Florence Copper Inc., the company operating a pilot test facility for a copper mine in the Town of Florence midway between the original townsite and Anthem at Merrill Ranch, is inviting local residents to see it in action.
“Our site tour program is strong, and we encourage residents to call us for a public site tour to learn about the in-situ copper recovery process and the benefits for the Town of Florence and all of Pinal County,” said Stacy Gramazio, manager of communications and public affairs at Florence Copper.
The company is giving periodic tours of its 24-well test facility, which has begun to extract copper oxide deposits from what’s estimated to be 2.5 billion pounds of copper reserves.
Gramazio emphasized this project does not involve strip mining or plunging workers down a dark, narrow shaft.
“There are no people underground, no open pits, no smelters, no large haul trucks, no blasting, etc. – and there is very limited land disturbance,” she said.
Tours offer an overview of the in-situ copper recovery process. Visitors see the well fields where a solution of 99.5% water and 0.5% sulfuric acid is pumped up to 1,200 feet underground to dissolve copper deposits from bedrock, plus the control room for the wells and the plant where the copper extract is sent to be formed into sheets.
There are 34 employees working on the two-year pilot project, launched in December 2018. Last year the company applied for additional permits from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Arizona Department of Economic Quality to begin commercial mining there, but Gramazio said it’s unclear when those might be issued.
If and when permitted, Gramazio said the commercial operation will create some 480 jobs, about 170 directly by Florence Copper and another 300 by related service providers, primarily a drilling company. A study commissioned for the project estimated the mine will bring $2.1 billion into the Pinal County economy over its expected lifespan of 25 years.
Gramazio said the company’s pilot facility has shown the mine will minimize environmental impact through the in-situ process. “The Town of Florence, at the close of operations, will not lose the land. At the close of operations this land could be redeveloped, which is different from traditional mining,” she said.
Tours of the Florence Copper site, on Hunt Highway at Largo Road, can be requested through www.florencecopper.com or by calling 520-374-3984.
Florence Copper, a wholly owned subsidiary of British Columbia-based Taseko Mines Inc., is in litigation with the Town of Florence, which is appealing a Maricopa County Superior Court decision from last July. The lower court ruled in favor of the company’s right to mine and ordered the Town to pay $1.7 million in legal fees. Florence Copper filed an answer to the town’s appeal on Feb. 12.
Gramazio pointed to a ruling released by Superior Court Judge Roger E. Brodman in January 2019 as evidence of the strength of the company’s case. The judge found prior landowner Harrison Merrill never gave up his mining rights to the property since a 2003 development agreement between the developer and the Town, which allowed mining in the area in question, was never amended regarding that issue.
“The Town failed to show that Merrill affirmatively intended to give up vested mining rights. Therefore, there is no mutual agreement to modify vested mining rights, and Merrill never waived or abandoned mining rights,” Brodman wrote, because Merrill maintained environmental permits for an existing mine left from a previous effort to extract the copper, and testified he did not believe he relinquished the rights.
A 2007 development agreement between Merrill and the Town eliminated all references to mining rights and slated about 7,000 homes to be built there instead, said Benjamin Bitter, the Town’s intergovernmental and communications manager.
Merrill lost his land to foreclosure in 2009, at which point Florence Copper purchased the portion designated for mining in the 2003 agreement.
“Merrill asked that his 2007 plan supersede all previous zoning, and the Town granted his request by passing an ordinance amending the Town’s zoning map to reflect the master planned community. The ordinance, which is still in effect, specifically states that the 2007 plan supersedes the previous development plans for the property,” Bitter said.
Photo: The wellfield for the pilot test facility at Florence Copper’s in-situ copper mining operation in Florence Courtesy of Florence Copper.