SUPERIOR — The kids care about the future of mining. But they also care about Native American rights. These kinds of contradictions and concerns lie in the background of Superior, a small town nestled in the mountains at the start of Pinal County’s Copper Corridor.
Over 5,000 feet below the surface of Oak Flat, just to the east of Superior, lies a copper ore body that could be worth billions.
But that’s not all that lies under the surface of Superior. While publicly, city leaders and community members show support for the Resolution Copper project, others claim there is a silent contingent of locals who fear the impacts of the block-cave mining operation will destroy the town forever.
“People that are for the mine are very vocal,” said 71-year-old Sylvia Delgado-Barrett, a former miner who retired near Superior but whose family still live there, including mother, siblings, children and grandchildren. “Those of us against the mine, there are many people on our side. But it’s like with COVID, how people who don’t want to mask up are the ones who get the press, while the rest of us don’t, but I think we are the majority.”
Support for the mine appears to follow an inverse-generational divide, as younger families and local students believe the mine will foster a resurgence in the city’s downtown corridor, while older residents, many of whom are former miners, harbor a deep distrust of the large mining companies that come in and extract without showing much concern for the mess they leave behind.
That dynamic is exemplified by 78-year-old Orlando Perea, who worked in Superior’s Magma Mine for over two decades, and his grandniece, Miranda Perea, who graduated from Superior High School in 2016 and still lives in town.
The elder Perea is a vocal critic of the mine, while Miranda Perea praised the charitable work Resolution had done for groups like the local Little League or the high school.
“Everybody knows that our small town goes off the mine,” Miranda said, noting her father is also a miner. “People talk about pollution the mine causes, but at the same time you have to understand if you are going to live in a mining town, there are pros and cons of being around it.”
Orlando Perea, who worked as a miner in San Manuel for several years, where the block-cave method was used, said he’s most worried about the amount of water the mine will use. Outside estimates have projected that, despite the megadrought, the mine would require 2.5 billion gallons — 775,000 acre-feet — of water, enough to provide water annually for a city of 150,000 people.
Orlando Perea also worries about the fate of Oak Flat, which he first visited as a 10-year-old-boy.
“There’s a big oak tree that’s been standing there for 68 years, since I first visited,” Orlando said. “It’s a pretty area. That’ll all be gone. I feel for the destruction of the land. There’ll be a hole left there which will be there forever.”
Orlando and the other old-timers note that while they may not be around to see the end result of the mine, their families and friends will suffer the consequences.
For now, many from the younger generations don’t see those consequences affecting them, or don’t believe they will be so severe.
Nathan Taylor, a junior at Superior High School, said he believes a majority of students support the Resolution Copper project, including himself.
“I think we have developed a good relationship,” Taylor said. “The mayor has worked hard at that, so we’re not reliant on the mine, and we can be self-sustainable, but the mine will be a great help to us, the school and the town.”
Taylor mentioned job opportunities, but said he himself wasn’t sure whether he would go to college, only that he wasn’t opposed to coming back to Superior once he graduated.
Another student, sophomore Isaiah Gonzalez, said he found the mine “interesting” and that it would keep the town thriving.
“I like how alive Superior can be sometimes,” Gonzalez said. “When we have a lot of attractions and a lot of people in town, it’s interesting, it’s really cool.”
A young couple who’d recently moved to Superior, Daniel and Patti Castro, also offered cautious support for the mine. The Castros said they were less immediately concerned with environmental costs, which they said could be managed, than possible gentrification from the town’s growth and erasure of Superior’s Hispanic roots.
“We come from the ag industry,” Patti said. “It’s similar to the mine in that it can bring a strong economy and new development, but at the same time could wear out natural resources, or infringe on Native American rights.”
The latter is no small concern. The block-cave method Resolution Copper has proposed would leave Oak Flat, a campground and sacred site for the local San Carlos Apache tribe, a toxic crater. San Carlos Apache Chairman Terry Rambler has complained that the tribe was completely left out of the mine project negotiations and discussions.
Even several younger supporters of the mine said that they were nevertheless concerned with how the project conflicts with tribal rights.
