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The price of copper is down more than 40 percent from its peak just four years ago, which is great news if your home renovation might include a copper roof or copper pipe. It is not such good news for mining towns in Arizona. Carrie Jung reports from our NPR member station KJZZ.
CARRIE JUNG, BYLINE: It's hard to miss the Ray Mine near Kearney in southern Arizona. The open pit copper mine spans nearly two square miles and extends more than 1,000 feet into the ground.
At first glance, everything looks normal from the road as earthmovers and large haul trucks move around the area. This is one of more than 120 mining operations that dot the landscape in this state. But production at the Ray Mine isn't as high as it was a few years ago. In fact, Asarco, the company that owns it, just announced a round of layoffs.
DARLENE HOSEA: They've worked kind of hard, the company and the union, to try to make the transition easy. But how do you transition from a paycheck to (laughter) saying you're not going to have one? So...
JUNG: Darlene Hosea is a haul truck driver. She's been working at the Ray Mine for the last four years. But recently, she got word she was losing her job.
HOSEA: We've had to trim on our finances, things that aren't necessary, like satellite TVs. And, you know, we're doing a little more eating at home and a lot less eating out.
JUNG: Officials with Asarco say the layoffs were in response to falling copper prices. The company hasn't released the final number of layoffs planned at the mine, but elected officials from surrounding towns estimate around 130 employees could be affected at this mine and a nearby smelter. Sam Hosler is the mayor of Kearney, a small town just 10 miles east of the mine. He says for the nearly 2,000 people that call this area home, dealing with the threat of layoffs is never easy. But, he adds, layoffs related to copper prices are just a natural part of this mining town's economic cycle.
MAYOR SAM HOSLER: That's tough for individuals to deal with. Now, the town itself has a longer memory... Used to it? No, especially the younger families. It still hurts. And yes, I think the town will certainly be here one, two, three years from now no matter what happens.
JUNG: Hosler says there are peaks and valleys in this cycle. The current valley is coming off a spike originating in the mid-2000s. Mining companies began increasing production after seeing a growing use of the metal in electronic components and a surge in infrastructure investment in the U.S. and China. By 2011, though, demand from both countries dropped off significantly, leaving the market with more supply than demand could support. But Dennis Hoffman, an economist at Arizona State University, says the price drop isn't likely to last too long.
DENNIS HOFFMAN: For this to be a permanent change, we're going to have to believe the construction's never coming back in this country and that China is never growing. And those would be pretty surprising events.
JUNG: While layoffs are reality for some copper mining companies right now, others are looking to invest. In December, Congress approved a federal land exchange to allow resolution copper to open a mine in the state, over what many believe is one of the largest untapped copper deposits in the world. It joined several other companies that are also expanding their operations in Arizona. Hoffman says, in this industry, long-term is the name of the game when it comes to investment. He compares the current conditions to those of the oil industry.
HOFFMAN: There'll be some rigs that are shut down because the price of oil came off a little bit. But are people stopping investing in oil? And the answer is no.
JUNG: With key uses in electronics manufacturing and building construction, Hoffman says just like oil, demand for copper isn't going away anytime soon. For NPR News, I'm Carrie Jung in Phoenix.
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