Mining begins

Sabrina Alaniz, left, and Jane E. Fillmore said they’re glad to see mining begin at Florence Copper.

FLORENCE — Two women miners came to work in Florence last year, fulfilling an ambition they’d had for some time.

“I had been following Florence Copper for a couple of years because I was really interested in the in-situ part,” Jane E. Fillmore said. “I’d always told my husband, ‘This place is so cool, if they have a job opening, I really want to go there.’” She had already accepted another job in Idaho and was awaiting her U.S. Department of Energy clearance when Florence Copper called.

“I said, ‘Husband, we have to go’ … and I’ve never looked back.”

Sabrina Alaniz, on the other hand, was interested in the other half of the Florence Copper Project — extracting dissolved copper from leach solution and turning it into copper sheets, called solvent extraction and electrowinning, or SX/EW. She worked in SX/EW at the Carlota copper mine near Globe with Greg Phillips and Dan Johnson. When they left for Florence Copper, “I told them, ‘You’re taking me with you.’” Sure enough, she arrived Aug. 20.

Alaniz is a shift supervisor for the project’s SX/EW process, while Fillmore is an environmental engineer. They’re busy these days, just about a month into the mine’s one- or two-year small-scale test phase. After one last sign-off from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the project began injecting a weak sulfuric acid solution into the ore body on Dec. 15.

The solution has to marinate for a while and it’s unknown how soon it will be ready to plate copper. But so far, the safety part of the project is looking good, Alaniz and Fillmore said.

“We have containment areas if there was a spill, but we tested everything before we even started injecting, so there were no leaks anywhere. As far as out there on the injection well site, it’s all contained; there are containment catches everywhere,” Alaniz said.

Stacy Gramazio, manager of communications and public affairs, commented, “We’re very grateful for (Alaniz) because of her record when it comes to safety.”

Florence Copper has faced legal opposition from the town of Florence, but part of its project is on land controlled by the state. The company recently won in court the right to expand onto land it owns.  

Fillmore said, “A lot of my neighbors have had concerns about the aquifer, and that is one thing I never worried about after I read their plans and saw their studies. As a hydrogeologist, I see what we’re doing, and how we’re controlling everything. I am continually impressed with all the hard work and planning that went into this project.

“… I’d like to reassure the public that we’re not hurting anything here. You know, it’s my groundwater, too; I live up the road,” Fillmore said.

Years ago as a secretary for an electrical engineering research and development firm, Fillmore had an interest in engineering that grew, and she began to ponder a mid-life career change. She was thinking of civil engineering until she heard of geological engineering.

“I am a rock nut, an earth nut. When I realized I could do rocks and engineering, I was sold.” Fillmore went back to school for geological engineering, eventually earning a master’s degree, and went to work for the Tronox mines in southwest Wyoming.

Alaniz began at Asarco’s Ray Mine in eastern Pinal County as a laborer in the mill. “I worked my way up to flotation. I loved it, it was fun — dirty — but fun.”

She was later hired as a crane operator at Carlota but decided she instead wanted to work in SX/EW. “So I took the test and I started in SX.”

In Florence, Alaniz is a shift supervisor for SX/EW. “That entails everything — I’m over electricians, mechanics and two operators. I make adjustments on the flows (of mining solutions), I help where I can. We pretty much do it all.”

Fillmore said as an environmental engineer, “I basically watch everything.” She makes sure the project is meeting all regulatory requirements, and “I make a lot of spreadsheets.” These aren’t just for the regulatory agencies, but also “tracking what Sabrina does so beautifully.”

Overall, Florence Copper team members worked hard to finally get to the point of mining copper, but they didn’t forget how to have fun, the women said.

“The team here is always interesting, fun and funny,” Fillmore said. “I’ve never worked with a brighter bunch of people. They keep me on my toes. … I just love coming to work every day. I never thought I’d say that.”

Alaniz agreed, “We have a very good bunch of people. No two are alike; we’re all different in our own ways, but rock it. We laugh, we joke, there isn’t a time that anyone can come into the control room without a smile.”