Many misconceptions persist about the mining industry’s environmental credentials – but this well-planned venture is determined to change that with its community-first approach.
Resolution Copper, a joint venture between Rio Tinto and BHP, is spearheading a proposed underground copper mine near Superior, Arizona.
The mine is located beneath the now-defunct Magma Mine. Boasting an estimated copper resource of 1.787 billion metric tons at an average grade of 1.5 percent copper, it’s not only one of the richest undeveloped copper deposits in the world, but should also meet about 25 percent of U.S. copper demand.
Over its expected life, the mine will generate thousands of jobs, while producing up to 40 billion pounds of copper vital to essential products including electric cars, cellphones, and MRI scanners.
Dedicated to best practices
Determined to combat industry stereotypes, Resolution Copper is dedicated to employing best practices to ensure a safe, long-term, and environmentally responsible operation.
“We’ve just spent the last 15 years doing a lot of reclamation work and cleaning up some of the impact of [previous] mining in the community in Superior,” says Hesston Klenk, Senior Manager for Communities and Social Performance. “In conjunction with that, as we transformed the land, the communities around us have really transformed as well and have gone through their own renaissance.”
A depressed town 15 years ago, today Superior is bustling with both residents and visitors, a considerable accomplishment for the Town and Resolution.
When COVID hit, the company also responded robustly, donating more than $2 million to local organizations and community groups to support everything from school kids having access to devices and the internet, to senior centers keeping their doors open for Meals On Wheels delivery after losing government funding.
“The partnerships we’ve been able to build through the years really paid off during COVID because we had relationships in place, and without skipping a beat we provided that support in partnership with the community,” says Klenk.
“It wasn’t Resolution riding up on a white horse and saving the day, it was all of us working together to make sure these critical organizations had the resources they need to move forward.”
Previously director of the Department of Environmental Quality for Community in the Gila River Indian Community, Willard Antone III, now Senior Manager of Permitting and Approvals for the Resolution project, sees a noticeable difference in moving to the private sector.
Lightening the footprint
“What caught my eye was how mining really has a huge footprint that nobody really cares for,” he says. “There are so many negative things that people take away from it from an environmental perspective. Being able to look at the reclamation that was done was pretty interesting because I could see the big picture and what they’ve done. And it was a job well done.”
From a sustainability standpoint, the team is determined to help Superior be a community with a mine, not just a mining community.
“They shouldn’t be reliant on the mine themselves,” says Klenk. The sustainability spectrum touches on everything from water conservation and working with the community on riparian restoration, to economic development and diversification, including supporting local businesses so they’re able to function and operate without Resolution.
“If it’s a year from now or 70 years from now, mining is a finite resource and eventually the operation will close,” says Klenk. “It’s incumbent on us to make sure these communities can survive after we’re gone.”
To that end, Resolution is working on robust regional economic-development plans with the town so they have a say in their future, and providing them with the tools to make those decisions for themselves. That has included bringing in world-class economic development people focused on land acquisition and land development.
“It’s been hugely successful and a big reason why we are where we are today,” says Klenk.
Working with tradition
Another essential component includes working with the 11 tribal communities with historical connections to the area; those who might not experience direct economic benefits from the operation.
Resolution has used hydropanels to collect moisture from the air, providing the equivalent of three cases of water to a home per week to help communities with heavily polluted wells develop sustainable resources.
“Working on those kinds of projects across the board has been really important,” says Klenk. “It’s setting the groundwork for what we’re looking to do in the future around decarbonization and having a net zero carbon footprint when we get to operations, and better water stewardship. It all ties in on how we work together with these communities.”
While the tribes themselves have had a notable impact on the shaping of many parts of the project, Resolution also requires approval from federal, state, and local entities before building or operating the mine, including the U.S. Forest Service (USFS), the federal body in charge of the approval process.
Resolution has made it a mission from the start to reclaim and restore the land once the mining was done, plus strive to protect water, air, and biodiversity in and around the project.
The USFS and other agencies began an additional examination of the plan after the public reviewed and commented on the draft EIS. The USFS produced a Final EIS in January 2021, and in March 2021, the USDA directed the USFS to cancel the FEIS to allow the agency to conduct a more thorough examination.
