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A Tour Through An Open Pit Copper Mine

By Edited Dec 20, 2013 0 0

Rock Hounds Unite!

Geology, Copper and the Sonoran Desert

The Wooden Scaffold That Advertises The Mine Tours

Many people in the Tucson area already know there is a huge open pit copper mine in their backyard. Some are vehemently opposed to it but most just ignore it. Arizona has a long-standing love affair with miners. Throughout the state we have operational and dormant claims. Many like ASARCO's are open for tours by the curious public. It even makes it into the news on ocassion. If I look from the windows that face out the back of my house, I can see the looming, jagged walls of the tailings that form steps on the horizon and hide the inner wokings of the operation. While they're not an eye sore per se, they do beg the question, "What goes on in an open pit mine?". 

I decided to load the kids up and find out. After all, we had already been to the Gem Show, Bisbee's Mining Museum (run by the Smithsonian Institution) and the University of Arizona's Planetarium with it's basement full of gems. It seemed a fitting field trip, especially for my nine-year-old who loves rocks. We decided we'd better go sooner than later since the news was reporting we'd be hitting 106 degree weather by the end of the week. It didn't take long before we arrived at ASARCO's Mineral Dsicovery Center in Sahuarita just 20 minutes south of Tucson, AZ.

The ASARCO Mineral Discovery Center
We entered a small building which turned out to be the gift shop and place to buy tickets for the tour. We had rushed to make the 12:30 p.m. departure time, otherwise we would have to wait until 2:00 p.m. Luckily we made it. The kids loved puttering around the gift shop full of rock specimens and toys. The building also encloses a small museum dedicated to showing the process the mine uses to extract the copper from the earth then separate it from other undesirable materials called "over burden".

My Kids Don Their "Hard Hats"

Our tour guides Ed & Kermit gave the kids hard hats and explained a few things on a table nearby before we departed for the factory side of the tour. We learned about the ingots of copper, raw materials, where the other factories are and how they locate the copper within the Earth. On our way out to the mine we saw a horse by the roadside. Apparently his name is "Blackie" and is a free- range wild horse that lives on the mine's property along with several others which include 2 females and some yearlings. The mine also has some cattle which raom free. No body is tasked with their care, they graze on the wild vegetation and get their water from one of the mine's many aqueducts. Plus the state has a water project that has its end point on the property, too. So we were assured the animals are able to take good care of themselves all year round.

As we climbed the hill up to the mine the view became fantastic. We could see the valley and its rows of pecan trees plus we had a bird's eye view of the whole pit. The color variations in the soil were easy to see and represented materials that had been removed in the crushing process then brought back to build the 35 foot high sections of tailing. After tailings are built, they are sprayed with a green polymer which I had always assumed was hydroseed or maybe the patina of fine ore in the dirt. The mine also plants native trees and plants as well.

My Kids In A Huge Tire
The Lookout Binoculars.
The Pit Is Deceptively Large

From a lookout high atop the pit, the giant trucks looked tiny. Thankfully the company had provided a few binoculars for tours so we could peer into the depths of the pit. Far down we saw where the water table had been reached. On some levels holes had been drilled to make way for blasts to take place later that day. We were told the blasts are made of the same material that blew up the Oklahoma City building. I remarked that despite us living close to the mine I had never felt nor heard a blast and Ed confirmed this. It's all quite self-contained.

The Tank Where Pine Oil Is Used To Capture Flecks of Copper.
The factory was a relatively small operation. It looked more like a quarry than what you might envision. Lots of trucks, converyor belts and piles of dirt were everywhere. A faint piney aroma wafted through the air which turned out to be Pine Oil (from Georgia). The pine oil is extracted during pressboard manufacture and then used to attract the copper flakes in the holding tanks. Small bubbles in the vats refelect with zillions of glints of copper that bubble over. I did have a wee Willie Wonka moment while watching them.

The Tour Bus Was A Huge Hit With All Ages.
That was pretty much it for the tour. We headed back to the visitor's center and were free to peruse the grounds which displayed out-of-comission trucks from 1975 and antique mining equipment that had been bought at Ronstadt feed many years ago. The same Ronstadts are related to singer Linda Ronstadt who is a Tucson Native. Considering the mine had been in operation since 1889, I guess the two would cross paths at some time. The kids loved looking at the equipment up close, kicking the tires and mugging in front of the wrecks which are being reclaimed by the desert.

Like many Tucson area attractions, the mine tour is easy to get to, relatively close to the city and a fun way to kill some time during weekends and school breaks. As a family, we get out a lot and have amassed a huge resume of fun sights visited. Other great places we have seen in Tucson include: Kitt Peak Observatory and  Apple Annie's Farm.

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