/ Modified sep 27, 2023 5:44 p.m.

Water and Copper: How mining's history follows Arizona's feelings about water use in the state

Mining was Arizona's first billion-dollar industry. As we consider our state's economic drivers and their water use, we ask not only how much water goes into mining but what its aftermath does to water.

Queen Mine Tour Almost 100 years after the opening of Bisbee's Queen Mine, the Queen Mine Tours opened to the public in 1976. About 50,000 people visit the mine each year.
Katya Mendoza, AZPM News


Season 2 Episode 5: Water and Copper

(Download MP3)

*In episode five of this season, we continue to examine the Five Cs of Arizona's economy with a look at 'Copper.' The state is dotted with towns that at some point relied on mineral extraction for jobs. And that industry's historical practices around water use have reflected the state's feelings about both natural resources, whether it's dropping slag into rivers in the early-to-mid 1900s or efforts to squeeze and treat every drop of water out of today's tailings. How does this stalwart of Arizona's economy compare to others when it comes to water use?

Episode transcription Zac Ziegler: Let's head back to a sunny summer day in Jerome, Arizona about a year ago. Henry Vincent has just finished giving one of his daily talks at the Jerome State Historical Park.

He sits down with me on a patio of a mansion-turned-museum, with a spectacular view of the Verde Valley below us.

HV: This is the Douglas Mansion, as we know it locally. It is an asset of the Arizona State Parks System. This building was built by Rawhide Jimmy Douglas. It came into service about 1917 and Rawhide Jimmy Douglas was one of the original organizers of Jerome's second most important mine, this mine is known as the United Verde Extension Copper Company.

ZZ: This massive home was built on a hilltop that, if you travel down hundreds of feet, resembles swiss cheese. Right next to us is the headframe where, a century ago, miners would travel down and pull minerals out of the ground, 12 hours a day, 6 days a week.

HV: The worldwide demand for copper and other precious metals coming out of the inventions of the Second Industrial Revolution created a tremendous demand, and then I think if you couple that with, for example, rural electrification or World War I [and] World War II, copper plus zinc equals brass and brass is what makes the bullet.

ZZ: That demand dwindled after those wars, leading to the closure of U-V-X in the 1950s.

HV: Between 1860 and 1960 and that hundred-year period, Arizona produced in excess of half of the domestic production of copper, and embracing the Industrial Revolution and our war efforts and rural electrification, that was a tremendous contribution that Arizona made to the betterment of America.

ZZ: Estimates say about a billion dollars was pulled out of this mine alone in that time, and that's a figure that is not adjusted for inflation.

HV: Yeah, copper was absolutely in terms of economic activity, probably the top of the heap of the 5 C's in terms of money anyway.

ZZ: And we didn't mention the gold, silver and other valuable minerals that came up too.

The work that it took to get those minerals out of the ground is visible in the valley below, where a 20 million ton slag pile from the U-V-X smelter spilled into the Verde River and changed its path permanently. Though, in this case, those materials were inert and didn't pollute the river.

(music in)

The story of Jerome and the Verde River are not singular to Arizona. In fact, the guy who owned the U-V-X mine, Rawhide Jimmy Douglas, owned mines elsewhere in the state.

This is Tapped, a podcast about water. I'm ZZ.

Mining was Arizona's first billion-dollar industry. It's been the economic backbone, so much so that we put a prospector on the state seal.

As we're re-examining those five C's of the state's economy, some issues are coming up about their use of water. So, where does that leave copper?

(music out)

Joining me again this week is AZPM environmental reporter Katya Mendoza. Welcome, Katya.

Katya Mendoza: Hi Zac, thanks for hosting me– again!

ZZ: Well, when we were talking about season 2 of this podcast, let's just say it was no surprise that you would be the second most-common voice on it besides me, and I'm glad you are.

ZZ: So, Katya, through the magic of archival tape, I got to start the show in one of my favorite places, the Verde Valley and Jerome. Those towns were a part of the mining heyday in Arizona. But that history goes back well before Arizona was even a state to like, the Spaniards who came here looking for a city of gold, right?

