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Mini-Boom in Mining Echoes the Old West

Copper and Uranium Rush

On the edge of this tiny desert town near the Mexican border sits a vast, empty pit - an abandoned strip mine some 500 yards across and hundreds of feet deep. For years, this yawning hole has been the most visible reminder of the town's past glory - when it was Arizona's biggest city, surging with prospectors seeking riches in the gold-filled hills. Rodeos came often. There was vaudeville nearly every night.

But today Bisbee - and towns like it throughout the West - are regaining a bit of their old glory. New technology and surging demand for copper, coal, uranium, have sparked a mini-boom in mining. This time, though, the rush is tempered by environmental concerns and a realism that won't accept mining as an economic mainstay.

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Consider these examples:

* Copper is in demand for things such as computer circuits. Arizona firms alone have plans to open or reopen seven copper mines, adding 2,000 jobs.

* Colorado is headed toward a near-record year for coal production, partly because of the 1996 Clean Air Act, which favors the state's low-polluting coal over Appalachia's high-sulphur variety.

* Optimism is strong in New Mexico about the uranium industry, as new demand from nuclear power plants continues to grow.

The resurging trend is good news for Bisbee. In the go-go 1880s, the shacks and saloons of the town crawled up the steep valley walls of Mule Pass Gulch. But slowly the town gave up on mining and growth fell off. By the 1970s, it had turned to art and is now home to a smattering of galleries and antiques shops. Weekend vacationers from Tucson or Phoenix come to browse. The only relics of the bygone age are the pit and a mining museum. Now, however, new mines are opening in southeastern Arizona, sparking an excitement about mining that few here remember.

BUT the mining resurgence has also set off environmental alarms, as activists claim the new technology that has revived the industry can lay waste to nature.

At issue are two forms of extraction. One is "in situ," in which chemicals are injected into the ground, causing minerals to be sucked out - without miners ever digging. The second is cyanide heap leaching, in which ore is put on giant pads and then sprayed with cyanide. Minerals such as gold are then turned into a liquid and flow to another site for extraction.

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Both processes endanger surface and ground water as well as wildlife, says to Susan Brackett of the Mineral Policy Center, a Washington, D.C.-based organization. She cites examples in which birds and other animals have mistaken cyanide-filled outdoor pools for fresh water, resulting in their death.

"We are not anti-mining," Ms. Brackett says. "We are here to promote responsible mineral development. That will mean in some places it is not appropriate to mine."

Miners counter that the new technology is actually safer than past methods. Also, observers say, regulations and public pressure will help keep the new mines safe and clean.

Indeed, the firms often chafe at regulations. Stuart Sanderson, president of the Colorado Mining Association in Denver, says $50 million of every $100 million invested in opening a typical gold mine goes to regulation compliance.

These costs come amid tough competition, which benefits consumers, but makes survival tough. "It is not a warm-and-fuzzy business," Mr. Sanderson says.

But, to the excitement of those in Bisbee and elsewhere, the industry is surviving: In 1995 it had a direct economic impact of almost $524 billion, and it is responsible for some 5 million jobs, according to the National Mining Association in Washington.

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