The rise and fall of mining in the Patagonia Mountains

By Clara Migoya /El Inde

In a lot on Harshaw Avenue, off-road trucks line up in neat rows. The small town of Patagonia is seeing new activity in the nearby mountains now that South32, an Australian mining company, is running round-the-clock mineral drilling operations at the Hermosa-Taylor mine. 

“The Taylor deposit, just by scale, is probably the largest undeveloped zinc deposit in the world,” said Pat Risner, president of the Hermosa project. “It’s a very strategic resource for this country.”

The Hermosa operation started more than a decade ago, when it was owned by Arizona Mining Inc., which did initial explorations and pre-feasibility studies. In 2018, South32 bought the company and all its mining claims for $1.3 billion.

Mining is not new to the region. In the Santa Rita mountains, a silver-mine region, Native Americans and Spaniards explored some of the rich mineral deposits centuries ago. Then, in the early 19th century, prospectors and small mining companies poured into the southern border. The Patagonia Mountains received their fair share of prospectors. By 1915, the mining district of Harshaw alone, where South32 now operates, had 40 mines.

“Harshaw at that time was booming and word got around,” said Frank Soto, a Tucson resident that grew up in Harshaw in the late 1940s. His great-grandfather arrived in the mid-19th century as did hundreds of other families who moved across the West searching for better living opportunities. Eventually, his father and three of his brothers also worked in the Trench and Flux mines, when they were operated by the American Smelting and Refining Company (ASARCO) from 1939 to the early 1960s.

In 1964, after exhausting the mineral resources within their reach, ASARCO closed down and concentrated in other active operations in the state. “The mining went away, so people had to move out and go find a job,” said Soto.

As ASARCO left, the U.S. Forest Service reclaimed the lands where mine workers had established their homes for generations. None of them were legal property owners, so eventually they tore the town down. The Sotos left before this, in 1956, but when they had the chance to return home there was nothing left. Many families moved to Silver Bell Mine and Mammoth, both also owned by ASARCO. Two of Soto’s brothers also kept working for the company in Pima mine for many years. 

All the boomtowns from the Harshaw days are gone. Today, ASARCO has made a name for itself after leaving behind more than 80 highly-contaminated sites, filing for bankruptcy twice — considered the largest environmental bankruptcy in U.S. History” — and for a long history of unsolved disputes with unionized copper workers. For the past seven months, more than 1,800 employees from ASARCO facilities both in Arizona and Texas have been on strike demanding a better contract. 

In the so-called “copper triangle” east of Phoenix, between ASARCO Hayden Complex and the ASARCO Ray Mine, families in the city of Kearny are starting to despair. The strike has gone for too long and their families’ income has vanished.

“What I am worried about is that I’m gonna have to leave home, we’re gonna have to uproot ourselves and take ourselves somewhere else,” said Angela Ramirez, a local business owner in an interview with United Steelworkers. “This is home. I wanna raise my daughter here, where I was born and I was raised.”

The presence of South32 in the small town of Patagonia brings many promises, but also the concern of many neighbors who fear the longterm impacts of this operation won’t make up for the jobs it creates. Above all there, is concern for the depletion of limited groundwater resources.

South32’s Pat Risner says the company has conducted pump tests to study the aquifer and learn of recharge rates. “We developed one of those a year ago, we continue to do tests and are refining. As we start to go through the permitting (process), that is something the regulatory agencies will look at,” he said. “We don’t believe we will have any impact on the town of Patagonia water source and it’s mainly a factor of geology.”

Risner assures the environmental damage left by ASARCO (around 2 million tons of toxic tailings) couldn’t happen again, due to current regulations. “Back in those days there weren’t laws or standards, and those people didn’t know how to properly manage the environmental effects,” he said. “You couldn’t create that mess today. I’d be in jail.”

Editor’s note: A version of this story will appear in the summer 2020 special issue of the Patagonia Regional Times.

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