KM: I mean mining started with Native Americans who mined clay and turquoise.

ZZ: Well, now I feel like a Euro-centric jerk.

KM: Well Zac, there’s no need to feel like that! We’re here to unearth all the hidden gems of Arizona’s mining history, including those that may have been overlooked! But yes, you’re correct. In the 1500s, the Spanish came and started mining silver, and in the 1860s is when we started seeing mining production on a much larger scale.

By the late 17th century extensive mining was happening in the mountains bordering the Santa Cruz River and its tributary Sonoita Creek.

We see things like the Homestead Act which brought more people to Arizona, about 25% were prospecting.

ZZ: That's something we talked about in Episode 1 of this season, with gold panning in the Hassayampa River.

KM: Around this time of westward expansion, is when we encounter the Mining Law of 1872, which gave people the right to stake their claims and– this marked the beginning of the copper industry’s expansion. A legacy that endures to this day.

Like you mentioned in the introduction, Arizona was the copper mining capitol of the world in the early 20th century. And even today, we still produce about two thirds of the copper that comes from America.

KM: So with that being said, I’d like to take us on a little field trip…

(Ambient sound of walking in the Queen Mine.)

Doug Graeme: So we’re gonna be airing the Queen Mine, the Queen tunnel. It was driven in 1915. This part of the mine operated up until the middle 1940’s. The rest of Bisbee shut down in 1975, the underground division and the open pit mine shut down in 1974. The mine tour was developed for economic growth after the mine shut down and we took over immediately after that.

KM: That’s Doug Graeme, the Queen Mine Tour Manager. His family has deep roots in Bisbee and mining.

ZZ: The Copper Queen! I obviously have a thing for old mining towns, and I'm jealous that you got to head to Bisbee.

DG: Most people don’t realize we’ve also produced Arizona’s largest amount of gold and Arizona’s largest amount of silver.

KM: Mining in the 1850s stimulated growth in the Arizona Territory and in the early 1900s, the new state supported 445 active mines, 72 concentrating facilities and 11 smelters with a gross value of nearly 67 million dollars.

So, the Bureau of Labor Statistics' inflation calculator only goes back to 1913, so that's what we'll use here. That would be more than $2 billion today.

The story of Bisbee’s Copper Queen Mine began in the late 1870s, when military officer Lieutenant Dunn, who was posted at the nearby Fort Huachuca, was on a scouting mission in the Mule Mountains, against the Apache Indians.

On a walk one evening after dinner, he spotted a strange rock.

After confiding in a prospector by the name of George Warren, a-k-a the guy on the Seal of Arizona, the two struck up a partnership which inevitably disintegrated.

Warren was in charge of locating claims and working the property, but found a new set of partners soon after.

In 1880, copper production began and the American mining company Phelps Dodge became a dominant force of the mining district.

The Queen Mine in Bisbee is noted as a copper mine, and one that had produced about a billion pounds of copper.

DG: Ore was discovered back in 1877, it took awhile for things to get together because that time you know Bisbee is in the middle of nowhere and copper wasn’t worth anything because it was just this is before electricity really became commonplace.

What kind of happened in Bisbee though, is everybody got stuck on that belief, you know the good stuff has to be deeper. And For about 20 years in Bisbee, that’s what they did.

KM: Doug says that at the turn of the century somebody said, remember where we started, what’s in the rest of that hill? And so they started exploring and one of the ore bodies that they found up in here was 1.2 million tonnes at 9%. Which was considered a fantastic single ore body.

DG: We’re gonna go into one so you get to size scale is of a 10,000 ton ore body, it looks big, nothing compared to that…

There were points in time that we were mining lead and zinc and we also mined manganese for just a short time during the world wars.

KM: There was a high demand for manganese for the war effort.

ZZ: So, that audio I played at the start came from an episode of our show The Buzz, where we talked about a major labor dispute from around that time known as the Bisbee Deportation, and the war effort was a big deal then.

