Arizona Is Top U.S. Copper Producer

Arizona leads the nation in copper production. These days, demand from Asia is contributing to record-high copper prices. Companies are trying to open new mines in Arizona despite opposition. Critics argue the mine will damage municipal water supplies and destroy scenic views.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

The state of Arizona has two nicknames. It's called the Grand Canyon State for obvious reasons, and the Copper State. Arizona leads the nation in copper production. These days demand from Asia is contributing to record-high copper prices; companies are trying to open new mines in Arizona.

And as NPR's Ted Robbins report, there's little that opponents can do to stop them.

TED ROBBINS: Jonathan Lunine and I climb a small hill in the oak and juniper-covered foothills below the Santa Rita Mountains, about 35 miles from Tucson. We're just off a state scenic highway, just one of the reasons, he thinks, the proposed Rosemont copper mine doesn't belong here. Lunine is president of Save the Scenic Santa Ritas.

Mr. JONATHAN LUNINE (Save the Scenic Santa Ritas): It would ruin the views from Highway 83. It would make the highway much more dangerous in terms of mining traffic. It would create a situation in perpetuity where large waste piles and tailings would have to be managed to prevent air pollution and water pollution.

ROBBINS: Even if all that is true, Lunine concedes it won't halt the mine.

Mr. LUNINE: It's very difficult to stop through the federal process, that's right, and that is - it's an amazing story, but that's the story of the West.

ROBBINS: And it has been, ever since the 1872 Mining Act, which was passed to promote development of the West. On most public land, it puts mining above all other uses and it's still in effect. Seems like a slam dunk for Augusta Resource, the Canadian company which wants to build the Rosemont Mine. But the company has undertaken an aggressive campaign to win over the public, including underwriting programming on the Tucson NPR station.

Jamie Sturgess is a vice president with Augusta Resource.

Mr. JAMES STURGESS (Augusta Resource Corporation): Why not just hunker down, hire the lawyers, beat our way through every hearing, every meeting, and say that we don't care? Because we're not like that.

ROBBINS: Sturgess believes the mine will be good for the community and the country and it should also make money.

Mr. STURGESS: The price of copper has tripled in the last three years and the U.S. now imports over 50 percent of its copper. It's dependent on foreign sources just like it is on foreign oil.

ROBBINS: There's another reason for the public relations campaign. It would be an oversimplification to say government agencies have no say. Under laws from the 1970s, the Forest Service has to do an Environmental Impact Statement, a process which includes public comment.

Beverly Everson is a Forest Service geologist. She says - and Jamie Sturgess agrees - that by the time government agencies are finished, the company's mining plan will look a lot different than it does now.

Ms. BEVERLY EVERSON (U.S. Forest Service): They're going to have conditions imposed on them by us, by EPA, by the Department of Environmental Quality, by Game and Fish, by Fish and Wildlife.

Mr. STURGESS: So I don't buy the fact that there hasn't been any change to the mining practices or to the ability of mining companies to operate since 1872.

ROBBINS: But the regulations are only intended to mitigate damage caused by mining activity on public land, not prevent it. Only Congress can do that, and a bill to reform the 135-year-old law recently passed the House. It awaits action in the Senate.

Ted Robbins, NPR News, Tucson.

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