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February 28, 2008

Morenci Mine, Arizona 2008

The obvious benefit about the retirement travel style that Bernie and I have chosen is the amazing things we have seen.  Tiananmen Square in Beijing, the Marjorie Glacier in Alaska and the Grand Canyon are just 3 of dozens of memorable places we have visited and shared with you in our journal.


Near the end of our visit to Arizona this winter, we journeyed to Clifton in the east central part of the state, near the New Mexico border, to take a tour of the Morenci Mine – the largest open pit mine in the contiguous U.S.  Owned for over 70 years by Phelps Dodge, the company was sold about a year ago to Freeport-McMoRan Copper and Gold Inc., for a reported $26 billion.
P1020421There are about 2,000 employees at this one mine which produces approximately 8% of the world’s supply - 2.3 million pounds of 99.9% pure copper EVERY DAY, 365 days a year, 24 hours a day.  There is an expression is the US south-west that everything is bigger in Texas.  Well, there’s nothing this big in Texas.  As we rode on the tour (and then again on our own the following day), we travelled about 13 kilometers (8 miles for our American friends) of US highway 191, all of it within the active mine property.
IMG_6078_editedAs the pictures show, the scale of this operation is vast. Man-made mountains of ore sit side by side with natural mountains of the same height.  These holes in the ground make the hole for the foundation of the CN Tower look like just a spoon full.  We were told that one leaching bed (more about that in a moment) was 500 acres (a typical Ontario farm is 100 acres) and it certainly wasn’t the biggest we saw.

The mountain side is blasted and then dug by huge electric shovels. Three scoops of the shovel fill one haul truck – with 240 tons per load. The tires you see in the photos are 12 feet in diameter, 6 per truck, the engine is a V16 2000 hp, and the ore box on the back is 24 feet wide.  Each truck costs around $2,000,000.

The trucks drive left handed (opposite to normal highway driving) which puts the drivers on the outside of the directiP1020437_editedon of travel, to protect them if there is an accident. The company is currently assembling 5 trucks for testing which will carry even larger loads. These haul vehicles are so big they cannot be built in a factory, so they assembled on site (kind of the ultimate Lego kit!!!). The trucks are loaded by the power shovel at the ore face and then drive to the crusher, a 5 – 15 minute round trip. The trucks move 700,000 tons of raw ore every day. You will notice in the photos that the roads are as big as a new highway.



That’s a standard size bulldozer in front of the haul truck. 

The ore is dumped and crushed into uniform size and then transported to the site being developed for leaching. Large pipes (3 feet diameter) are installed at the site, with progressively smaller pipes and hoses spreading out across the surface.


The ore is extracted by leaching, which involves soaking the bed through the pipe system with a solution of water/sulfuric acid, which seeps down through the ore over a period of several months, into a pond at the bottom edge of the leaching field, carrying the copper in the solution.

The solution is then piped to the extraction department where 5 tanks, each about the size of a large swimming pool, wash and separate the water, sulfuric acid and copper through chemical processes until only the copper is left. It then goes into a concentration process which ultimately results in nearly pure copper sheets (the second photo above)which are then shipped to refineries across the U.S. and Canada for manufacture into copper products such as wire and pipe.

The other very interesting aspect of our visit to the Morenci mine was the town of Morenci itself which is just “up the hill” to the north of Clifton.  It is not an incorporated independent community like most others – it is a company town. The mine owns it all: the land, schools, homes, office P1020425_editedbuildings, motels, supermarkets, hospital and everything else.  They don’t own all the businesses;  many enterprises are operated by tenants in space leased from the company. Most employees live in homes on the town site which they rent from the company for about $200.00 a month.  Although they are all pretty much the same, they have their own individual appearance and style and the residents have all the various interests you would find anywhere else.  BUT, if the town gets in the way of the mine, the TOWN gets moved and it has happened – twice.   Everything gets moved, except the cemetery. On the tour we were shown one of the former sites, which is now largely covered with ore tailings.  As we arrived in Clifton we could see another company home subdivision nearing completion.

Because of the high price of copper on world markets, business is good.  The company is currently hiring almost every type of skilled labour but there is no place to live. Even the RV park is virtually full of mine employees.  The park we stayed in had kept 2 sites for travellers like us, out of 55 sites total. 

The tour was over 3 hours and was amazing!!!  

As noted above, we retraced the tour route the next day and continued further north up the highway.  Trailers are not allowed on this road due to the steep grades and switchbacks. 


We had a wonderful vista from one of the outlooks.  That’s the road winding down on the left and then disappearing in the distance. 

 We hope you’ve enjoyed this special journal.


Posted by Bernice at February 28, 2008 08:01 PM


I have enjoyed all of your newsletters,I hope that your journeys all have been safe and memorable.Ross please let me know how your truck has been performing.

Steve Bell

Posted by: Steve Bell at March 18, 2008 09:26 AM

Hey Ross and Bernie! This is Traci from the Perot Theatre - just wanted to stop by, check out your blog and say thanks again for coming to see us today. We'll be keeping up with your adventures here in Texarkana!

Posted by: Traci at March 18, 2008 04:04 PM

WOW! You wonder what this is doing to the environment in that area--hopefully they are taking care of that. OR has had a lot of company towns related to the logging industry and Shevlin-Hixon used to move towns also on the railroad. This was a fascinating piece that you sent--can't believe the size of the trucks. Must have to have a ladder to get into them! Bette

Posted by: Bette Andrew at March 19, 2008 01:38 PM

I really think you guys ought to put together some seminars. You'd get big audiences.

I hope the Panama Canal is as fascinating as the places you've been to. We're off March 31, and we'll keep you posted.

All the best,
Jill & Alan

Posted by: Jill & Alan at March 19, 2008 04:06 PM

I feel like I travel with you. Missed seeing you this year. Bobbi

Posted by: Bobbi at March 20, 2008 02:56 PM