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Speakers support Florence Copper upgrading to commercial permit

FLORENCE — Nearly 30 people, including several Florence Copper top officials, contractors and vendors, spoke in support of the company receiving a state permit to ramp up to full-scale commercial production at an online public hearing.

State Rep. David Cook, R-Globe, said Florence Copper has met or exceeded all of its permit requirements, with “no violations whatsoever” in its test phase. “I believe the correct decision will be made to move forward to the next phase … .” He said he has no doubt that Arizona Department of Environmental Quality staff will make sure active monitoring of the project continues.

Cook based his comments on his own research of Florence Copper and his more than 12 years in mining, he told ADEQ representatives who hosted the hearing on Sept. 9.

Elizabeth Young of Florence said she had toured Florence Copper several times over the years, never once feeling that anyone was trying to deceive her. If she believed anything bad were happening, “I wouldn’t be raising my family here.”

She said Florence is missing opportunities, and “being able to help our economy grow, and bring those non-service-industry jobs here, is so important.” Young said her husband, who has a science degree, drives an hour to work. If he could use his degree in Florence, “it would be so beneficial to our family.”

John Bracich said he’s a new Arizona resident from Chicago, semi-retired as a consultant in ferrous metals. He said industry needs copper right now.

“There’s a bottleneck that I think a mine could help alleviate. … If we could help promote the manufacturing of more solar power, and more wind power, and geothermal, we need to break this bottleneck.” Bracich said he also considers himself an environmentalist and he believes the Florence Copper Project is environmentally sound.

Florence Vice Mayor John Anderson — who said he was speaking for himself and not for the town or Town Council — was the only speaker to offer comments critical of Florence Copper. He said the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency “has not specifically approved the in-situ mining process” and forbids it in an aquifer used for drinking water.

Rather, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency granted an “aquifer exemption” on the land in the mid-1990s under a previous owner of the mine and is not ensuring the water’s safety, Anderson said.

He said the well where he gets his water is 1½ miles from one of the mine’s in-situ wells. He learned at a previous EPA hearing that it could take 10 to 20 years for the mine’s well to affect his well. Florence Copper’s data indicates that its monitoring wells are so far away it could take them two years to detect a problem, which makes the current test phase inconclusive, Anderson said.

“I am convinced that they are polluting the aquifer. There’s no way you can put sulfuric acid in the aquifer and not pollute it,” Anderson said. “There’s not been a single in-situ mine anywhere in the world … that has returned the aquifer back to drinking-water standards.”

When it was his turn to speak, Lee Decker, an environmental lawyer with the Gallagher & Kennedy firm, disputed Anderson, saying that the project’s hydraulic control won’t take two years to document.

Cory Ecenbarger, owner of Florence Fudge Company, said she’s met a lot of wonderful people from Florence Copper who’ve supported her shop for years. “I’m very grateful to have them and love all the people that work there for them.” Other downtown merchants speaking in favor of Florence Copper were Sammi Jo Beebe and Kim Ehlebracht, along with Chamber of Commerce Director Roger Biede.

“It’s something that’s been needed in our town for years, and 2020 has only increased that need,” Biede said.

Councilwoman Michelle Cordes, who said she was speaking as a private citizen, said, “People ask me all the time, when will Florence have new restaurants or new stores, or new places for family entertainment? Those things can only happen if the town of Florence starts to embrace opportunities like Florence Copper. We need jobs, we need revenue, we need economic activity. …

“It’s our time for Florence to thrive again. It’s time for the division in the community to stop. The employees of Florence Copper are my neighbors and my friends. … They’ve done a lot for this community,” Cordes said.

Mayoral candidate Kyle Larsen said if elected, he’ll stop the town’s expensive litigation against Florence Copper.

Those who didn’t comment at the public hearing may still submit comments to the ADEQ by Oct. 12. Email Maribeth Greenslade at mg3@azdeq.gov or write to ADEQ; Maribeth Greenslade; Groundwater Section; 1110 W. Washington St.; MC5415B-3; Phoenix, AZ 85007.

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Florence offers 'Returning Stronger' grants to businesses

FLORENCE — Local businesses have until Oct. 31 to apply to the town for grants to reimburse them for expenses and losses resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Town Council has authorized the creation of the Returning Stronger Grant Program for businesses that have assisted the town in fulfilling its role to protect public health and which aim to enhance development and stabilize the local economy, the town announced. Applications are available on the town website, www.FlorenceAZ.gov/RSgrant. Interested parties may also email RSgrant@FlorenceAZ.gov.

