Arizona Copper-mining: A boom too far? (The Economist – April 14, 2012)

Why mining’s comeback fails to thrill some residents of “Copper Triangle”

SUPERIOR, ARIZONA – BACK in the good old days in Arizona, in towns like Superior, copper was king and mining was the foundation of social and economic life. Bustling department stores and rowdy watering holes extended credit until miners’ pay-days; people frolicked at labour union picnics, and burly rock-breakers answered to underground nicknames like Kool-Aid and Jackhammer.

But many Arizona mines closed or were greatly scaled back in the last decades of the 20th century, as the richest deposits were tapped out and copper prices dropped. With little else to sustain them, small towns in the “Copper Triangle”, which stretches from just south of Phoenix to the Mexican border, crumbled away.

Historic storefronts stood vacant or burned down. Many residents never found another steady job. Meanwhile, they became increasingly aware of the risks posed by the tailings ponds and waste-rock piles all around them.

Now, with copper prices high and new technology making it easier to find and profitably extract much lower-concentration copper deposits, multinational mining companies are seeking to start new operations which, they say, would pump billions of dollars into the economy and provide thousands of jobs.

Some locals are ecstatic. Others are wary, especially since they fear new mining could derail nascent efforts to peg their towns’ fortunes to outdoors recreation, tourism and art—as in the Arizona hamlets of Bisbee and Jerome, which tumble picturesquely down the rocky hills. Residents who as children splashed in tailings ponds and played in gritty smoke below smelter stacks now worry about contamination of their drinking water, soil and air.

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