FEATURE ARTICLE - February 18, 2008 by Jonathan Thompson
Mining abandoned Superior a decade ago. Now the industry is ready to return, but this little Arizona town is not sure it wants it back.
Cigarette smoke hangs blue over the sun-soaked patio of My Friends Tavern in Superior, Ariz. It's been an unseasonably cool January day, but the lingering sun is warm enough to lure nicotine-craving drinkers outside. Now, a dozen people exchange friendly banter as loudspeakers blare out Loretta Lynn: "I'm proud to be a coal miner's daughter . ..." Miller Lite and Budweiser empties line up on the white plastic tables.
Superior lies at the heart of Arizona's copper country, source of 60 percent of the copper mined in the nation; its palo verde-covered mountains are scarred by a century's worth of mining endeavors. Superior wouldn't exist without the Magma Mine. The substantial high school on the edge of town, the brick buildings on Main Street, the very culture and character of the town were all built on mining. So when the mine closed in 1982, the foundation of the local economy was violently shaken. And when it reopened in 1990, and then closed again six years later, it seemed that the foundation had collapsed completely.
The miners left, their families followed, and businesses shut down. Today, My Friends Tavern is one of the few establishments open on Superior's main drag. Even as nearby Phoenix has grown at an alarming rate, Superior has lost nearly 40 percent of its population since 1970. People here on average earn only $12,000 per year, and some 28 percent of them live below the poverty line.
One would expect the local tavern, then, to be the place where out-of-work miners congregate to complain, remembering the good ol' days when "men with boots on" roamed the streets and families were flush and everyone watched each other's back, as they did underground. A place where a guy could sit and stew in nostalgia while drinking and smoking and bitterly cursing the global economy and the mining corporations and the environmental regulations that caused this town's demise.
But it isn't. Instead, there's an energetic lift to the voices in the bar, and nobody is cursing the global economy. China has grown at breakneck rates and needs a lot of metal to sustain that growth. Copper prices have shot up so high that meth-addled thieves regularly pillage air conditioners, construction sites and even the electrical guts of railroad crossings, selling the copper wires and pipes to scrap dealers. Suddenly, mining companies are taking a fresh look at Arizona's copper towns, including Superior.
And there's a lot worth looking at: Some 7,000 feet beneath the rocky, oak-covered ground lies a giant body of copper ore - possibly the largest in North America, maybe even in the world. Resolution Copper, a division of London-based mining giant Rio Tinto, wants a piece of that copper, and for the last eight years has been laying the groundwork to bring mining back to Superior.
The industry's potential renaissance has generated a fair amount of excitement and even a little cash. One of the men on the patio works for a local trucking company that contracts with the mine; another does underground work for Resolution. Some 70 locals work for Resolution in one capacity or another. Superior's old guard, however, is not monolithic in its support for the mine. At My Friends Tavern, a group of people - all of them either former miners or people who were once connected directly to the mining industry - sit around a table trying to figure out how to stop it.
There was a time when Western mining towns would have loudly welcomed the return of the industry. But things have changed since the last bust, and like a jilted lover being courted anew by a long-lost ex, the old mining towns are wondering if they still have room for mining in their new cultures and economies.
"Mining no longer drives the economy for many of these small towns," says Marshall Vest, an economist at the University of Arizona's Eller College of Management, "so there's an ambivalence as to whether this is an industry they really want."
One of the people sitting in the bar today is Superior native Anna Jeffrey, a slim woman in her 40s with big green eyes and long, teased-out brown hair. Earlier, she drove me around town in her small SUV, heavy metal blasting from the stereo. She was playing the "used-to-be" game.
"That used to be the theatre," she'd say, pointing to a worn-down box of gray stucco. "And that used to be the five-and-dime." In my own hometown, as in many Western communities, such remnants of an older economy have vanished under big-box stores, or been replaced by upscale boutiques and galleries and the kind of restaurants that serve truffled mashed potatoes. Not here. Superior's streets are lined with boarded-up, abandoned husks. The adobe front of the Hotel Magma, one of the most prominent landmarks, recently slid off in a storm, leaving the flaking pink paint of the hotel rooms eerily exposed. Across the street, Jeffrey walks into the back of a burnt-out shell of a building, graffiti scrawled on its remaining walls. Jeffrey worked here in the early '80s, when it was the Apache Leap Bar. "The pool table was right there," says Jeffrey, pointing at nothing.
