“We’re going underground now,” Mark said as the truck neared a landmark on a hillside. It marked the beginning of what might eventually be a waste rock dump at least 600 feet tall from the proposed Rosemont open pit copper mine in southeastern Arizona’s Santa Rita Mountains. The visual was striking; I could imagine the expanse of this behemoth mine, with its dump stretching miles from one side to the other, covering the mountainside and its foothills, and the habitat of everything that had ever lived there. Included in the fallout zone was a once-productive ranch house, with corrals, water tanks, and trees – the ingredients for a sustainable, renewable economy. I was told that Augusta Resources – the Canadian junior mining company behind the idea – had already bought out the ranch, and now it was broken, lifeless.
Thirty minutes later, our group arrived at a promontory overlooking the mine site. Mt. Wrightson – the highest mountain the Tucson region which boasts a 25,000 acre federally-protected Wilderness area – towered beyond, some 7,000 feet above the valley floor. Some of the only Jaguars known to roam US soils have been spotted at the site, on camera, and efforts are underway to protect their habitat – as well as that of the people living nearby – from this mega-project.
For Earthworks’ Executive Director, Jennifer Krill and myself, the new Southwest Circuit Rider, the tour of the Rosemont site was part of a more comprehensive journey throughout Arizona’s copper belt to meet local stakeholders and experts, and to see some of the places busted by the cycles of the industry in decades past. We heard directly from cattle ranchers, sportsmen, retirees, and religious leaders living at the foot of the proposed mine about what they fear: the virtually guaranteed lowering of the water table that their wells are tapped into, the complete destruction of 63 surface springs on which wildlife depend, plumes of wind blown dust with traces of heavy metals wafting around their homes, hundreds of truck loads of copper concentrate traveling down the highway each day in a place mostly defined by tourism and sustainable agriculture. The list goes on.
The day before, we toured the site of another proposed mine that would have severe consequences – the Resolution Copper project near the town of Superior, east of Phoenix. This senseless proposal would privatize Oak Flat Campground – a place that has major significance to both the Apache tribe and to Arizona rock climbers, and was declared off limits to mining by Congress in 1955. For years, Resolution has been lobbying Congress to reverse this preservation effort and mine the lands adjacent and underneath the campground.
But the craziest aspect of the proposal is Resolution’s proposed underground mining technique, called Panel Caving, in which a huge void is created 7,000 feet underground, and then everything above it falls into the void, causing the surface to subside as much as 800 feet. Imagine a meteor crater a mile wide, enveloping the bulk of one of Arizona’s most sacred tribal and modern day recreational landscapes, and you have a good idea of what would happen if this mine is built as currently proposed.
Back in Vancouver, Canada, and in corporate offices in London and Melbourne, executives and their associates are studying the numbers to see how much can be made for themselves and for their investors backing the Rosemont and Resolution copper mines. But back in Superior and Sonoita and the lands nearby, folks are contemplating a much different future than they ever anticipated. They see dry water wells, slashed real estate values, dusty air, and a once-quiet rural community becoming an industrial zone. They see the place where their ancestors’ spiritual and traditional pursuits were developed over thousands of years turn to ruin in a few decades.
Corporate literature will claim that big new mines are the key to economic vitality in Arizona. But we saw several towns absolutely devastated from the bust cycle of former mines. Community buildings, houses and markets with boarded, broken windows and imploding walls and roofs were the rule, rather than the exception, in Hayden, for example. Little remains of what was once considered “wealth.” Most of what we saw was quite the opposite.
Our tour of the copper belt reinforced a belief I’ve held for some time: that the term “economic development” – held in such tight embrace by our politicians – is not universally beneficial to or equitable amongst all. Especially when that development is of an unsustainable, finite resource. I hope that through my work as the new Southwest Circuit Rider for Earthworks, I can help protect some of these special places from irresponsible mining, while working with communities to create sustainable solutions that benefit the many, not just the few.