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Roger Featherstone

Despite Promised Jobs, Desert Town Opposes Giant Copper Mine

By Kari Lydersen - In These Times, June 11, 2014

Disclaimer: The views expressed here are not the official position of the IWW (or even the IWW’s EUC) and do not necessarily represent the views of anyone but the author’s.

As the first rays of dawn fall on the red rocks and turquoise lichen of Oak Flat campground, located on the edge of the Tonto National Forest in Arizona, no one stirs in the small tents and RVs arrayed below the scrubby trees. The only movement comes from the handful of white pickup trucks making their way past the plateau en route to twin towers strung with lighting on the hillside above.

These towers are Shafts 9 and 10 of Resolution Copper, which could eventually be the largest copper mine in the country. That is, if its owner, the multinational corporation Rio Tinto, can convince the federal government to let it mine beneath the campground and surrounding land.

Rio Tinto is already doing exploration and building infrastructure for mining on land that the company owns in these rugged hills. But Rio Tinto says the most valuable part of the ore body lies below land owned by the federal government. In 1955, President Dwight D. Eisenhower prohibited mining in that area; President Richard M. Nixon later renewed the decree.

For a decade, Rio Tinto has been pushing legislation that would allow a “land swap” to circumvent the ban. The company would gain control of the 2,400 acres of government-owned copper-rich land near Oak Flat; in exchange, Rio Tinto would give the Arizona government about 5,300 acres among various parcels in other parts of the state. The company has said that without the land swap, it wouldn’t be economical to mine at all.

Residents of Superior, the small former mining town five miles downhill from Oak Flat, are firmly opposed to the new copper mine and to the land swap legislation. Superior was built by mining—Shaft 9 was part of the Magma Mine, an underground operation where many Superior residents worked until it closed in the early 1990s. The other former Magma Mine shafts are defunct; Shaft 10 is a new one Rio Tinto is constructing. Most people in this area support mining as a concept, and many were devastated when the Magma Mine closed.

But many Superior locals see Rio Tinto’s current plan as a very different story. They are furious that it would block public access to the beloved campground of Oak Flat and that it will irrevocably alter the fragile high desert land. The mine would use a method called block cave mining that involves removing a huge amount of ore and allowing the land to collapse in its stead, rather than filling in the cavity or bolstering it with pillars. Ultimately, this would leave a pit 2.5 miles in diameter and 1,000 feet deep where the largely pristine landscape used to be.

The Fine Print I:

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