The subject of a previous blog post in August -- about our protest of Governor Jan Brewer's supportive visit in favor of the mine -- this has continued to be the focal point of unrest in the community. The company proposing to mine the copper -- Curis, a subsidiary of a major Canadian corporation -- has petitioned the Land and Zoning Commission and the Town Council of Florence, Az to be granted an overlay to the master plan which calls for residential use of the land in question. They are requesting "temporary" (15-30 years) use of the land for mining after which it could, in their estimation, become residential once again.
Many residents, including a large portion of the new planned community of Anthem Merrill Ranch which would be most impacted by the presence of the mine, are very much opposed to the project. There are no guarantees that our water supply will not be destroyed when the copper mining drills through and near the community's aquafer with acids to extract the copper. Home values, already hard hit by recession, are plunging further in anticipation of the mine. Those residents thinking of selling and fleeing to a place where the water supply is not compromised may have even more difficulty selling their homes. Many residents have retired to this place, sinking their life savings into comfortable homes they envisioned enjoying for the rest of their lives.
But the controversy goes far beyond simply a citizens vs. the corporation struggle. For there are many good, fair-minded citizens in Florence who are in favor of the mine. Many of them live in downtown Florence, a town dating back to 1866 with a rich history and families who have inhabited the town for generations. They are devastated to see the effects of economic recession on their already struggling town. In the past few months, two of the three most popular restaurants in town have been lost: one to fire, one to the economic realities that many citizens just can't afford to eat out anymore. Businesses have shuttered along Main Street. Citizens desperately need jobs. Young people are leaving Florence in search of a better future. The gorgeous new master planned community of Anthem Merrill Ranch, which was supposed to bring new prosperity to the town, has stalled in the face of the real estate crash. So far, only 1600 of the 9,000 projected homes have been built. Build-out of the community is years away. So what's the harm, many are asking, in prospering from a mining operation in the interim? Curis is promising that 147 jobs will come with the project. Of course, there are no guarantees that any or all of those will go to Florence residents.
The controversial copper mine took protest to new levels of endurance challenges this week with the Land and Zoning Commission hearing on the matter at Florence Town Hall on Thursday night.
Citizens showed up en masse for the hearing: filling the council chambers, the town hall's lobby and the parking lot by 4 p.m., well before the 5:30 start of the procedures. People favoring the mine -- primarily for the prospect of jobs -- wore green tags. People against the mine wore red shirts, sweaters or jackets.
From personal perspectives, there is a lot to be said for each side. For people who have spent a lifetime in Florence, the distress over the town's economic challenges is palpable. And for those who sank their life savings into homes in the new planned community (that, unlike downtown Florence, is downstream from the mining site and thus more in danger of water pollution) -- the fear of being stuck in an area with a poisoned water supply is equally strong.
Those of us in red tend to be less trusting of corporate promises -- to build soccer fields and tree lined streets for future development (when studies show that no in-situ mining site has ever been restored to a condition that would support residential use and no in-situ mining site has ever been built in such close proximity to an existing residential community.)
There were sizable groups representing both sides. Earlier in the evening, we mostly avoided each other, gathering in different areas of the lobby and parking lot. There was mostly silence among those clustered outside the hearing room. About four hours into the hearing, there was one brief scuffle with police when pro-mine citizens became afraid they wouldn't all get their say, despite reassurances from organizers and officials that they would be allowed their three minutes each to speak.
Speeches -- from lawyers and advocates and ordinary citizens -- were so numerous that the event went on for an unprecedented 8.5 hours -- starting at 5:30 p.m. and winding up at 2:05 a.m.
Well into the night, there was an overflow crowd in hearing room, in lobby of Town Hall, and spilling out into the parking lot where speakers were set up. It wasn't until 2 a.m. that the hearing was completed with a 3-1 vote against the overlay and a 2-2 split vote on the mining land use. The recommendations of the committee, with an unfavorable decision in terms of overlaying the master plan and a puzzling tie vote on the mine itself, will be sent on to the Florence Town Council, which makes the final decision on November 7.
Many, including children, sat attentively through proceedings to the end. "I've never stayed up so late," said 7-year-old Josiah. "It isn't fun anymore. I'm homesick. But this is important. The copper project has to be stopped. Clean water and a safe environment are important to me and to everyone. So I need to be here."
Hour after hour, citizens spoke passionately, sometimes tearfully: about their love for the town of Florence and the surrounding communities, about their fear that contamination of the water supply would make this place uninhabitable, about their fears that unless some jobs came to Florence, the town they love would slip into further decline and young people would have to move elsewhere for employment.
And, as the hours passed, the citizens of Florence, the green tags and red shirts alike, were gradually united in a spirit of shared adversity and sheer exhaustion.
As midnight neared, a green-tagged woman I had never met before approached me, a shawl extended: "Aren't you cold, honey?" she asked, indicating my shorts and T-shirt. I told her that I was fine, that hot flashes were useful in situations like this. We both laughed and I thanked her. And we both smiled. And it occurred to me that, whatever the final decision, we're a community and will endure.