KM: Doug says metals are very important during the world wars and that Bisbee ran out of miners during World War Two because many of them were drafted but they ended up drafting soldiers to work in the mines.

ZZ: So, the underground mines that I saw pictures of in Jerome were stereotypical underground mines: small tunnels with tracks for the cars. Was that the case here?

KM: Doug would say so, the Copper Queen mine was your typical mine, with train tracks and tunnels that serve as roads. About 43 different levels and over 2200 miles of workings as Doug mentioned.

Copper isn’t mined in the tunnels, but in large rooms called stopes…

DG: When it was mined, it left a room open that was roughly 2000 feet long, 1000 feet across and spots which is 500 feet tall.

KM: I asked Doug to explain to me what mining practices were back then, and how they’d compare to modern times. He said it was a different world.

DG: The skill level of those miners was much, much higher because it’s like when you’re drilling rounds to blast, you have to have the skill to read the rock, that way you’re drilling as few holes as possible and getting as much advance forward…

DG: Today, it’s going autonomous, most modern mines are planning to be basically, you just have a few people on the surface and you watch it mine.

DG: And it makes sense because mines are sandboxes basically, you control everybody who’s in and out. It’s a perfect place to have autonomous equipment.

KM: He said that mining is not the same as it was even in 2000, the environmental safety is just a different world.

Especially in terms of water conservation.

DG: When you’re doing your mine plans, you’re looking at reclamation of the mine site from the get go.

DG: This is not just in the US, this is world wide this is happening.

KM: An interesting point he made was that one of the best things to happening to mining was the internet.

DG: If you’re a mining company and you do something bad, five minutes later it’s known across the world.

What we’re doing is we control the ventilation inside the mine okay, I don’t want the air going out the door that we came in, I want the air pushed deeper into the mine…

Mines like stable environments, they don’t like wet, dry, wet, dry, drying out and all that stuff because that causes your timber to rot, it causes your clays to dry out or swell.

For ground control and safety, you just keep it consistent as you can. That’s the cat’s meow.

DG: What we’re going to do now is we’re going to leave the tunnel and we’re going to climb up 36 steps up into a stope and this is one of those rooms that’s been mined out…

KM: The stope he took us to was a room that was once solid rock, and filled with copper ore. You can see brownish rocks and green malachite which is where you get copper from, and other copper minerals like cuprite.

Doug said that pure copper isn’t really preferable because it’s more difficult to process.

DG: I know it sounds counterintuitive but If you’ve ever played with it, it’s not a lot of fun because you can’t drill it, you can’t blast it, you can’t crush it.

In this particular spot, we’re looking at about a quarter ounce per ton. I know it doesn’t sound like a lot but it is because a ton of rocks is not that much in here…So a ton's about three quarters of a yard at most.

ZZ: There's your reminder that rocks are heavy.

How did they decide where to blast? I'm assuming there's not just a big shiny spot of copper or gold or anything like that.

KM: If you see a circular pattern that’s where you would want to blast. Because you see the ore going that way.

The ore body looked like an irregular shape, kind of like a state on a map.

Doug said that the ground is kind of sketchy when you’re mining inside the ore in Bisbee. When you break into the waste, you’re a lot better because you’re in the solid limestone.

DG: Let’s go to the boss’ desk.

KM: Doug showed us something really unique…

By the boss’ desk was a fault, which looks like a knife blade has cut the rock, which has about 500 feet of displacement on it. You’ve got a plate getting subducted underneath the continental crust. And when it gets below us it melts and magma comes up and forms a magma chamber.

DG: The magma cools, it forces because the quartz and feldspars crystallize out first, the hydrothermal water, sulfur metal ions, metals get pushed up to the top of the magma chamber and pressure explodes, tries to make a volcano, stratovolcano, sometimes they go all the way to the surface and make a stratovolcano. Sometimes they just come up and just penetrate the rock and stop. There’s not enough energy in there, it’s weird. We didn’t realize we had a stratovolcano here till 2005.