During this period, Resolution Copper will continue to discuss and collaborate with local communities and tribes to shape the project and the substantial advantages it will provide.
“We’ve looked at what was being said and how we can use this time until we move forward with republishing,” says Antone. “In the months since, we’ve really tried to focus on our dialogue and engagement with local communities and also tribal leaders, to listen and continue to build a mutual understanding of the project.”
Resolution has done that in multiple ways, including sharing studies, and inviting tribes to visit some of the private properties.
“We’re trying to gather their input so we can create a management plan that will look at those items from a different perspective,” Antone says. “We have a tribal monitors program that we’ve incorporated; monitors come in and provide a Native American perspective alongside the archaeological findings.”
Doing things differently
Culturally significant items are identified, helping Resolution gather information for management plans, while being sensitive to tribal concerns. With 11 different federally recognized tribes with ties dating back thousands of years, the challenge is formidable, but one that Resolution embraces.
Historic mining practices have cast a shadow over mining operations, and this is something Resolution Copper is committed to changing. “I think we’re still dealing with the legacy of mining,” says Klenk, “and it’s not going to happen overnight. We have to show we can do things differently.”
Mining is a generational industry, he adds. Most operating mines – especially open-pit – have been around for decades and generations, leaving few opportunities for new companies like Resolution, with new technologies operating under new and more environmentally friendly regulations, to flourish.
“We are making changes,” Klenk says. “Local, historic mining communities around Superior look at us and compare and contrast us to the way things were done in the past, and we hear a lot from our stakeholders that this is what a world-class operation should look like.”
Caring for water, caring for people
Resolution’s operation also includes using and managing water in an acceptable manner, and Resolution has already stored enough surplus water in the ground to sustain its operations for decades.
“One of the largest droughts we’ve been enduring is here, we’re living in it, and even though the state and tribes work together to ensure there’s water for future generations, we have to continue to move forward,” says Antone. “As technologies come along, we have to make sure we’re looking at and analyzing our water usage to reduce our intake as much as possible.”
In fact, Resolution will be the most efficient user of water in Arizona mining, using the fewest gallons of water per pound of copper produced.
“The real key drivers to our future water consumption come from the mining industry itself: grade is king, and we have a high-grade ore body,” says Klenk. “By its very nature we use less water because we’re dealing with less waste than other mines.”
Resolution is also an underground operation, meaning it doesn’t use as much water for dust suppression, unlike an open pit operation on haul roads. “We’ve got a lot of new technologies we can apply here, helping us reduce water consumption over and above what those operations that have been in service for decades had when they started.”
What the world needs…
And then there are the benefits of the mine that themselves make the effort worthwhile: Copper is critical to climate action and a low-carbon future, and metals that help solve many of the world’s problems will be produced at Resolution, a source of great pride.
“Copper is in everything you use,” says Klenk. “Every cell phone in the world has copper in it. An electric vehicle uses three times the copper that a combustion engine uses. If all we did was produce copper for nothing more than electric vehicles, we could supply enough for 200 million electric vehicles.”
The copper mined at Resolution will help produce many terawatts of electricity – green energy – whether in wind turbines, battery storage, or solar panels, along with the production of rare earth minerals as a byproduct of the smelting process.
Making its mark
Once in full operation, the economic impact will be impressive: Even through the construction and operational phase, Resolution expects to hire directly about 1,500 workers, and the project will generate approximately 2,200 indirect jobs, producing up to $61 billion in economic value for Arizona over the 60-year life of the mine.
“As our project moves forward in the permitting phase, the town and community also have significant interest in seeing their footprint be able to move and grow,” says Klenk. “As we hire those 1,500 employees in the future, they want more ability to attract them to live in the community.”
There’s a big disconnect in mining, he adds, but when asked about the importance of metals in the green energy transition, he says that most of the population by far supports the development of new mining operations as long as these are done in an environmentally sensitive way. “I think the perception is starting to shift, but it’s going to take a long time to fully shift.”
Antone agrees, adding that Resolution is a company trying to set a higher standard and doing it right, something he wants to be a part of.
“Looking at all the competing values and the partnerships established with tribal communities, looking at what Resolution has done for them from an environmental perspective and setting those different standards, Resolution is trying to build a balance. That to me has been the biggest accomplishment for this project to date.”