B y K e v i n F r a n k l i n
WHILE TOURING THE Phelps Dodge Morenci mine operation, the word "largest" keeps creeping into conversations.
This is the largest open-pit Mining operation in North America, employing some of the largest heavy equipment ever made to extract the largest amount of copper unearthed anywhere in the United States.
The mine offers tours and, if you go on one, you'll wander around saying things like, "That's the largest tire I've ever seen." Which is exactly what I say this Saturday morning as I tag along with the University of Arizona's Society of Earth Science Students. Last week we visited a relatively small and abandoned copper mining area in Copper Creek, ("Miner Attractions," Tucson Weekly, November 2). This week, peering over the edge of the vast pit in front of us, we've clearly come to something orders of magnitude different.
The vertical dimension to the pit is half the depth of the Grand Canyon. The highest peak tops 6,200 feet, while the pit's floor rests at 3,800, says Brad Calkins, a Phelps Dodge geologist and our guide for the day.
But where the canyon began entrenching itself 10 million years ago, open pit-style Mining began here only in 1937. More than 800,000 tons of rock a day are removed from this pit--that's 1.6 billion pounds. Moving that much material seems hard to imagine, until one of Phelps Dodge's dump trucks rumbles past.
The biggest pickup you generally see cruising around the streets of Tucson is a one-ton truck. Next to a Hyundai they seem pretty big. However, the full-sized pickups we see here and there in the mine seem like toys as they dart among the 240-ton haul trucks rumbling along these roads 24-hours a day.
The size of these trucks staggers the mind. I see one creeping its way up the road with a full load. From a distance I spot one of the many rocks in the truck's load balancing precariously on top. Noting the possibility of it falling off, I keep an eye out--we wouldn't want to run over something like that. It's not until we get closer that I realize the "rock" is really a double-door refrigerator-sized boulder balanced two-and-a-half stories in the air.
Calkins tells the story of a mechanic who drove his pickup to a broken-down truck. After fixing the monster, he drove it a little ways to test it. Hearing a crunching noise, but not really feeling anything 20 feet up in the cab of this behemoth, he climbed down to confirm his fears. His pickup lay crushed under the 10-foot-tall wheels of the haul truck.
Nothing much gets in the way of these giants, not even towns.
The original town of Morenci was adjacent to the mining area; but as the mine grew, the town had to move.
"The hospital would be floating out in space above the pit over there," says Calkins, pointing hundreds of feet above our heads.
The mine giveth, the mine taketh away.
A lot of folks would look into this giant hole and be disgusted. They'd call it a blemish on our environment and a permanent scar of nearly incomprehensible proportions. And they'd be right. But as a good friend of mine often says, after giving that speech they climb into their steel Jeep Cherokee, grip their plastic steering wheel and pop in some New Age music powered by an alternator wrapped in copper coils.
It may be a redneck banner, but the bumpersticker that reads "If it wasn't grown, it was mined," is an undeniable truth. Even an agrarian society depends on metals; so, given the billions of people on the planet, vast operations like Morenci are necessary. The key is to do them properly, and this is where Phelps Dodge does a reasonably good job.
When it comes to environmental mitigation, having a large company with hundreds of millions of dollars invested in a single operation has a distinct advantage over operating dozens of smaller mines. Phelps Dodge is in this racket to stay, and to do that they have to follow the rules. The likelihood of a company this size filing bankruptcy, leaving a huge mess behind and disappearing, as so many smaller operations have done, is low.
"We continue striving," says Rick Mohr, environmental services manager, "to be a good corporate citizen and follow state and federal regulations. We try to stay on top of the regulatory curve and keep the mining operations within compliance."
Even so, standing on a bluff in the mine I'm surrounded by asteroid-like desolation. It seems the ecology of the region will have a tough comeback when the mine finally expires in 75 years or so. Then I look down and see several bighorn sheep beds and droppings, probably from the night before. It would seem the restrictions of random human activity around the mine appeals to the bighorn. Maybe life is a little more resilient than I'm giving it credit for.
I go back to picking up a few excellent pieces of azurite and stuffing them into my backpack. Before long it's time to go and we load up our vans and drive off, keeping a sharp eye out for rumbling haul trucks.
GETTING THEREIn order to go on the free tour of the mine, you have to call Tour Director Arlene Bowling (520) 865-4521 ext. 435, and make reservations. The tours are twice daily Monday through Friday, starting at 8:30 a.m. and 1:15 p.m. The tour begins at the Morenci Motel, where you must leave your vehicle and ride in a Phelps Dodge van. The tour lasts about three hours and is guided by retired Phelps Dodge mine employees.
Morenci is located about 180 miles east of Tucson. Take Interstate 10 east to Highway 191 (formerly 666) and head toward Safford. Stay on Highway 191 heading toward Clifton. Pass through Clifton and follow the signs to Morenci. Immediately off the main road you should see the Morenci Motel, No.1 Burro Alley, (520) 865-4111.
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