ZZ: Okay, there's a term I wasn't expecting to hear on this trip. A stratovolcano is like the steep, jagged mountain volcanoes like Mt. Rainier in Washington or Mt Fuji in Japan. That's some serious geologic activity there.

KM: I know right? Despite all of the geologists that had been in and out of the mine, working in Bisbee over the years. To really check out the color-coded geology, Doug turned on a UV light, told us to turn our flashlights off, and we saw…

DG: So red, that’s gonna be hot right? That’s your hydrothermal calcite coming up, deposited. This stuff is running in the 174 degrees celsius range in temperature, you see the green, this is post mining calcite, what it is, I don’t know if you guys can hear behind me, there’s drips of water,

The rainwater on the surfaces, you know making its way through the rock up along faultline dissolves part of the limestone and puts it into solution when it comes into the tunnel here it de-gasses and that precipitates its post mining calcite. That’s the pretty green stuff and something also interesting is the blue white fluorescence there. It’s hydrozincite and it tells us that up on the spot, there’s a zinc ore body and the zincs getting mobilized and leaching down into the tunnel here and precipitating out. In spots, you can actually tell the pressure that the solution is coming up as, it actually everyone knows what fracking is, it actually fracks the ground. It just shatters it because of the pressures down below.

ZZ: We're used to hearing about fracking as something people do to break up rocks to get to oil and natural gas. This sounds like it's happening naturally in the mine.

KM: The way Doug describes it, the ground is broken up by high-pressure solutions coming up as opposed to when humans do it and send the solutions down.

KM: It looks like someone painted glow in the dark paint, it was so cool.

ZZ: I'm guessing there's a Bisbee hippie or two who would have really enjoyed the trip you were on.

KM: Now the deeper we got into the mine, the more humid it became. It also smelled different as we hit colder air, which created a bit of an inversion.

Doug said sometimes you can see clouds forming down in the mine.

ZZ: Okay, this is all really cool and fun to geek out on, but this is a podcast about water. We've heard mention of water as it occurs in the mine. Let's get back on track. How does mining affect water here?

KM: Bisbee had trouble with water, because the lack of! It took them a long time to have enough water to feed the smelter.

So, they took advantage of that water we've been talking about.

DG: So all the drips of water from the rain, start collecting in them. Bisbee did something cool with their watering systems, how they handled it..from up in here, the water actually would go all the way over to the junction which is across the pit from us and they would pump our water. So all the mines would actually try to deliver their water to the junction, which is really, really cool. They’re pumping about 7000 gallons a minute towards the end. Now up in here you’ll get little perched water tables, that’s where you have an impermeable rock layer and it just kind of holds a little bit of it because it can’t seep through. But generally it’s only knee deep, maybe waist deep water in just small areas, …Because of that lack of water in the den, they did try, they were searching for it so they can run their mills and stuff and …they broke into and they knew that they were gonna hit the water so they put a big air water door in big steel things…

ZZ: So even back then, they saw that water was a rare resource and collected it from inside the mines to transport back to the surface?

KM: Basically, yeah.

ZZ: So, companies back then must have realized that they needed a lot of water to mine. How about today?

KM: Oh, they use far less now. Doug said that even when he was a kid, he’d see water running down the creek from dumping.

Now that is just not done any more because people realize how valuable water is.

DG: We do not waste water okay. You’re recycling it, constantly and because of the laws if you discharge it, it has to be super clean. Okay, it’s not the good old days we’re not talking 1950s, you just get rid of it. Water usage for the size of the operation is much less than it used to be.

KM: I got the chance to talk with Brad Ross, co-director of the Geotechnical Center of Excellence in the Lowell Institute for Mineral Resources at the UA, about environmentally-sustainable mining practices of today.

With new technology comes more sustainable practices and methods, which Brad says is looked at in a lot of different ways.

There’s the environmental side, the community side– and safety is a part of that.

