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Vol. 76/No. 13      April 2, 2012

12-hour shifts underground
‘not safe,’ say Arizona miners
LOS ANGELES—Urged by mining giants Rio Tinto and BHP Billiton, joint owners of a copper mine being built near Superior, Ariz., the state House of Representatives approved by a big majority March 19 a law allowing underground miners to work shifts of up to 12 hours. Until now the law limited their workday to eight hours, including the time needed for the underground elevator ride.

The bill also deletes a section of the law that says underground mining “is declared injurious to health and dangerous to life and limb.” The legislation, opposed by the United Steelworkers union and the state AFL-CIO, now awaits approval by the governor.

“Working 7,000 feet below the surface and 12-hour shifts is not safe for the workers. That’s ludicrous,” Mike Isley, member of USW Local 5252 and a heavy equipment operator at the ASARCO Ray open pit mine, told the Militant. “It is only to the company’s advantage as history has proved.”

“This updates an old, ancient law,” Bruce Richardson, communications director for Resolution Copper Company, which owns the new mine, told the Militant in a phone interview. “It will give us flexibility.”

According to Resolution Copper, it takes at least 20 minutes of a miner’s workday to descend into an underground mine on top of time spent putting on safety gear. “If we can reduce preparatory time we can be more productive and competitive,” Richardson said.

The longer days decrease time lost for injuries and a three- or four-day workweek is better for workers “because this means more time at home, less time commuting and more time with the family,” Adam Hawkins, a Resolution Copper adviser, told an Arizona House committee considering the bill.

“Working underground is much more hazardous than working on the surface,” Orlando Perea, a retired miner who lives in Superior, said by phone. “Working 12-hour shifts is unsafe and it is also a way to get out of paying overtime. The rocks under there are 175-180 degrees. The humidity is tremendous. I am not opposing the mining but the methods they want to use.”

The mile deep mine is scheduled to open in 2021. According to Resolution Copper, the mine will employ 1,400 workers and produce more than 1 billion pounds of copper a year. “Based on current usage, that’s enough to meet 25 percent or more of the annual US demand for copper,” says a company brochure.

The mine will use a mining method known as panel caving, which builds a tunnel to drill and blast underneath the rock and then uses gravity to break the rock ore. The Resolution Copper mine will be the deepest mine of its type in the world.

When asked if panel caving, which company literature describes as “technically very challenging,” is more dangerous than other mining methods, Richardson replied that the “kind of ore body at this mine cannot be mined by any other method in an economic way.”

Ten of the 16 largest U.S. copper mines are in Arizona. With a jump in copper prices to more than $4 per pound today from $1.33 per pound in 2008, mining companies are rushing to increase production.

Wendy Lyons contributed to this article.
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