Just down a slope from the back of the buildings, Queen Creek runs through town. During summer monsoons, Superior residents flock to the old footbridges to watch the waters swell and rip through the channel on their way down to the valley below and the megalopolis of Phoenix. In the winter, one can follow the creek up into the canyon above town, where the bone-white skeletons of sycamore trees shade deep green pools. Apache Leap, a band of cliffs that glows deep orange in the evening light, provides the town's scenic backdrop.
But Superior was not built here for the scenery. It's here because of the minerals that lie within and underneath the cliffs and rocks. The Silver King Mine fueled the first boom and spawned a raucous town named Pinal. After mine, then town, went belly-up, another silver deposit was found nearby, and the town of Superior was born. The discovery of copper in the early 1900s ensured that Superior would outlive its predecessor. In 1910, the Magma Copper Company took over the Silver Queen Mine and turned it into a large-scale operation, building a railroad to haul the ore. The ruins of the company's huge smelter still sit empty amid the tailings on the edge of town.
Like mining towns from Butte, Mont., to Silverton, Colo., Superior became a cosmopolitan place, with migrant miners coming from Wales, Italy, eastern Europe and even China. Most of Superior's miners, though, like those of the other Arizona copper towns, were people of Mexican descent. (Today, about 70 percent of the town's residents are Hispanic.) Together, the residents settled in and built a culture and a community, which thrived throughout the '50s, '60s and '70s. The boom seemed endless.
"I grew up seeing the heyday," says Michael Hing, the mayor of Superior and O.C. Hing's grandson, who now runs the family's Save Money Store with his brother. "There were 7,000 people here. We had a theater, shoe stores, a clothing store." Rumor has it there were 17 drinking establishments, all filled up after the shifts.
"This was one of the best little towns you could ask for," says Ruben Fernandez, a former mayor of Superior. "People used to watch out for one another."
Even in those days, however, there were ups and downs. Metal prices fluctuated, and miners went on strike; there were cave-ins, injuries, floods and fires that led to cutbacks or shutdowns. But people persevered until the boom returned. And it always did. Even during the Depression, the Magma Mine continued to operate, and Superior endured.
In the early 1980s, however, a new and more serious threat appeared: Chile, with a large supply of high-grade ore and cheap labor, had modernized its operations to compete with U.S. copper mines. Meanwhile, as U.S. environmental regulations got stronger, operational costs increased. By 1986, globalization had infiltrated the hardrock mining industry, and Chile had surpassed the U.S. in copper production.
That was enough to knock the legs out from under the Magma Mine. It shut down in 1982, and though many locals always held out hope that mining would return, others seemed to accept that the world had changed.
"They just locked the gates and said, ... Leave,' " says Roy Chavez, a native of Superior and former mayor and city manager. "We lost over 1,200 jobs in one day. After that, things really set in that things might not be the same."
Mining did return for a brief flurry from 1990 to 1996, but things would, indeed, never be the same. After the 1982 shutdown, most of the younger miners fled to Nevada, where the industry's big open-pit mines weathered lower metal prices. In 1970, 5,000 people lived in Superior; by 1990, the population had plummeted to fewer than 3,500.
Mayor Hing says families were torn apart by the sudden exodus of young miners. Crime and drug and alcohol abuse increased. Plummeting property values encouraged outside investors to come in and buy up buildings; today, according to Hing, more than 300 properties in town are owned by out-of-towners, part of the reason Anna Jeffrey's used-to-be game is so filled with emptiness.
So it's only natural that people like Hing would welcome Resolution's proposal to tunnel deep into the earth and mine copper just outside Superior. Resolution President John Rickus expects the mine to create more than 1,000 full-time jobs, with as many as 3,000 contract employees working during the construction and development phase. With Arizona's copper industry paying an average salary of nearly $60,000 per year, the mine could give Superior a big boost.
