Superior shows generational divide over views on copper mine
SUPERIOR, Ariz. - The kids care about the future of mining. But they also care about Native American rights.
These kinds of contradictions and concerns lie in the background of Superior, a small town nestled in the mountains at the start of Pinal County’s Copper Corridor. Over 5,000 feet below the surface of Oak Flat, just to the east of Superior, lies a copper ore body that could be worth billions.
But that’s not all that lies under the surface of Superior. While publicly, city leaders and community members show support for the Resolution Copper project, others claim there is a silent contingent of locals who fear the impacts of the block-cave mining operation will destroy the town forever.
“People that are for the mine are very vocal,” said 71-year-old Sylvia Delgado-Barrett, a former miner who retired near Superior but whose family still live there, including mother, siblings, children and grandchildren. “Those of us against the mine, there are many people on our side."
Support for the mine appears to follow an inverse-generational divide, as younger families and local students believe the mine will foster a resurgence in the city’s downtown corridor, while older residents, many of whom are former miners, harbor a deep distrust of the large mining companies that come in and extract without showing much concern for the mess they leave behind.
That dynamic is exemplified by 78-year-old Orlando Perea, who worked in Superior’s Magma Mine for over two decades, and his grandniece, Miranda Perea, who graduated from Superior High School in 2016 and still lives in town.
The elder Perea is a vocal critic of the mine, while Miranda Perea praised the charitable work Resolution had done for groups like the local Little League or the high school.
“Everybody knows that our small town goes off the mine,” Miranda Perea said, noting her father is also a miner. “People talk about pollution the mine causes, but at the same time you have to understand if you are going to live in a mining town, there are pros and cons of being around it.”
Orlando Perea, who worked as a miner in San Manuel for several years where the block-cave method was used, said he’s most worried about the amount of water the mine will use. Outside estimates have projected that, despite the megadrought, the mine would require 2.5 billion gallons — 775,000 acre-feet — of water, enough to provide water annually for a city of 150,000 people.
Orlando Perea also worries about the fate of Oak Flat, which he first visited as a 10-year-old-boy.
“There’s a big oak tree that’s been standing there for 68 years, since I first visited,” Orlando said. “It’s a pretty area. That’ll all be gone. I feel for the destruction of the land. There’ll be a hole left there which will be there forever.”
The block-cave method Resolution Copper has proposed would leave Oak Flat, a campground and sacred site for the local San Carlos Apache tribe, a toxic crater. San Carlos Apache Chairman Terry Rambler has complained that the tribe was completely left out of the mine project negotiations and discussions.
“There aren’t many Native Americans here,” said Jasmine Ortega, a junior at Superior High School, “but people are opposed to the mine because of the sacred land. They are back and forth on this, and people don’t know what to do yet.”
So far, Resolution has promised to help fund two large projects within Superior: $2 million for a community recreation center that would be built within the old high school building, and $1.29 million for an Entrepreneur and Innovation Center that would provide an outlet for technical training and business assistance.
The company has also poured millions into reclaiming the old Magma mine just north of the city and has helped with smaller projects such as renovating the Superior Chamber of Commerce building. Such gestures seem as if the company is committed to being a good partner.
Henry Munoz, the 66-year-old head of the Concerned Citizens and Retired Miners Coalition of Superior, comes from five generations of miners and has lived in Superior all his life.
He keeps a gigantic plaster model of the Resolution Copper project in his garage and has poured through the entire 3,000-page Environmental Impact Statement released, and later rescinded, by the U.S. Forest Service this past year.
It’s a document few have seen in its entirety, but Munoz obtained a hard copy — a PDF version is available publicly online — and has starred the portions that paint a less than rosy picture of the mine.
The EIS also indicates that Superior is unlikely to receive as much of the economic windfall as the surrounding area. The town could receive anywhere from $50,000 to $500,000 in annual revenues depending on residential growth, although the Superior school district could receive upwards of $16 million. Pinal County would see between $10 million and $20 million in annual revenue.
Superior’s population is around 2,500, or about half of what it was during its heyday in the 1970s, when the Magma Mine was operating.
Resolution Copper has promised over 3,000 direct and indirect jobs would be created by the copper mine; Munoz thinks that overstates the extent to which those workers would relocate to the town.
Munoz is not only concerned about the mine’s water use but how the mine would impact Superior’s own water supply.
“The Resolution Copper Project could affect both water availability and quality in several ways,” one portion of the EIS reads. “These include the potential for contamination of groundwater and surface water, tailings storage facility failure, and increase potential for accidental spills.”
“The first 10 years of this mine, everything is going to be wine and roses,” Munoz said, “but after the contamination and pollution occurs, after our water is polluted? We will be a ghost town."
Many of the older miners from Superior lived and worked through the boom and bust period of the Magma copper operation, which closed in 1982.
Delgado-Barrett, who was one of the first female miners to work in Superior, said many people were forced to leave when the Magma mine closed down.