Copper Culture

The Corridor

As the Gila flows west to the town of Florence, it bisects an area known as the ‘copper corridor’ through Walnut Canyon. The northern towns of Miami/Globe and Superior are situated in the Pinal Mountains and sit on some of the largest copper reserves in the US, and between them is Oak Flat, a sacred Apache ground. To the south, the Gila flows past the mining towns of Hayden and its sister communities. Because The Gila River is part of a vast watershed draining an area of nearly 60,000 square miles, the allocation of water resources in these locations is shared by agricultural, industrial, and residential use.

Along the copper corridor, the current and past history of each town, is intimately linked to the copper industry. With limited water available, the mining industry is in competition with farming or ranching communities. When copper prices are high, mining towns enjoy development and prosperity. The effects of flooding, fires, massive strikes, mining accidents, and depleted copper reserves can devastate towns, and may be abandoned by the corporation in control of the mines. Yet the promise of economic benefits for future mining investment continues to drive community interest in granting water rights to international corporations. Difficult choices.

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[1] Miami-Globe

Founded in the late 1870’s Globe is one of AZ oldest mining towns, and mining is still the biggest employer. The historical Old Dominion mine, now preserved as a park, produced 800 million pounds of copper during its life. As copper prices rose and fell and so did Globe. Many of its historical buildings are preserved or renovated, but many are not. The Inspiration-Miami Mines near Globe transitioned to open-pit mines after the underground mines were no longer profitable. Freeport-McMoRan Copper and Gold is located between Globe and Miami and melts pure copper cathode sheets from copper refineries and casts coils of copper rod for wire producers.

The City of Globe lies within the Salt River Basin, but it does not rely on the water from it. As Globe’s population grew, local sources of groundwater became inadequate. In 1957, Globe’s city council was advised to locate its new wells as close to the San Carlos Apache Reservation as possible in order to access water from Cutter Basin, so multiple wells were dug along the basin’s upper edge. Today, the Arizona Water Company pumps groundwater from local aquifers within the Salt River Basin into 15 different wells dispersed throughout Miami-Globe.

[2] Oak Flat

In 2014, a rider was attached (John McCain, then senator from AZ and Chair Armed Services Committee) to the National Defense Authorization Act. The ‘congressional trade’ allowed Resolution Copper to transfer 5,459 acres of conservation lands around Arizona to the Federal Government in exchange for taking ownership of 2,422 acres (Oak Flat) for a proposed copper mine. Despite the objections from the Apache Nation, it appeared the copper industry was destined to win over environmental concerns and laws protecting religious sites. However, in 2022, The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals vacated an earlier decision by a three-judge panel to allow the federal government to go ahead with the planned handover and agreed to rehear the arguments with a larger panel of judges. The hearing took place in March 2023, but has no ruling to date.

Under your feet sits billions of gallons of our most Sacred and vital resource, Water. It feeds the springs and supports all the abundance-of-life you see around you.The Grasses, the yucca, and the old Oak all rely on this ancient reservoir to sustain life. Resolution Copper seeks to “de-water” this entire area and use 750,000 acre feet of water to support their mining operation. That is enough water to support the city of Tempe for 50 years. Our region will be sucked dry by this greedy foreign corporation, Where you stand now will be a massive crater 1-2 miles wide and over 1000 feet deep. The plants and animals will all die. Our ability to recreate here, pray here, and conduct important ceremony here will be lost. We have the opportunity to stop this destruction and save this place. Call your senators and ask them to support the SAVE OAK FLAT ACT (S.915)

The Foreign company is Resolution Copper, (BHP, Australia and Rio Tinto, Brazil). The mine would be one of the largest in the US, proposes using a “block” mining technique, could ultimately employ 1,500 people and inject $20 billion into Arizona’s economy. It could supply the United States with one-quarter of its copper for the next 40-60 years, although there is no guarantee the copper would make it into U.S. manufacturing, given the volatility of the copper market. They are promising permanent protection of the culturally significant natural feature of Apache Leap (Superior), a Tribal Monitor program focused on cultural heritage protection, a partnership to protect and conserve culturally significant Emory Oak groves across Arizona, economic and community development agreements that can deliver significant long-term benefits for the Superior community.

The environmental concerns relate to the “subsidence crater” that would result from the block mining technique and would collapse 1-2 miles of earth surface and reach in excess of 1000 feet deep, the plan to pipe 4,000 acres of toxic mine waste 20 miles away in the Gila watershed to be stored by a 3 mile long, 500 ft tall earthen dam made of mine waste, use billions of gallons of water from the East Salt River for its operations, and concern over the companies responsibility for the collapse of a similar dam in Brazil that released toxic waste and destroyed 400 miles before reaching the Atlantic Ocean, or the destruction of a 46,000 year old Aboriginal heritage site in Australia.