And yet Jeffrey, whose dad was a machinist at the old smelter, is not enthused. "That used to be the Magma hospital," she says from her car, motioning to a brick building at the end of a side street. "I was born there." Now, after a multimillion-dollar remodel, the hospital houses Resolution Copper Company's "stupid-ass offices." Jeffrey now lives in Gold Canyon on the eastern edge of Phoenix and commutes every day to Mesa to work at Boeing. She'd like to return to Superior and open an art gallery, she says, but she won't do it if Resolution's mine takes off. "It's not that we're against mining," she says, echoing a half-dozen people I've spoken to today, "it's just that we want it done right."
Doing it "right" means doing it the old way: underground cut-and-fill mining. By contrast, Resolution's mine, while not a dreaded open-pit mine, will be a sort of underground version of it called "block caving."
The process will involve huge quantities of material - some 1.5 billion tons of ore. As all that material is removed from deep under the earth, the surface land above it - an area known as Oak Flat - will sink, or subside.
That's a big concern for Superiorites. Oak Flat is managed by the Forest Service and protected by an executive order from President Dwight D. Eisenhower. Generations of locals have used the area as a picnic ground, campground and a place for teenagers to party. Rock climbers cherish it as a world-class bouldering area and a base camp for climbing Queen Creek's cliffs. Meanwhile, the neighboring San Carlos Apache Tribe considers Oak Flat significant both culturally and religiously. The San Carlos Apaches, supported by other Apaches and tribes as far away as the Hopi, have helped stall Resolution's attempt to broker a land swap. The company wants to exchange various land in the region, including valuable riparian tracts along the imperiled San Pedro River, for Oak Flat.
It's not just the physical process that bothers those who are ambivalent about mining's return. It's also the rapid pace with which it will occur.
The stately architecture and distinctive culture of the Superiors, Silvertons, Buttes and Bisbees of the West sprang from a slower-paced style of mining, notes Ray Rasker, an economist and Executive Director of Headwaters Economics. "Mining today is at a much faster pace and a much larger scale," he says. "As a result, there is not a long-term investment in the communities, so you don't get the architecture and the culture and the sense of place."
Avenvano puts it in starker terms: "They'll bring in their own people, mine it all out, and leave."
Roy Chavez is a third-generation Superiorite who's done his time in the mines: He's worked underground and in open pits, for several different companies. Now he owns My Friends Tavern. He's a strong advocate for mining law reform and is an Arizona contact for Earthworks, a mining watchdog group.
"It's not that people don't want mining back," says Chavez, hunkered over a table on his bar's patio. "The thing is, our economy has always been one horse: copper mining." Chavez points out that during the mine's downtimes over the past two decades, the town has made some progress toward diversifying its economy. A new mine, he worries, could threaten that progress.
After the 1982 shutdown, Superior used grants, state and federal funding and land donations from the mining company to build a new park system, high school, swimming pool and fire station. An industrial park, funded in part by the federal Economic Development Administration, sits on the edge of town, not far from the old mine works. There's a health-care clinic in town and an ambulance service. There's even community-wide wireless Internet. Big-city refugees escape to the Boyce Thompson Arboretum, on the edge of town, which was established by a mining baron in the 1920s.
Some would argue that Superior has progressed because mining was gone. Census figures for a variety of former mining towns, especially those in scenic or recreationally rich areas, show that, as long as mining was the major industry, the population remained fairly stable and property values stayed level. As soon as the mines shut down, the population plummeted and property values sank. In Superior, for example, houses were sold as "two-for-ones." Optimistic investors could pick up houses for next to nothing in tax sales or just by taking over someone's payments.
But wait a decade, and things tend to change dramatically. The population slump reverses itself as amenity migrants "discover" the former mining towns, with their historic buildings and scenic surroundings. The old mining shacks become quaint Victorian cottages for artists, urban escapees and second-home owners. Once-smoky bars begin to welcome newcomers who drink imported beers or even, God forbid, microbrews. And, almost invariably, property values come to far exceed those of the mining era. It's happened in Colorado to the extreme (Telluride, Breckenridge) and less extreme (Silverton, Rico); and it's happened in Arizona, in places like Bisbee. Superior seems to be next.
It leads to the question: Can a mining town and amenity migrant town be one and the same? "Ideally, that would be the situation," says Rasker. "The question really is, can you have one industry operating in a way that doesn't foreclose opportunities for another industry?" In Silverton, where a small company hopes to eventually reopen a mill and mines, or in Bisbee, the lack of affordable housing hampers the prospects for a mining comeback; in Butte, says Rasker, the gaping and toxic Berkeley Pit "will forever be a detriment to that community diversifying."
