ASARCO's Aesthetic

The Mining Giant Wants To Rip Into the Santa Ritas In A Big Way.
By Jeff Smith

IT'S DIFFICULT TO drum up a lot of sympathy for the comparatively affluent in circumstances of relative paradise. I, for example, get a case of the red-ass whenever I hear Donald Trump grousing about the problems of urban landlords.

Smith However, there are times when even The Quality are forced to stand in the path of destructive forces that threaten the hoi polloi, and can't send the domestics out as cannon fodder in their stead.

A rough parallel exists in the present confrontation between the denizens of the Sonoita Valley southeast of Tucson and the American Smelting and Refining Co. ASARCO is familiar to most Tucsonans as the folks who gave us the Mission Mine, south of town and west of Green Valley, part of a chain of copper developments that form a sort of public objet d'art even uglier than that red thing in front of the downtown library.

To flog the metaphor just this once more, what ASARCO creates by way of aesthetic exercise is a contrapuntal study in negative and positive space: a great big ugly hole in the ground on the one hand, contrasted against a great big ugly pile of dirt on the other. Having done this to this and other locations around Arizona and the world, ASARCO is now threatening to do the same to the Santa Rita Mountains between Sonoita and Tucson.

Tucsonans are also familiar with Sonoita and the Sonoitans as one of the loveliest, idyllic natural settings within picnic range, and the disproportionately blessed, often affluent and sometimes spoiled NIMBYs who get to live there 24 & 7. So when the Sonoitans began squawking over ASARCO's revived plans to mine an ore body in the Rosemont district, Tucson could have been pardoned feeling that it was about time those lucky bastards living in paradise had a little bum luck running their way.

Except that in this instance it appears that what's bad for Sonoita is worse for Tucson, and at last week's City Council meeting the governing body took official notice of this fact. By a seven-zip vote the Council passed a resolution opposing the land swap ASARCO hopes to work with the U.S. Forest Service, in order to make mining the Rosemont property a whole lot easier.

ASARCO already owns the acreage containing the ore body, and legally can use as much public land around its claim as necessary to get the copper out, dispose of the tailings and so forth.

The current law pertaining to the matter dates back to 1872 and gives mining companies virtual carte blanche. ASARCO's problem is that the Mission Mine is not yet played out, and they aren't going to be ready to mine Rosemont, they say, for another 20 years. By then there may be a new mining law with much stricter rules, and frankly, ASARCO would rather play by today's rules.

So they want a shitload of land around the ore body--three or four times what they actually need. Then they can take their sweet time, do pretty much whatever they want, and have a few square miles of land left over afterwards to, say, sell to real estate developers at obscene profits. Cozy, no?

But what Tucson and its government are belatedly realizing is that copper mining is not a huge contributor to the local economy--certainly not enough to offset the loss of recreational and tourism dollars from turning their scenic Santa Ritas into a hole in the to a pile of dirt. And that the prevailing winds and underground water flows come from southeast to northwest, potentially polluting Tucson's air and water with dust, chemical emissions and soil leaching from the Rosemont mine. Besides which, the water to develop the mine will be piped from ASARCO's wells along the Santa Cruz watershed.

Besides which, ASARCO proposes to trade just 2,200 acres of scattered parcels of land to the Forest Service, for about 13,200 acres around the Rosemont claim. ASARCO says the market values are comparable--but in terms of who's getting what and how badly do you want it?

There simply is no parity. The public, particularly the southern Arizona, the Tucson, the Sonoita public, is getting hosed.

And for what? For new jobs and booming prosperity? The guys who work the Rosemont mine will just be the guys who move over from the Mission unit. Whatever prosperity booms will be felt at corporate HQ in New York, and among ASARCO's worldwide stockholders; not in Tucson. These are no longer the days of King Kopper in Arizona. Having mines around today is a nuisance, an environmental and economic threat.

ASARCO says it has to mine copper where copper lies in the ground. True enough. But there are places on earth that the company already owns where copper lies in stronger concentrations than the few tenths of one percent found at Rosemont. It's neither your responsibility nor mine, nor our hired hands with the Forest Service, to make it convenient and profitable for ASARCO to chew up our mountains to make a little pile of copper and a large pile of money. Let them mine where nature has put copper in sufficient percentages that the negative environmental effects are more nearly balanced by the extrinsic value of the recoverable mineral.

This is a fight that can be won. A few pennies in potential costs versus potential profits will decide the matter from ASARCO's perspective. If the Forest Service gives ASARCO what it wants in a land trade, there will either be an ugly mine at Rosemont, or eventually, an ugly stretch of subdivisions. If the Forest Service decides in the best interests of the public, there will still be 20 square miles there for the deer and the antelope...and the people, to play. TW

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