Retirees join environmentalists in fighting Arizona copper mine

  • Queen Valley, Arizona, where a newly revealed potential tailings site -- the preferred site -- has residents worried about lower land values.

    Leslie Bryant
  • Snowbirds have joined climbers and tribal members in protest against Resolution Copper, which has proposed a mine beneath Oak Flat, a popular camping and climbing area.

    Roger Featherstone, Arizona Mining Reform Coalition

Nestled as it is amid saguaro-studded hills, under a sky crisp blue by day and starry by night, you'd never guess Queen Valley, Ariz., is only 40 miles east of Phoenix. Its cozy homes surround a lush golf course, about four miles from a swath of state land perfect for four-wheeling, hunting and bird-watching.

About 1,600 people winter here, largely retirees who tend to be white, Republican and relatively well-off. About half stay year-round, including some former miners who once worked in the area's mining towns, which hit tough times when copper prices collapsed in the 1980s. Now prices are rising, and so is controversy regarding the proposed Resolution Copper Mine outside the former mining town of Superior, 16 miles away.

The project has spurred deep divisions there. Many believe that the mine -- a partnership between global giants Rio Tinto and BHP Billiton -- will revive Superior. Others argue that outsiders will get most of the jobs, and the project will destroy beautiful canyons and cliffs; the "block-cave" method of underground mining can cause significant subsidence. Resolution is pushing Congress to pass a land-swap bill, long championed by Sen. John McCain, R, that would give it ownership of a parcel of federal land -- including a popular campsite -- crucial to its proposed mine.

Until recently, Queen Valley seemed blissfully removed from the scuffle. But water levels in the local wells and reservoir have been plummeting for several months, leading residents to worry that the mine's groundwater pumping could eventually leave Queen Valley dry. Meanwhile, Resolution has been quietly considering storing tailings -- powdery waste rock left over from processing ore -- in a pile up to 350 feet high across 7,000 acres of that beloved parcel of state land, potentially creating harmful airborne dust and declining property values.

And so Queen Valley's conservative snowbirds have allied with the Apache tribal leaders, rock-climbers, environmentalists and Mexican-American ex-miners who comprise the coalition against the mine. Dale Byrum, 75, a Republican from Texas, is no kneejerk opponent of resource extraction; he's helped manage and develop copper mines in Arizona, Utah and Peru. But he's furious at Resolution Copper. "(If) we get something hideous and ugly like that just using up our water supply, why would anyone want to move here?" he says. "We have a nice little golf course. I'd hate to see it wrecked."

Former Superior Mayor Roy Chavez, a former miner who opposes the proposed mine, sees Queen Valley's opposition as a tremendous plus. "(Resolution) always claims the opposition is limited and small. What Queen Valley brings to the table is a whole different socio-economic group of people," he says. Plus, many Superior residents fear retaliation from pro-mine neighbors if they protest -- and some hope for jobs if the mine does go through. But Queen Valley's people are retired and removed from Superior's local politics. "It would be nice if people from Indiana talk to their congressmen, people from Michigan call up their offices in their home state," Chavez says.

The alliance between Queen Valley and other opponents is inconvenient for Resolution Copper, which has tried to be a good neighbor. Local support could help the land swap, which has languished in Congress for seven years. Along with promising 3,700 jobs, Resolution has built hiking trails, offered new rock-climbing access and funded scholarships and community development in Superior.

It hasn't helped that locals found out about the possible tailings dump only through a Freedom of Information Act request. On March 26, mine opponents briefed Queen Valley residents on emails between the Arizona State Land Department and Resolution showing the company's determination to acquire 11 square miles of the state land near the community as its "preferred" site, despite its public assertions that the tailings would probably go to an old strip mine about 30 miles northeast, over a high ridge. In an email, state geologist John Schieffer scoffed at claims that the pile would eventually be covered with native vegetation. "Tailings are devoid of all nutrients. … It will be an ugly eyesore forever!" he wrote, adding that the company was planning to do geologic testing without permits, and that its hydrologic study plans were "poor."

To make matters worse, the company moonlighted under the name of Integrity Land and Cattle to obtain permits to study the area.

So Resolution officials were ambushed when they met with residents over water concerns on March 28, with plenty of refreshments and an impressive scale model of the local geography in tow. Since 2009, Resolution has pumped 2 billion gallons of water from an old mineshaft in preparation for the new mine -- and Queen Valley water manager and fire chief Cecil Fendley says the town's groundwater has begun dropping about a foot a week, the most he's seen in 25 years on the job. At the meeting, company hydrologist Greg Ghidotti said that the aquifer it is pumping from is separated from Queen Valley's by a fault line. "When we pump on one side, there's no response on the other."

When Resolution Copper Company Vice President Jon Cherry described the supposed plans for a tailings dump at the old strip mine, Queen Valley real estate agent and golf shop manager Leslie Bryant raised her hand: And what about the state land site? Cherry appeared taken aback, then acknowledged that site was also being studied. If Resolution did buy state land, he added, some of the money would go to a school trust fund. "We're very transparent."

Arizona Mining Reform Coalition leader Roger Featherstone smirked: Then why did Resolution hide behind a different name?

"That's very nefarious!" one man proclaimed amid applause.

"At this point, it sounds like they're trying to pull the wool over our eyes, yadda yadda yadda, bullshit, bullshit, bullshit," said a retired automotive company manager who declined to give his name.

In a later interview, Cherry explained that mining companies regularly work under the guise of other companies, in part to avoid potential land value inflation when property owners know a mining company is interested. Public comment and more studies will precede any sale of state land or tailings storage.

Even if Resolution placates Queen Valley, the now-battered real estate economy that replaced mining after the '80s bust may present new obstacles. The proposed tailings site is within a 275-square-mile area where a coalition of planning and sustainability groups wants to build Superstition Vistas, an ecologically friendly suburban development. Resolution itself is on the project's steering committee and contributed $250,000 to it. "We're looking at this as a high-quality community, maybe a whole new city," says Jim Holway, director of the Western Lands and Communities program for The Sonoran Institute, a Tucson-based conservation group. If Resolution moves forward with its tailings plans, Holway says, the development will likely push the state to charge much more for the land so "it's not the cheapest option. You need to recognize if this tailings pile goes in, it will have a negative effect on all the surrounding areas. No one wants to live next to a tailings pile."

Queen Valley's Bryant agrees, and talks to almost everyone who comes into the Golf Pro Shop about Resolution. "I could talk all day to you about this," she says she tells visitors. "But I'll let you go golf now."


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