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Arizona town bitterly split over copper mine

Townspeople in Florence, Ariz., are bitterly divided over Vancouver-based miner Curis Resources' plans to mine copper in the heart of the city.

Town of Florence photo/Town of Florence photo

Florence, Ariz., isn't the kind of place that usually gets a lot of attention. After all, its main claim to fame is being home to nine prisons.

But these days Florence is up in arms over plans by a Canadian company to build a copper mine right in the middle of town. The proposed mine, by Vancouver-based Curis Resources Ltd. , has garnered national attention and brought out some heavy hitters, including Arizona Governor Jan Brewer and developer Robert Sarver, who owns the Phoenix Suns basketball team.

Ms. Brewer has expressed support for the project, saying it will spark badly needed economic development in the area. Mr. Sarver, whose company has a housing project in town, is backing a campaign to stop the mine, arguing it will ruin the water supply.

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The city's 10,000 residents are bitterly divided over the proposed mine. A recent survey by city officials found 39 per cent of locals support the mine, 32 per cent don't and 28 per cent aren't sure. There have been a host of noisy public meetings and lawn-sign campaigns, and stacks of nasty letters to the local newspaper.

"I've never seen anything quite like it," said businesswoman Lina Austin, who's running for mayor and says she is open to the mine. "I almost thought they were going to string me up like a lynch mob one day. It was really amazing."

Like many people, Ms. Austin blames outsiders, like Mr. Sarver, for orchestrating opposition to the project. She and others say these people live in wealthy communities outside town and aren't looking out for the best interests of long-time Florence residents.

Not so, says 76-year old Robert Stoppell, who lives in a wealthy outlying area called Anthem. He says most people don't support the mine because of environmental concerns.

"The people in Florence kind of look upon us as the rich neighbour who doesn't really care about things in Florence and that is so far from the truth," said Mr. Stoppell. "Most of the people in this area feel that the risks of the mine outweigh the rewards by 100 per cent."

Battles like this have become common across North America as communities wrestle with projects, such as the Keystone XL and Northern Gateway pipelines, which offer economic development but affect the environment.

In Florence, opponents of the mine have been winning the battle so far. City council has voted twice to reject the mine, including a 7-1 vote in December.

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But Curis isn't backing down. The company, connected to privately held Hunter Dickinson Inc., is pushing ahead and plans to seek approval for part of the project from state officials.

"We've received, in our view, a very good level of support both from local people and local institutions and the state government," said Curis spokesman Sean Magee. "We'd like to lower the temperature on the local politics around this issue."

The copper deposit at issue in the dispute is not a new discovery. People have known about it for decades and there have been other attempts to extract the mineral. BHP Billiton Ltd. did extensive work in the area until the late 1990s, when copper prices sank and the company abandoned its North American projects.

The 1,300-acre site ended up in the hands of a property developer who eventually went under, clearing the way for Curis to buy it at the end of 2009.

But before Curis stepped in, Florence had grown so much that it annexed the site in 2003. Council also changed the area's zoning to residential and commercial from industrial. Meanwhile, Mr. Sarver's company, Southwest Value Partners, started work on a housing complex next to the mine.

Curis initially planned to ask the town to re-zone the land, but backed down in the face of stiff opposition.

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The company is now trying for state approval to mine a portion of the land, about 160 acres, which remains under state control.

To bolster its cause, Curis hired a lobbyist with ties to Ms. Brewer, who expressed support for the mine during a visit to Florence last summer.

The company has also opened a local office and organized tours of the area.

Mr. Sarver and other opponents have hit back with a well-organized campaign to stop the mine. They have packed public meetings with people wearing red T-shirts and flooded the local media with comments against the mine.

The company's "attempt to continue efforts to mine on the state land piece is a complete disregard for the council, town leadership and the residents of Florence," Mr. Sarver's company said in a recent statement.

Much of the opposition is focused on the company's plan to use an extraction technique called "in-situ copper recovery". The process involves injecting an acid solution into the deposit through a series of wells. The copper dissolves into the solution and is pumped out for processing.

"This type of mining has never proven itself to be mining that when they left, the water was as good as when they came," said vice-mayor Tom Smith, who is against the mine.

"Arizona is a desert and if you don't have water, you don't have anything."

Mr. Smith has also challenged Curis's claim the mine will create nearly 200 jobs. Even if that many jobs were created, he said, it's a fraction of the jobs that housing and other commercial developments in the area will create. Florence's unemployment rate is around 4 per cent, well below the state average, he added.

Curis insists the extraction technique is safe and has been used elsewhere. The company notes BHP had permits to mine the site and has posted a letter on its website from the Arizona State Land Department, which says the project as proposed on state land does not pose a substantial threat.

The company hopes to update BHP's permits soon and start production tests to demonstrate the effectiveness and safety of the mine.

"Hopefully that will build greater public confidence," said Mr. Magee.

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About the Author
European Correspondent

Paul Waldie has been an award-winning journalist with The Globe and Mail for more than 10 years. He has won three National Newspaper Awards for business coverage and been nominated for a Michener Award for meritorious public service journalism. He has also won a Sports Media Canada award for sports writing and authored a best-selling biography of the McCain family. More

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