Arizona copper mining giant Asarco marks 100 years

Posted on by az100

by Ryan Randazzo – Feb. 24, 2012 02:46 PM
The Republic |

Tucson-based copper-mining giant Asarco will celebrate more than 100 years of operations in Arizona today and reports that its operations are growing.

Asarco operates the Mission mine near Sahuarita, the Ray mine near Kearny and the Silver Bell mine near Marana as well as its 101-year-old concentrator and 100-year-old smelter in Hayden, which will be celebrated along with Arizona’s centennial.

State, town and county representatives are expected to be on hand for the celebration at the Hayden Golf Course, which will end with a fireworks display at dusk.

Asarco was organized in 1899 as the American Smelting and Refining Co.

It opened the Hayden smelter to process ore from the nearby Ray mine, which it did not own at the time.

It has faced many struggles in its history, including low copper prices.

Due to the Depression, the smelter was shut down in March 1933 and did not start up again until late 1937, when natural gas first came to the smelter, according to Asarco.

In May 1958, the owner of the Ray mine terminated its contract to ship concentrates to Hayden, ending a nearly 50-year relationship. By then, Asarco was starting up its own mines and mills in Arizona, with Silver Bell coming on line in 1952 and Mission in 1961, providing substitutes for the Ray concentrates.

Through exploration, Asarco continued to find copper reserves to extend the mines’ lives by decades. Keeping those mines operating also has kept the smelter in business.

A company known as Kennecott operated its own smelter in the region from 1958 to 1982. After it shut down, in 1986 Asarco bought the Ray mine and again began feeding the smelter from that operation.

In 1999, Asarco was acquired by Grupo Mexico SAB. Grupo put Asarco into bankruptcy in 2005 and again acquired the company in 2009.

Asarco is expanding the Mission mine through a $60 million project expected to be finished next year. It will increase the production capacity of its copper concentrator, which processes the mine’s ore.

Asarco also is spending about $5 million to possibly restart mining molybdenum at the Mission property.

The company also is considering an expansion at the Ray mine, said Tom Aldrich, vice president of environmental affairs.

“We actively, at all of our properties, are doing exploration drilling to redefine what the ore reserves are,” he said.

He said when he was working at the Hayden complex in 1976, the Ray mine was predicted to operate for 30 more years.

“Now, we mine twice as much as we used to and have ore reserves for another 30 years,” he said.

The mine has enough reserves to operate until 2044, according to the company.

The Hayden smelter mostly processes material from Asarco’s mines but also does some processing for other mining companies, such as Phoenix-based Freeport-McMoRan Copper and Gold Inc., he said.

Once copper ore is processed at the smelter into anodes that are about 98.5 percent to 99 percent pure copper, it is shipped to Amarillo, Texas, where Asarco further refines it so it can be used for wiring, electrical components and other materials.

Asarco employs about 2,600 people, mostly in Arizona, and some of them have been working at the concentrator and smelter for generations, Aldrich said.

The centennial celebration comes amid an Environmental Protection Agency investigation into the Hayden operations.

In November, the EPA surprised Asarco with a “finding of violation,” which stated that since 2005 the Hayden smelter has been in violation of air-pollution rules. EPA spokeswoman Margot Perez-Sullivan in San Francisco declined to comment because the investigation is ongoing.

Asarco in Arizona

Ray and Hayden operations: A large open-pit mine, two concentrators, smelter and other facilities in Pinal and Gila counties. Produced 83.3 million pounds of copper cathode and 350.3 million pounds of copper anode in 2010. Spent $294.5 million on materials, energy, supplies, etc. that year. Employs about 1,400 people.

Mission complex: Five open-pit mines in Pima County. Produced $183.9 million pounds of copper concentrates in 2010 and spent $118.4 million that year, including $35.4 million in royalties to the state and $23.4 million to the Tohono O’odham Nation. Employs about 600 people.

Silver Bell: Four open-pit mines in Pima County. Produced 46.3 million pounds of copper cathode in 2010 and spent $25 million that year. Employs about 155 people.

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