FLORENCE — Despite federal roadblocks, copper mining still has a bright future in Arizona, industry officials say.
In 2016, mining accounted for 11,500 jobs in Arizona, down 1,000 from the year before, according to data from the L. William Seidman Research Institute at Arizona State University.
Kelly Norton, president of the Arizona Mining Association, stresses the importance of indirect jobs that mining accounts for in fields like construction. There were 31,800 of those jobs in 2014 and the mining industry had an impact of $4.29 billion on Arizona’s economy that year, according to the Seidman Research Institute.
There are currently 14 mines open in the state and six that are in various stages of the permitting process, according to Norton. Those six are Florence Copper, Gunnison Copper, the Van Dyke project, the Resolution Copper Mine near Superior, Rosemont Project in Pima County and the Arizona Mining Taylor Project.
“The future of mining is bright in Arizona,” Norton said. “So if we can get through the permitting process — which mostly is the federal government; state government is very supportive of mining — then we can get those six new projects open, which is thousands of jobs and thousands of taxes back to the state.”
In March, Rio Tinto, the company developing Resolution Copper near Superior, testified before Congress that it had spent over $1.3 billion developing the project and is years away from a final permit. Part of its mining site includes Oak Flat, a section of Tonto National Forest that the San Carlos Apache Tribe views as sacred.
The Rosemont mine is a $1.5 billion project in the Santa Rita Mountains. If opened, it would be one of the largest copper mines in the United States. The Center for Biological Diversity opposes the mine because it would take over the habitat of endangered and vulnerable animals, like jaguars and ocelots. The mine is waiting for a decision by the San Francisco regional office of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers on its Clean Water Act permit. In 2016, the Los Angeles district office recommended denial of the permit.
Worldwide copper production increased about 5 percent in 2016, according to the International Copper Study Group. That increase was despite a 3 percent decline in Chile. Overall usage increased 2 percent, 0.9 percent in China, which is the largest user of copper. Usage in the United States and Japan, the second and third biggest users, declined by 2 and 2.5 percent, respectively.
Steve Gravley comes from a long line of miners, and now he trains new miners in his role as director of University of Arizona’s San Xavier Underground Mining Laboratory.
“For many many years, I did not appreciate what was going on,” he said. “And then there was some point, when I was a teenager perhaps, I realized that every time you turn on a light, you better thank a miner for his dedication.”
In his 37 year career, Gravley has seen mining go through significant changes thanks to technology. His primary focus at the mine is teaching students safety and technology that makes the job easier. He even remembers his father once telling a friend that working in a mine is safer than driving on a highway.
“I have watched throughout my career how technology has really come and played a key role in improving safety, improving productivity and overall making the mining business just a better place to work,” he said. “I’ve worked all these years and never had any serious incidents or accidents. I’ve had a few scrapes or a cut or two, but nothing serious.”