Sunday, February 25, 2007

Mining in Arizona – A Tale of Two Counties

The Congressional field hearing in Tucson yesterday on the proposed Rosemont copper mine in the Santa Rita Mountains and the 1872 Mining Law, demonstrated two strongly divergent views on mining in Arizona. Arizona is the #1 mining state in the nation for the past two years but now may become a national battleground over the future of mining on public lands.

At yesterday’s hearing, Jamie Sturgis from Augusta Resources, the Canadian owner of the Rosemont property, projected total production over the next 20 years at 500 million pounds of copper (roughly 5% of the total U.S. production), 100 million pounds of molybdenum, and 100 million pounds of silver. He expects the mine to pay $1.8 billion in federal taxes and a large amount in state taxes. It will employ 400 with another 700 indirect jobs expected.

However, in response to the Rosemont proposal and other proposed mines in the area, Pima County which includes Tucson, wants all public lands to be off limits to mining. In a December 11, 2006 memo to Pima County supervisors, County Administrator Chuck Huckleberry wrote that mineral extraction is “without benefit” to the local economy. In fact, Pima County officials see mining as an overall negative on the economy due to environmental impacts, the concern that if commodity prices drop, miners could be laid off and put on public assistance, and the loss of jobs when the deposit is mined out in the classic style of other boom-bust mining cycles in the West. Other critics of the Rosemont mine argue that new jobs will go to outsiders and the locals will be relegated to “a few truck-driving jobs.” Huckleberry noted that while mining contributed 15% to the county’s economy in 1970, today that value is below 1%.

Huckleberry and others made the argument that no mining operation in the county has ever been fully and adequately mitigated, leaving the county and citizens stuck with the consequences, both environmental and economic. He stated that the impacts from the Rosemont mine in all likelihood cannot be mitigated. Pima County sees tourism as a mainstay of its economic and fears that mining will harm its reputation and attractiveness to visitors.

Other top public concerns were listed as water quantity and quality, road safety with increased truck traffic, and the visual impacts.

Contrast that with nearby Graham County, where 90 miles northwest of Tucson, the new Safford copper mine is being welcomed by the community as an economic savior, according to a recent article in the Arizona Daily Star (2-18-07). Copper production from the mine is expected to start in 2008 from what will be the first major new U.S. copper mine in 30 years, according to the Star. Phelps Dodge is making a $550 million investment in the new mine. Safford officials report sales tax revenues already up 30% last year and 23% in recent months as construction of the copper mine moves forward. Businesses report a doubling of sales and numbers of employees. Mine workers will earn an average $40,000, considerably above the county median income of about $30,000.

The Star reported that two years ago the Safford had only one residential building permit issued, while presently there are more than 2,000 residential units being planned or built.

There is grumbling about housing costs going up in Stafford as the present mine work force of 600 increases to 1,000 later this year, and about how hard it is to find workers for local businesses when the mine is paying such high wages. Traffic jams are a problem for the first time in Safford. However, even those complaining see greater benefits to the community from the mine.

So, these two counties are not just 90 miles apart. They are on opposite sides of a fundamental view of the West. For Graham County, mining is seen as the future. For Pima County, it is seen as the past.

1 comment:

  1. C.M. Houts2:43 PM

    The Upper Peninsula of Michigan is currently dealing with the same issue. The Kennecott Eagle Project application is currently under review by the DEQ. The opponents are using the exact same arguments here that are being used down there. Despite a conscientious effort to meet every regulation and offer reasonable solutions for every concern, the response is a shrill rehashing of the same anti-mining canard that has been used for decades. I have read the Eagle Project proposal, studied the environmental impact reports, and I believe that they are making a good faith effort to minimize their footprint. It doesn't matter though, noone else seems to want to bother to understand the details. They just accept the extremist accusations and rally to the cause.