Copper Clash

Worried Dragoon-area residents aren't calmed by a mining rep's reassuring words

Many Dragoon-area residents are feeling vulnerable, angry and--in some cases--violent, all because of a letter from a mining company they received in the mail in early January.

Some 130 residents of the area--just off of Interstate 10, about an hour southeast of Tucson--packed the Dragoon Womens Club on Wednesday, Feb. 15, to hear what representatives of BHP Billiton had to say.

The hubbub started on Jan. 9-10, when BHPB mailed letters to landowners in the Dragoon area announcing the company's intent to explore the surface of their properties for evidence of mineralization, beginning on Feb. 10. BHPB has staked claims to the mineral rights; the 1916 Stock Raising Homestead Act provided free land to homesteaders raising livestock, but it didn't give the landowner the mineral rights.

BHPB's mining-exploration partner, General Minerals Corporation, also filed claims on about 5 square miles of federal land, adjacent to private land, in the Dragoon Mountains.

While BHPB has not entered private land yet--the company has so far only drilled at three different sites south of the town--the property owners are understandably concerned, as copper has become increasingly lucrative, with prices skyrocketing to more than $2.20 per pound

"I can feel the intense energy here, but three holes on state land--that's all we're doing right now is three holes, 1,500 to 1,800 feet deep," said Jeff Parker, BHPB's Arizona director of environmental and community affairs, at the meeting organized by the Dragoon Conservation Alliance.

Parker told the crowd he was aware that BHPB is not wanted in the Dragoon area, and said that the company has no intent of drilling on any private land. He also said the company should have contacted every landowner who received the Homestead Act letter to assure them that the company didn't plan to drill on their land.

"By mid-April, we'll know more whether there's high mineralization that can lead to more drilling, and we will post the results of the drilling on our Web site and any other place you want. ... We don't intend to explore on private land, and we only filed those homesteading claims for a buffer to the east of town and to prevent another company from coming in adjacent to our interests. But the odds of there ever being a mine are very small."

However, Parker's words did not appease the crowd. One person shouted: "(If) you come on my land, bring body bags and get the hell out of Dragoon."

Another person in the crowd gave a grim description of the poisoning of the fishing industry and the destructive displacement of indigenous people at a mine in Papua, New Guinea, that the company pulled out of in 2002.

Parker responded: "That was mining done badly. It is not the way we would approach any project now."

One resident said: "A mine will destroy our land, land that we came here to see unchanged, and none of us will be alive to see a successful reclamation of a mine. Would you be willing to leave here rather than destroy what we have?"

Another audience member added: "Even if you found a rich gold deposit, would it be worth it to you to have our hatred?"

Tucson resident Roger Featherstone, a representative of the nonprofit mining-reform organization Earthworks, told Parker, "You are doing what you can do under these mining-claim acts, not what you should do, which is leave them alone."

But the issue is not that simple, Parker claimed; if BHPB relinquished their claims, it would be replaced by another mining company, he said.

"This place has had mines and been explored for decades," he added.

In the late 1990s, BHP (which became BHP Billiton in 2001 after a merger) was Arizona's largest mining employer. The company owns the closed San Manuel mine and the Pinto Valley mine near Miami, Ariz. Together with Rio Tinto Zinc, its partner in the controversial New Guinea mine, BHPB is currently working to develop an underground copper mine near Queen Creek, Ariz., that is also upsetting some people because of its possible impacts on public lands and recreational usage.

Featherstone accused BHPB of doing a poor job of reclaiming their Pinto Valley properties; he also alleged the company operated the San Manuel mine and smelter in an environmentally destructive way.

Parker heatedly denied the accusations.

The underground San Manuel mine is closed; however, it is filling up with water, and there are fears by hydrologists from the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality, as well as environmental groups and local residents, that groundwater could become contaminated over time, and that this pollution could migrate toward the San Pedro River.

Again and again, Parker contended that near Dragoon, "there are only three holes, and they will be reclaimed well enough that in a few years, you would not know that we were ever there."

Pressed by the audience to describe what type of mine could be developed if the long odds came true, Parker said: "If it was actually rich enough, the deep porphyry body could be extracted by an underground mine. It would take perhaps two to four years to explore in the event that mineralization were rich enough. It could take as long as 15 years to actually complete and operate a mine."

As the BHPB representatives were leaving, an engineer working at the nearby Johnson copper mine told the group that he had never seen General Minerals--BHPB's exploration partner--find an orebody that produced a mine. "The odds are 1 in 100 at best."

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