Brad Ross: If you’re going to mine in a place and start mining, well you want to make the most out of it because the more you can get out of one place, the fewer places you have to actually mine. And so finding ways that are efficient, effective, and we recover as much as that we can from any place we’re at, those are all sustainability issues. And technology helps us do that.

KM: Brad says that mining doesn’t just happen because you want a mine, instead it happens because we need it.

BR: If we’re going to supply the expanding demand for minerals, we have to find ways to do it better. Not only with the technology but with our methods and our policies and the way that we work.

KM: Now according to the UA’s Geological Survey page, that each American uses more than 45,000 pounds of newly mined minerals annually.

ZZ: I mean, I just think about all of the electronics that go into my life, the gold and copper that are in the microphone in front of me. The rare earth minerals that go into my laptop, monitor, speakers, my phone. And we haven't even gotten into my car or my house!

KM: And think about a road-something like that can require hundreds of thousands of tons of materials. If it’s the interstate, then millions of tons of sand and gravel.

BR: The 1950s, to today, our world, we consume 10 times as much copper, just copper. And we do that because there’s three times as many people in the world today as when I was born.

Brad said our society has different expectations, and mining has to adjust.

ZZ: So how do we get smarter about mining with the environment in mind, particularly, for the sake of this show, mining in a water-wise way?

KM: Well, let's go to what was sort of the catalyst or inspiration for this episode, the exploratory mining that’s going on in the Patagonia Mountains here in southern Arizona.

In the Patagonias, the global metals and mining company South32 acquired a spot that's called an “historic” mining site, the Hermosa Critical Minerals Project.

Studies have identified the minerals as “critical” and the project has been designated a FAST-41 permitting process, which speeds up the federal review.

It’s been touted as the first of its kind so to speak.

ZZ: So, what minerals are there in this area that are "critical"?

KM: So their whole thing is their focus on the development of certain domestically-sourced materials, in this case zinc and manganese.

Manganese is used in ironmaking, steelmaking, and the basic structures in our cars.

Together, zinc and manganese can change the properties of an entire car, think electric vehicle batteries, solar power and cell phones.

You know, we don’t really think about how much we depend on these raw materials, but to put it into context, our cell phones can have up to 20 different types of minerals.

ZZ: Yeah, rare earth minerals are always a topic of discussion when it comes to China and trade.

KM: What makes the Hermosa Mine so, unique, is that it has been designed with minimal surface disturbance as well as a netzero mining operation and first dry stack facility in the United States.

ZZ: Okay, jargon alert. Let's hit on some of those terms you used, for us uninitiated.

KM: Mining can be pretty confusing to the layperson. I feel like I’ve been working on an intro-to-mining course these past few months.

But, the best way I can describe it, is that they are trying to use as little water as possible and also disturb the surface as little as possible.

These sound like amazing promises but–

ZZ: There’s always a but.

KM: Yes, there really is. There is a huge movement of anti-mining in the Patagonia Mountains and with valid reason for concern.

The area is home to over 100 federally threatened, endangered and sensitive species in the area.

ZZ: So, the smaller footprint idea seems like it could help with that. KM: Yeah, compared to a larger surface mine operation which mines everything in an area, underground mines focus strictly on a vein or different type of ore body.

By using underground mining methods, you can be more specific and target a smaller area but you have to have a much richer deposit.

BR: Geology and nature made it that way, versus a lot of the underground deposits, a lot of the ore is confined and it’s much richer, but a much smaller area. So you can mine it so that you can direct it directly to those areas and so you have less footprint in those cases. (32:50-33:07)

ZZ: So, we heard about a lack of water in Bisbee earlier. We're not too far from there, so I'm guessing that the problem hasn't gone away.

KM: In the case for dry stack tailings, once you’ve mined copper from an ore body, the material you are left with is tailings. It’s very small and wet because water is typically used to grind things up.