"When you have one boom on top of another, like in Grand Junction, where an amenity boom is in full swing, and the oil and gas boom was plopped down right on top of it," says Rasker, "you have this overheated economy. Locals can't afford to live there." In Superior, the emerging amenity economy has yet to arrive in full force. But it's coming. And with Phoenix sprawling ever closer, and the one-lane highway that leads into town swelling into a four-laner, it may not take long.
So the question for Superior is: Will an industrial economy, a workforce of more than 1,000 miners, and the privatization and sinking of Oak Flat be able to coexist with artists, rock climbers and folks who just want to live in a charming little community less than an hour from the outskirts of Phoenix?
Hoping to find an answer, I drive about 20 miles east to Miami, Ariz. It's dark when I get to town, and I'm tired and hungry and desperate for a motel, so I stop at the first one I see. The room feels as if it hasn't been cleaned in a while. True, the sanitation strip on the toilet is intact, but the slightly sticky floor has me worried. Not to mention the sheets, and the countertops, and the shower with a missing showerhead. Mexican bandera music blares from a big white truck parked in front of the room next door; on the ground next to it are empty Negra Modelo and Bud Light bottles and boxes, along with the detritus of a Mexican feast.
There are other big white trucks in the parking lot, too, with the telltale orange flags of the mining industry jutting up from their back bumpers, and two people-carrier vans with orange lights on top. This isn't just a seedy motel, I soon realize; it's a housing unit for mining contractors. The contractors here are based in Nevada, but the workers are from all over the place - Houston and Katy, Texas; Calexico, Calif. Some are U.S. citizens, others aren't.
Though the industry has faltered in recent years, mining has never died. A giant tailings pile - replete with grass and grazing cows - lines a good part of one side of the town. Above it looms the big black smokestack of the Phelps-Dodge smelter, which, together with the copper-rod plant, employs some 400 people. But now there's a new boomtown buzz in the streets: Mining trucks rumble by a billboard on the main drag that reads: Careers at Freeport McMoRan; Better for you, Better for America .
At its core, Miami looks a lot like Superior. Old buildings, which either appear empty or house antique stores, line the downtown streets, and small homes dangle precariously from steep hillsides. The economics, according to Census figures, aren't much better than Superior's, even though mining wages never completely dried up. Twenty-four percent of the town's 2,000 or so residents live below poverty level, and the population shrank between 1990 and 2006.
But on the fringes of Miami, there's a Safeway and a Wal-Mart and other big retailers of the sort that Superior has never known. These, it seems, are the institutions built by the new mining economy. And more are on their way, according to Chris Martin of the Southern Gila County Economic Development Council. Since the boom began in earnest early last year, a new bank has come to town, new restaurants are opening up, old homes are being renovated, and more national retail chains are sniffing around, says Martin.
The boom and its potential impacts seem to be on everyone's minds. At a hip little coffee shop in downtown Globe (which has melded with neighboring Miami), it's the main topic of conversation for a group of older women who are clearly more of the amenity culture than the mining boom. They seem excited, but also scared; worried that the sudden influx of workers - there could be more than 1,000 temporary jobs and 800-900 new permanent jobs from expanded, reopened or new mines in the next few years - will put too much of a burden on the local infrastructure. Of course, one of them adds, it might be worth it, if the boom brings a new bowling alley to town.
From downtown Miami or Globe, it all seems like a big deal. Yet it helps to look at the bigger picture, says Vest, the economist. Though copper production is likely to ramp up significantly in Arizona in coming years, it's not the boon to the statewide economy that its boosters claim it is. Due to increased mechanization, fewer people are needed to mine more copper. Mining may create 2,000 or so new jobs, says Vest. But that pales in comparison to the number of jobs lost in the state's construction industry since the housing slump began: some 20,000.
As Jeffrey takes me through Superior, she suggests I talk to a friend of hers. Alan Seymour's tiny house is just down the street from the old Magma hospital. A compact 40-something-year-old, Seymour embodies the global nature of today's mining industry. He was born in South Africa, spent a good portion of his life in Australia, lived in Southern California and then moved to Superior, where he now works as a geologist for Australia- and England-based Resolution Copper.
