Cronkite News Service – The small town of Superior has pinned its livelihood to copper, silver and gold mines for more than a century, but never has it had a prospect like this.
The proposed Resolution Copper mine near this struggling town could be the most productive copper mine in North America, promising $61.4 billion in economic activity over its nearly 60-year life and 1,400 mining jobs at the peak of production.
But those jobs are not likely to be the jobs that built Superior and other towns in Arizona’s historic Copper Corridor, where culture and economies are closely tied to the copper-mining industry. The generations of traditional mining experience in Superior may not be of much use as Resolution, like mines around the world, turns to robotics.
“We’ve reached a new world when it comes to mining,” said Thomas Power, an economics professor at the University of Montana who wrote a report for opponents of the mine.
Arizona is part of that new world, with the copper industry becoming markedly less labor-intensive in recent decades. From 1974 to 2003, the number of workers needed to produce 1,000 tons of copper fell 80 percent, according to Power’s report, commissioned by the San Carlos Apache, who oppose the mine on religious grounds.
Copper-mining employment dropped dramatically in Arizona, too, from 28,000 workers in 1974 to 12,000 in 1997, despite a 75 percent increase in copper production during the same period, when output went from 805,000 tons to 1.4 million tons, Power’s report said.
And at 7,000 feet underground, the Resolution mine will “push the envelope of technology,” said Mary Poulton, head of the University of Arizona’s Department of Mining and Geological Engineering.
Poulton said the Resolution project will probably require a higher level of education from its workers than earlier mines did. Where miners used to come straight out of high school, they will now probably need an associate’s degree, she said.
Most of the jobs at the mine will be “skilled technical jobs” like diesel mechanics, electricians and instrument technicians, said Vicky Peacey, senior manager of environmental and external affairs for Resolution Copper. Those positions require specific skills, which is why the company is investing in math and science programs for schools in Superior, she said.
Resolution insists that 1,400 jobs will be created at the mine. But given the new face of mining jobs, some local officials worry that even a historically large mine like Resolution may not save Superior from the grim economic fate other mining towns have met.
Gilbert Aguilar, a Superior town council member and former copper miner, said he is not worried about the number of jobs at the mine – just who gets the jobs and where they live. He expects very few of the jobs to go to Superior residents, whose mining experience may not translate to the technologically sophisticated Resolution mine.
“You didn’t have to be smartest person in the world to get a job,” in the mines before, when mining didn’t take much education or even a proficiency in English, Aguilar said. “You needed to have a strong back.”
Opponents of the mine have seized on the question of whether it will benefit Superior’s blue-collar workforce, as they try to block a federal land-swap that would give Resolution ownership of land that is currently part of Tonto National Forest. Congressional bills allowing the land-swap have stalled several times in the last decade, as conservationists have pushed to protect the area and the San Carlos Apache argued the land is sacred. A House committee passed the bill in May, but the measure has since stalled in the full House.
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