Businesses are asked to submit an application and supporting documentation. Items that are eligible for reimbursement include up to six months of rent, mortgage and utility payments (water, sewer and electricity). Local businesses may also be reimbursed for any personal protective equipment or physical modifications that assisted in protecting public health. Businesses can receive up to $10,000 each in reimbursements upon complete submittal and approval by the Town Council.

Home-based businesses and local nonprofits are also eligible for grants for expenses related to the purchase of PPE or for any physical modifications that were necessary to protect public health. This group is not eligible for reimbursements for rent, mortgage or utility costs during the pandemic.

The final aspect of the program reimburses local food banks that contributed to the well-being of the community during the pandemic. Each food bank is eligible for up to $10,000. As with all programs, applicants must submit receipts justifying the amount of grant funding that they are requesting.

“As a town, we took a collaborative and transparent approach to ensuring that our local businesses, nonprofits and food banks would have additional funding to reimburse them for their contributions toward improving public health during the COVID-19 pandemic,” Mayor Tara Walter said.

The council’s action Monday came after much community input and several public work sessions to discuss the details.

“I am appreciative of the feedback we have received, the process we have worked through and thankful that we are able to make a positive impact in our community,” Walter said in a town news release.

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Planning continues for Poston Butte Preserve

FLORENCE — Developing the Poston Butte Preserve off Hunt Highway will take several years, and with the design 60% complete, is estimated to cost $6.3 million in today’s dollars, the Florence Town Council was told.

The council received an update at its Sept. 8 meeting. Aaron Allan with J2 Engineering & Design told the council that cars will enter the preserve from a future private road west of the butte, which has a white "F" on it. There will be both bus and car parking, and a classroom building with restrooms.

There will be gates on the north and east boundaries through which pedestrians, equestrians and mountain bikers may enter. New trails will link to some existing trails; other existing trails will be closed and revegetated. There will be a pedestrian-only trail to the top of the butte, with two stopping points or “rest nodes” along the way with interpretive signs.

Old mines on the property will be filled in. However, one deep shaft will have a barrier built over it for safety, and bats that live in the cave will be able to fly in and out.

Councilwoman Kristen Larsen said she was happy to see planning reach this stage. She renewed her request for a family restroom and also asked for the cost. She also asked about the main gate and how the town will ensure everyone is out at closing time.

Allan said a gate system usually operates on a timer, and a park ranger would ensure everyone had come off the mountain and no cars were left. Florence Community Services Director Hezekiah Allen said the town could also post an after-hours phone number.

Allen said the preserve will be years in the making. In the next fiscal year, the town hopes to put up 3.7 miles of fencing around the property. The town continues to work with the U.S. Bureau of Land Management to acquire more land east and west of Poston Butte for the preserve.

Vice Mayor John Anderson asked how the town will keep all-terrain vehicles out of the preserve while providing access to horses. Allen said gates will allow horses only. Anderson also asked about security cameras.

Aaron Allan said the preserve does not have a security system. But designers can have discussions with the town’s IT staff about what systems the town uses and what could be done at the preserve if that’s the town’s desire.

Mayor Tara Walter asked Hezekiah Allen to meet with the IT department on this question. She further said a resident asked her about bike trails, rated for varying degrees of difficulty. She asked if this is something the town could potentially offer as well.

Allen said mountain biking, at various difficulty levels, “makes total sense” at the preserve and would lend itself to future programs and events such as races.

First and foremost, the preserve will tell the story of Poston Butte, which is the history not only of Florence but the state of Arizona, Allen said. “We also want it to be used, and to bring people to the area.”

Councilwoman Karen Wall said it’s a great plan and can be a huge asset for the town. She asked about the potential for solar power and picnic ramadas. Aaron Allan said there’s no reason solar power can’t be discussed in the next phase of design, along with picnic areas.

Walter said there are tentative plans for a celebration in 2025 of the 100-year anniversary of when Charles Poston, often called the “Father of Arizona,” was reburied atop the butte.

The council approved the Programmatic Agreement and Historic Properties Treatment Plan between the town, BLM and the State Historic Preservation Office for the Poston Butte Preserve.