“There aren’t many Native Americans here,” said Jasmine Ortega, a junior at Superior High School, “but people are opposed to the mine because of the sacred land. They are back and forth on this, and people don’t know what to do yet.”
The Castros suggested that the community could still steer Resolution Copper toward being responsible stewards of the land.
“Maybe people like us come in and make sure it develops in a more progressive way,” Patti Castro said.
So far, Resolution has promised to help fund two large projects within Superior: $2 million for a community recreation center that would be built within the old high school building, and $1.29 million for an Entrepreneur and Innovation Center that would provide an outlet for technical training and business assistance.
The company has also poured millions into reclaiming the old Magma mine just north of the city and has helped with smaller projects such as renovating the Superior Chamber of Commerce building. Such gestures seem as if the company is committed to being a good partner.
However, 66-year-old Henry Munoz says official documents tell a different story.
Munoz, head of the Concerned Citizens and Retired Miners Coalition of Superior, comes from five generations of miners and has lived in Superior all his life. He keeps a gigantic plaster model of the Resolution Copper project in his garage and has poured through the entire 3,000-page Environmental Impact Statement released, and later rescinded, by the U.S. Forest Service this past year.
It’s a document few have seen in its entirety, but Munoz obtained a hard copy — a PDF version is available publicly online — and has starred the portions that paint a less than rosy picture of the mine.
The EIS also indicates that Superior is unlikely to receive as much of the economic windfall as the surrounding area. The town could receive anywhere from $50,000 to $500,000 in annual revenues depending on residential growth, although the Superior school district could receive upwards of $16 million. Pinal County would see between $10 million and $20 million in annual revenue.
Superior’s population is around 2,500, or about half of what it was during its heyday in the 1970s, when the Magma Mine was operating.
Resolution Copper has promised over 3,000 direct and indirect jobs would be created by the copper mine; Munoz thinks that overstates the extent to which those workers would relocate to the town.
“Wouldn’t you rather live down in the Valley?” Munoz said. “Nice home, nice schools, shopping, entertainment, everything is already there.”
Munoz is not only concerned about the mine’s water use but how the mine would impact Superior’s own water supply.
“The Resolution Copper Project could affect both water availability and quality in several ways,” one portion of the EIS reads. “These include the potential for contamination of groundwater and surface water, tailings storage facility failure, and increase potential for accidental spills.”
Another portion of the EIS reiterates that any attempts by Resolution to conserve or maintain the environment “remain solely as voluntary measures” which “may or may not occur,” and that the post-mine aquifer system is likely to be fundamentally altered.
“The first 10 years of this mine, everything is going to be wine and roses,” Munoz said, “but after the contamination and pollution occurs, after our water is polluted? We will be a ghost town. I’m not against mining, but this report, this is telling you the plane is gonna crash.”
Many of the older miners from Superior lived and worked through the boom and bust period of the Magma copper operation, which closed in 1982.
Delgado-Barrett, who was one of the first female miners to work in Superior, said many people were forced to leave when the Magma mine closed down and had harsh words for the newer generations who have no context to consider what happens when the copper runs out.
“People have come in from California and other places, who know nothing, absolutely nothing, about mining,” Delgado-Barrett said.
While the tensions have mellowed within the town, Delgado-Barrett described the early community discussions from 15 to 20 years ago about the Resolution mine as “not pretty,” and also offers a more sinister reason for why debate has died down.
“In the past, there have been some shop owners who sided with concerned citizens, and they wound up not having a business,” Delgado-Barrett said. “You really don’t want to make Resolution notice you.”
Friends of the late Roy Chavez, a former mayor of Superior and activist who died last year from COVID, believe he may have been booted from his position as town manager, and even a county-level job, due to his opposition to the mine.
“Resolution has community meetings,” Delgado-Barrett said, “but even if you go and you even say anything, you are afraid to open your mouth. You’re not listened to, so why even show up at these things?”
Still, despite their advancing age, Delgado-Barrett, Munoz and the other ex-miners still care deeply about the future of Superior and are willing to fight for it.
“Superior is my hometown,” Delgado-Barrett said. “It’s a lovely place, it’s got potential for tourism, that brings in money too. They don’t need this mine.”