On a breezy morning late last year, Roger Featherstone, director of the conservation group Arizona Mining Reform Coalition, hovered over a microphone attached to headphones and stared out of the window of a tiny plane.
“So, we’ll go up to San Pedro River Valley, we’ll go past the old processing plant to the tailing facilities of the San Manuel mine, then we’ll go over some old mines that are being reconfigured for a project called Faraday,” he said.
We were gliding high above the landscape just northeast of Tucson with a group called EcoFlight — a Colorado-based nonprofit that takes journalists, activists and lawmakers on flights to see public lands from above.
Below us, stone spires and ridges of the Galiuro and Catalina mountain ranges erupted from pale flatlands dotted with deep green veins where water sometimes flows.
These so-called sky islands contain vastly different environments within a single mountain range. They contain some of the world’s richest biodiversity — and the marking of decades of mining.
“Now on our left will be the San Manuel well pit,” Featherstone said, pointing out a big hole in the landscape with layers of gradated dirt that look like giant drill marks.
That pit is what’s left of the San Manuel mine, once the largest copper mining operation in North America. The town of San Manuel was founded in the 1950s to staff it. But it was shuttered in 1999 when the price of copper was down and BHP — the company that owned the mine at the time — determined it was no longer profitable.
Stacey Pavlova, with the company, says the project is in its first stages right now and conducting exploratory drilling.
“During this phase, we work to better understand the regional geology and the natural environment around our project area. This is the first step in understanding if there is a mineable resource and, if so, the feasibility of developing in the area,” she said in an email.
Pavlova says that means a timeline for actual production, or the permitting required to get there, has still not been established. Still, the prospect of a new mine hits close to home for residents like Melissa Crytzer Fry. She and her husband moved to a plot of land outside Mammoth about 20 years ago, at the base of the Galiuro mountains. She and her husband spend a lot of weekends at Copper Creek and other part of the range camping, hiking and enjoying the quiet.
“I always like to say, you know, no one in Mammoth has a million dollars, but we have million dollar views,” she said. “That’s just irreplaceable if it goes away.”
Fry says she first heard about the Faraday project back in 2022, when the company posted a public notice about it in Mammoth. She says even if the project doesn’t end up going through, the water required to explore the prospect of the mine is already concerning for homes like hers, which rely on groundwater.
“We’re in the middle of the desert, we’ve had severe drought over the last several years, and it’s not sustainable, once that water’s gone, it’s gone,” she said.
Pavlova, with Faraday, refutes that. She says the company is re-circulating 95% of the water it’s using for its exploratory drilling back into aquifer, and that the process for a drill rig is less than the average monthly water consumption by one Arizona resident.
The company has also pledged to bring jobs back to the communities surrounding the operation, should it move forward, but Pavlova says it’s too early to estimate exactly how many local jobs might be provided.
Employment is sorely needed in places like San Manuel, the small community created by another mining company to house workers and their families — people like Robert Estrada.
“Between me and my other three brothers, we worked over 100 years for this company,” he said. “To us, it was life.”
He moved to San Manuel from Douglas, Arizona, in the 1970s as a young man, and he’s watched kids and grandkids grow up in San Manuel. But he says after the mine shut down, everything changed. Schools were closed and businesses began to fade. The town’s main center, which used to host restaurants, a grocery story and other businesses, stands nearly empty.
“I even witnessed when the stacks went down, we cried, so many memories,” he said. “It was a nice little town here, now we have nothing. All you see is buildings with boards on them.”
He says, whether it’s mining like he did, or something else, he just wants to see more jobs come to the area.
More mining operations are likely on the way — both in Arizona and elsewhere. Copper and other minerals like it are used in everything from motors and cellphones to solar fields and electric vehicles. A 2022 declaration signed by President Biden gave the Department of Defense the ability to ramp up domestic mining and mineral processing required for large-capacity batteries — a move the federal government needed to secure the U.S. a place in green energy production.
Last year, the Hermosa project, south of Tucson, became the first mining operation to be added to the Fast-41 program — which streamlines the permitting process for infrastructure projects.
Steve Fry, Melissa’s husband, says that makes residents in former mining towns like Mammoth wary, even of projects in earlier stages, like Faraday.
“We already know now that this current administration is fast-tracking plants like this, so if they want to stick to their guns on that, it’s not going to take ten years,” he said. “Especially now, with the mentioning of copper as the critical mineral, that’s now on their fast-tracked list of minerals. They want to do this as soon as possible.”
That’s why, he says, prospective project or not, they’re paying attention today.