Florence Copper

Florence Copper has been making copper for more than a year in a small-scale test phase off Hunt Highway. The company is now seeking the necessary state and federal permits to transition to full commercial production.

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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Mark Cowling is the county reporter for PinalCentral and covers the town of Florence, San Tan Valley and the surrounding area. He can be reached at mcowling@pinalcentral.com.

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