ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — With prices high and backing in place from some of the world's largest mining companies, the hunt for copper in the American Southwest is experiencing a revival.
Mining and milling operations are ramping up again in Arizona, and hundreds of jobs are up for grabs in the heart of copper country in what has long been the nation's top copper producing state.
It's a similar situation in southwestern New Mexico, where small communities have both struggled and flourished at the hands of the copper market for generations. The Chino mine has restarted its mining and milling operations after a two-year standstill.
And now in the hills of Sierra County, a new company plans to reopen a mine that has been shuttered for nearly three decades.
"The time is just right," says Ann Carpenter, president of New Mexico Copper Corp.
The third-most-used metal in the world, copper has seen growing demand in the past two years thanks in part to the emerging economies of China, India, Brazil and other countries. Prices have also soared from a low of $1.49 per pound at the end of 2008 to more than $4.
Carpenter said New Mexico Copper Corp. expects that price to fluctuate somewhat over the next few years as it works on permitting and build out of its planned mine at the old Copper Flat site near Hillsboro. However, she expects the dynamics of the global economy to sustain the high prices.
"Copper is a principal piece of infrastructure and it's quite critical on the technological side too," she said. "The U.S. is not the only country making these big purchases and expanding infrastructure. We've got it happening all around the planet and that puts a particular pressure point on copper. The projections are quite strong, and we feel pretty confident."
The outlook is just as positive for Freeport-McMoRan Copper and Gold Inc., the operator of the Chino mine and a handful of other mining and milling operations in New Mexico and Arizona.
In addition to restarting the Chino mine, the company is hiring more workers at its other sites. It also has plans for a new copper project in the Silver City area and is evaluating the potential for a new mill in Morenci, Ariz.
The decision to ramp up production was a response to stronger demand on the global market, said Freeport-McMoRan spokesman Richard Peterson.
Two years ago was a different story. Prices bottomed out, forcing the company to lay off hundreds of workers and mothball the Chino mine.
Proof of the slowdown was evidenced in the state's unemployment figures. The mining industry recorded 14 consecutive months of job losses, totaling losses of around 5,000 at its peak.
Prices began to rebound in 2010, when New Mexico Copper Corp. spent much of the year exploring the extent of the deposit at Copper Flat.
The area was mined for a few months in the early 1980s before poor economic conditions forced its closure. During that short period of time, it produced more than 7 million pounds of copper as well as some gold and silver.
New Mexico Copper Corp. officials believe there's still plenty more to be mined.
If state and federal regulators approve the company's plans, the operation could mean some 500 construction jobs and another 200 permanent jobs.
That sounds good to Walter Armijo, chairman of the Sierra County Commission.
"It's going to have one heck of an impact," he said. "The thing is jobs are real scarce here. They're hard to get."
Armijo said the project has created a buzz around the county seat of Truth or Consequences and there's also talk in the sleepy historic mining town of Hillsboro, the closest community to Copper Flat.
Ben Lewis, the owner of the Hillsboro General Store and Cafe, said the project will mean more employment opportunities for the locals and possibly more customers for his business.
Longtime residents are used to the area's connection to mining, but more recent transplants see the outlying parts of Sierra County more as a place to get away from industry and the hustle and bustle of the city, Lewis said.
"A lot of people don't like things to change, and if you've only lived in Hillsboro for two or three or four years, you don't realize that things have been changing here since 1879," he said.
Some in the community do have concerns about mining in general and its potential impact on the area's scarce groundwater resources.
However, Lewis said the Copper Flat project hasn't become a "super-hot issue."
"Generally, even when we have different points of view, we've learned how to get along down here," he said.
Regulators with the New Mexico Mining and Minerals Division say the permitting process is rigorous and involves several different state agencies. The process also requires the company to collect a year's worth of environmental data before any work begins.
Because Copper Flat is partially on federal land, the Bureau of Land Management will also require analysis of the potential impacts to comply with federal environmental laws.
Carpenter estimates permitting could take two years, but it's something the company is willing to do to ensure that it's a good neighbor.
"We're looking at rebuilding this copper mine much like it was built before, with sensitivities to conservation on energy and water use and other aspects so that we can continue to decrease our overall perceived and real impacts," she said.