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The bust: copper, in the pits for now, looks for a pullout

At one time copper was so abundant in these parts that Indians would chip the mineral off rocky outcroppings and wear it as jewelry.

Mammoth draglines now scoop it out of the sun-burnished desert - but around here today much of the ocher mineral is merely decorating the floors of idle mines.

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The American copper industry has ground to a near halt as a result of the depressed state of the housing and auto industries, two large users of the metal. The industry is peering desperately into the future for a turnaround. When it comes, copper companies will likely be slimmer, but also a little fitter than before.

Shrinking inventories and continued modernization in the volatile old-line industry are spurring hopes of a robust rebound once the overall economy picks up.

''They are slimming down to be able to compete better internationally,'' says George Leaming, director of the Western Economic Analysis Center in Marana (near Tucson) and an industry consultant. ''They will come out of the slump in as good a shape as Perhaps the 1960s.''

In the meantime copper miners are heaving a collective groan. Some of the loudest cries are echoing throughout the dusty, opej, Arizona pit mines, which produce 65 percent of the country's copper. At last count, some 8,000 miners - close to one-third of the state's total copper work force - were idle. Hundreds more have been laid off in Utah, Montana, and other big metal-producing states.

Particularly hard hit is southern Arizona, just south of here, where some of the world's biggest open-pit mines are located. Copper has long provided a major prop for the Tucson area economy. The industry's direct impact in the area (including money shelled out for wages, business purchases, and government revenues) tops $305 million annually. At least nine mines are located within 50 miles of here, including ones operated by Duval, Anamax, Cyprus, Asarco, and Newmont.

Copper, along with the other ''C's'' - cotton, cattle, and citrus - has helped shape the development of the state over the decades.

But today the hiccups the industry goes through don't prompt the economic calamities they once did. The influx of high-technology firms has broadened the area's economy. Still, the copper layoffs have helped push metropolitan Tucson's unemployment to above 7 percent (high for here, but well below the 9.4 percent national rate).

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Sluggish sales of autos and homes, which account for more than 40 percent of the nation's use of the metal (in the form of copper wire and tubing), have helped push copper prices to a new nadir. They hovered in recent weeks near 70 cents a pound - well below the production cost for most US suppliers.

''It is a sort of once-in-a-generation low point for the industry,'' says Geoffrey Croome, senior analyst at Commodities Research Unit Ltd., a New York-based metals consulting and forecasting firm. Nevertheless, he sees world demand bringing prices up to an average price of at least $1.15 a pound over the next decade.

''Copper today is probably at the lowest price (in real terms) since the Great Depression,'' says Gerald Wyman, president of the Anamax Mining Company, a joint venture of Amax and Anaconda.

His firm hasn't been hit as hard as some of the other miles in the area, only because it has been filling orders for Japanese smelters. Some 200 workers have been laid off at Anamax's Twin Buttes operation just south of here, which produces about 250 million pounds of copper a year.

When the roof caves in, however, it doesn't always drop debris uniformly. The downturn has fallen ha dest on some US producers, whose operating costs often far outstrip those of foreign competitors. Further, the draglines in some overseas countries continue to operate to provide much-needed revenue for national treasuries. (As much as 90 percent of Zambia's foreign exchange, for instance, comes from copper.)

Yet there may be a copper lining in the slump, even for US producers. Unlike the sharp downturn of the mid-1970s, caused by a glutted market, many companies are finding their copper stocks sharply dropping. The result: When demand does pick up, the rebound should come quickly.

''It has been a dramatic downturn,'' says Mr. Wyman. ''It will be a dramatic upturn.''

Another plus: Copper prices are low enough to slow at least temporarily the switch to alternative materials, such as aluminum.

In the longer run, the US copper industry looks uncertain. The US faces rising competiton from foreign suppliers such as Chile, Peru, and Canada. Copper is also one of those basic industries that have been strapped over the past decade by escalating labor and energy costs, as well as the need to upgrade aged facilities. US companies have shelled out close to $2 billion to meet environmental regulations, about one-quarter of that being spent in Arizona.

Many copper firms have been taken over by big oil companies, which potentially gives thems access to large cash reserves for capital improvements. At the same time, however, it brings them under the sharp budgeting pencils of oil men who may sometimes be reluctant to invest in this roller-coaster industry.

In addition the industry faces inroads from such substitutes as fiber optics, the thin-as-a-whisker, light-bearing, glass threads used in telecommunications. On the other hand, use of copper wire could one day surge ahead if electric cars or solar heating were ever to flourish.

For Arizona, at least, the industry will certainly be a major force for years to come. Concludes Mr. Wyman: ''I see copper being around as long as civilization is around.''

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