[3] Superior

Superior is a small town in the Pinal Mountains with a rich mining history. Sitting below the famed Apache Leap, it began as a boom town with prospecting for silver, gold, and copper. The Magma mine had its beginnings as a silver mine, but ultimately was deepened to access the rich copper bearing zones. Surviving numerous rises and declines in copper prices and demand, the mine closed in 1982. The town of Superior was expected to suffer the same fate as many other copper mining towns, however, in 1990’s, the Magma Mine re-opened as the Resolution Copper Company. A copper dome was found 7,000 feet underground that is projected to be the largest copper vein in the United States, fourth-largest undeveloped copper deposit in the world, and is expected to revitalize Superior with employment and businesses..

The primary water source for Superior is groundwater from the East Salt River basin. There, the town of Florence has a 40-acre Desert Well site that pumps groundwater, transports it 26 miles, climbs 1000 feet, to supply water to Superior. The ground water is replaced by taking Colorado river water and placing it in two re-charge stations near Superstition Mountains. Resolution Copper Company, is hoping to use the Desert Well site for water resources. Currently, Resolution Copper owns the land within the canyon where Arizona Water Company (AWC) water tanks for Superior are located; however, AWC owns the water rights below that land.

[4] Hayden

Founded in 1911, Hayden was a company town owned by Kennecott Corporation, boasting the largest Smelter smokestack in the US. The plant is still one of 3 operating smelters in the US, but the town of Hayden is arguably a ghost of its former identity. Hayden and its neighbor Kearny are 18 miles apart in the southern part of the corridor. Kearny was built as a mining town by Kennecott Mining Co. as a planned community. Mining operations were taken over by American Smelting and Refining Copper Corporation (ASARCO), owned by Grupo Mexico. In 2005, ASARCO filed for bankruptcy. As part of the settlement, they paid 2 billion to settle hazardous waste pollution at many of their sites and in 2016, paid 150 million settlement with EPA due to violations of the clean air act. Hayden’s air is polluted with arsenic and lead..

The mayor and hero of Hayden is Bobby Smith. After cleaning up the towns’ finances from the previous mayor, Smith is on a mission to restore Hayden. He faces high crime rates, abandoned businesses, frequent arson, high rates of drug addiction, and a declining population. One positive, the police department was re-located into the old bank with impressive front columns, and has more Police SUV’s than police officers.

[5] Florence

The town of Florence is one of the oldest non-native settlements in Arizona. Founded in 1866, it is located centrally to both Phoenix and Tucson, and provides 3 major highways connecting nearby communities within the region. As the county seat of Pinal Co., it provides residents with schools, libraries, parks, 9 prisons, public events, and municipal services, notably water. Florence is home to multiple deep Desert Water Wells that supply groundwater for residential water to Florence, as well as, other nearby towns (Superior).

The Ashhurst-Hayden Dam is a major diversion dam on the Gila River and diverts most if not all of the Gila River water into the Florence-Casa Grande Canal. Heading east along the Diversion Dam Road follows the canal, but has restricted access under surveillance before reaching the dam itself or the diversion pumps. Nearby is the Central Arizona Project Canal, the Northside Canal, and the Florence Canal. Not to be seen anywhere other than zooming in on a digital map, is the Gila River.

Florence Copper is a new copper mine with the promise of economic benefits without environmental damage. Taseko Mines Ltd. (Vancouver, Canada) has tested a new process to recover copper with no blasting or excavation equipment, no open pits or large haul trucks, no smelters and very little land disturbance. The project offers an opportunity to provide strong economic benefits to the community of Florence and the State of Arizona, with an estimated 500 jobs for Pinal Co. and 3.4 billion in economic activity for Arizona.

[6] Samples

Gravel is prevalent everywhere in Arizona. This sample was gathered from the parking lot at the base of the Freeport MacMoran Mine used primarly for semi-truck and employee parking.

Microscopic view of Oak leaf. Sample collected from Emory Oak Tree at the center of Oak Flat, Arizona.

Plant with roots extracted from Oak Flat camp area along roadside leading to Resolution Copper Mine.

We found NO water in the Gila River or downstream of the diversion canal toward Coolidge, AZ and westward toward Phoenix.

Plants found along dry river bed in Coolidge, AZ.