BR: So one of the technologies out there is to actually remove that water because it’s that water that’s intermixed in there, that kind of makes it like jello and if you can remove that then you can have what’s called dry stack tailings. And so now it’s more like piling up dried material and you can actually compact it, it gets harder, you don’t worry about it failing, you can reclaim it easier. (38:21-38:56)

KM: Brad said that there’s actually another case of a dry stack tailings in the United States in Alaska, that does smaller scale tailings in an underground mine as well.

ZZ: So, we've heard about how they're trying to save water in this process, but where are they getting that water from?

KM: The state allows mining companies to drill and take groundwater for their operations.

Brad says that there’s been a lot of effort to reduce the amount of water that’s being used, most mining companies are considered zero discharge as far as water, which means they bring in water for processing or even rainwater that lands on their property.

Companies keep reusing the water, possibly up to 10 or 20 times.

BR: There’s an expression in a lot of mining companies that we’re gonna wear the water out because we use it so many times. And so that’s one of the things that’s different.

Over 70 years ago, companies used to pump water from a river or whatever, put it through the processing system, grind up the material, move as much water as they could and let it go down the stream.

That doesn’t fly nowadays, there are laws in place to ensure the treatment of water.

The Clean Water Act from the 1970s comes into play here, which requires permits.

ZZ: Just like we heard about last week with housing and the San Pedro River.

A second approach is trying to utilize as much surface water as possible, which would require obtaining water rights. This can get a little more tricky because in certain areas of the state, there aren’t many actively flowing rivers .

BR: Arizona has some really good water laws because water is really important to this state.

This makes it possible for mining companies to work with irrigation districts who pump a lot of water, or purchase Colorado River water from the Central Arizona Project.

BR: And if you work with an irrigation district that would normally be pumping groundwater. You can, you can have them use your water that you bought from CAP, and the water that they didn't pump now belongs to whoever bought that Colorado River water.

KM: But overall, mining is a small water user. In Arizona, there’s three primary water users: agriculture, our cities, and industry.

ZZ: Yeah, we heard a couple of episodes back about how about three-quarters of our water use is agriculture.

KM: And about 20% is based on municipal uses.

BR: Every year that changes, manufacturing and industry uses about 10% and mining uses about 5%, about half of the industrial use.

KM: A concern that is consistently brought up on behalf of conservation groups is the amount of treated water that is being discharged.

If a company is discharging water, it has to meet Arizona Water Standards and EPA water standards.

Also, once a company has mined what they wanted out of an area, it is their responsibility to reclaim the site and try and make everything as close to the natural state as possible.

ZZ: But water contamination is always a concern. I remember being surprised when I learned that the slagpile from the mine in Jerome was not leaching anything into the Verde River, and that came from an environmentalist whose focused on restoring the river for decades.

KM: And it can be quite a bit. The South 32 mining company has obtained permits from state regulators to discharge up to 6.4 million gallons of treated water per day into the Harshaw Creek.

The average discharge rate is anticipated to be about three-quarters of that, if they discharge around the clock, but the upper limit would reach that amount.

KM: In terms of the Hermosa Mine, just last week a Maricopa County Superior Court ruled in favor of South 32, reaffirming the Aquifer Protection Permit issued by the state in 2018.

The Patagonia Area Resource Alliance appealed the permit to the Superior Court citing environmental concerns, but the court has now rejected that appeal, allowing the Hermosa project to move forward.

ZZ: So, just like last week, it sounds like there's a battle here that will play out in the courts.

KM: Exactly

ZZ: Well, let's just hope that it's not another case of us hitting publi sh on an episode and something big happening in the story. Katya, thanks for taking us into the world of mining and water use.

KM: Thanks again for having me! I have a feeling I’ll be back sooner than later…

(theme music fades in)

ZZ: Tapped is a production of AZPM News.

This episode was mixed by me, Zac Ziegler.

Our editor is our News Director, Christopher Conover.

Our music is by Michael Greenwald.

Visit our website in the podcast section of azpm.org for pictures, links and more. Thanks for listening.

(music fades out)

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