on the north edge of town.

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Paul Rubin
Contact: Paul Rubin