Nearly every mine involved in the new boom is part of this global nexus. Most of the big operators today are based in Canada, Australia, England or even Mexico. (Just this month, in fact, China bought a big stake in Rio Tinto, Resolution's parent company.) All of them, even Phoenix-based conglomerate Freeport-McMoRan, owe much of their current success to China rather than the domestic market. Between 1990 and 2005, Chinese demand for metals, fueled by the country's breakneck growth, increased by about 10 percent a year. Now, China is the world's largest consumer of copper, helping raise global copper consumption by more than 60 percent since 1990. And as the Chinese become wealthier and buy more gadgets, the country's copper craving could double or even quadruple over the next 25 years, according to the World Bank Group's metal market outlook.
Dirt-caked shovels lean up against Alan Seymour's kitchen counter, and a television monopolizes most of his living room. On the bookshelf, Camus' Stranger stands cheek-by-jowl with geology textbooks. Seymour is hardly a stereotypical miner; he even says he cares "more about the environment than the average person."
"Life revolves around making the best choices," he says. That includes mining copper here at home, specifically under Oak Flat, even if it has some environmental costs. This notion of mineral independence is common among Resolution supporters and sounds a lot like the energy independence mantra that has led to the drilling of vast swaths of the West.
Resolution says it will mine copper in Superior for the next 40 years. The huge ore body under Oak Flat will supply 20 to 25 percent of all copper produced in the U.S. during that time, they say. And the global demand will continue to grow.
Still, the bottom line rules, and there's no guarantee that copper prices will stay high enough to make mining profitable. Roderick Eggert, professor of economics and business at Colorado School of Mines, expected copper prices to fall by now, as did the World Bank Group. He remains certain it will happen sometime. "My expectation is that over the longer term, copper prices will fall back toward the $1.50 per pound range," he says. "The question I can't answer is when."
Meanwhile, there are copper deposits in undeveloped countries that are just waiting to be tapped. Foremost may be the Oyu Tolgoi, in Mongolia, which contains some 70 billion tons of copper. Once developed, it will create a significant new supply for China and the rest of Asia. One of the two companies hoping to mine Oyu Tolgoi is Rio Tinto, owner of Resolution Copper Company in Superior.
Back at My Friends Tavern , as the late-afternoon sun casts long, cool shadows, a group of motorcyclists roars up and parks in front of the bar. Their shiny new Harley Davidsons smack more of the Phoenix-professional variety of biker than the Hells Angels. "Ten years ago," says Roy Chavez, motioning toward the bikers with a smile, "we would have beaten those guys up." Then he points at the green bottle I'm sipping from and adds, "Heck, you couldn't have ordered a Dos Equis, either. You drank Coors with a shot of Jim Beam. And that's it."
Maybe that is it. Maybe this isn't about the global economy or copper prices or economics at all. Maybe it's about an urban escapee being able to get a Dos Equis at the local bar without getting his ass kicked by surly miners, or sip a cappuccino while listening to jazz rather than the roar of mining trucks. Maybe it's about how a rough and scrappy blue-collar culture tends to scare away the more genteel folks who fuel an amenity economy. Second-home owners aren't inclined to fix up quaint Victorian cottages if the neighbors use their lawn as a salvage yard, and eco-tourists aren't so hip on staying in B&Bs that overlook seedy hotels or man camps crammed with roughnecks.
Superiorites are cognizant of all this. For them, as for so many other small towns still climbing out of the wreckage of industrial abandonment, the amenity economy is the future, whether they like it or not. "Many of these communities attract retirees and tourists," says Vest, the University of Arizona economist. "In other instances, these communities have simply died off. "
A new burst of mining, with its high wages and the vague promise that it could resurrect past glories, has undeniable appeal. But the boom will inevitably end, and sooner or later Superior will find itself back at square one.
And so it is that Superior is divided, unsure of itself. As the sun hangs low in the West, Chavez expresses the quandary that he shares with the rest of the town.
"Part of me wants the mine to reopen," he says. "Part of me doesn't."
Jonathan Thompson is editor of High Country News.
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