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As copper price skyrockets, Arizona mine works to house workers

CLIFTON – As economies boom on the other side of the world, echoes resound in the scrubland around this desert town — and in the makeshift homes of families like Stacie and Tim Boardman and their children.

Copper is what links them.

An insatiable demand for pipes, wiring and other goods in China, Malaysia and elsewhere is driving a scramble by copper suppliers, including the enormous open-pit mine in Morenci, which is hiring so fast that housing hasn’t caught up.

That’s why the Boardmans have been bunking inside a 22-foot travel trailer a few miles down a curving mountain road from the Morenci Copper Mine, the largest open-pit copper mine in the northern hemisphere.

Within the trailer’s 220 square feet, two adults, three boys, two boxer dogs and a Labrador retriever have shared space since late spring.

“This is what people take camping,” Stacie Boardman said, motioning to the trailer. “It’s fine for a single man. They’re at the mine for an eight-hour shift, then they come home to sleep. For a family, it’s not an adequate situation.”

At last, some relief is coming.

Boardman got good news last month when she learned the family will be moving into a house next spring, one of 500 new residences going up in Clifton. Phelps Dodge Corp., which runs the mine, is moving workers out of the cramped trailers.

“It wasn’t the greatest housing solution from the beginning, just one we could implement rapidly,” said mine spokesman Kimball Hansen Jr.

There’s also a new dormitory-style hall in Morenci that just opened, housing up to 400 employees. Most of those residents work seven-day shifts, then rejoin families in distant towns for a week off before returning to the mine.

Others, like the Boardmans, want to live in bona fide family homes.

Tim Boardman came from Phoenix to earn about $18 an hour at the mine as an equipment operator, and the family has lived rent-free in the trailer with utilities paid by Phelps Dodge.

But Stacie Boardman has complained of headaches, and tests showed some trailers had high formaldehyde levels. The company responded by installing air filters in the trailers.

The Boardmans stayed because there are so few alternatives.

Phelps Dodge is expanding the Morenci mine and preparing to open another open-pit mine in nearby Safford, Ariz. Over an 18-month span ending next year, the company will add 1,100 jobs, boosting its total employment at the two operations to 3,700. Both sites still need to fill plenty of jobs, particularly for mechanics and electricians.

The activity in Arizona is linked to dramatic growth in Asia. Two years ago, China passed the United States as the world’s largest copper consumer.

Demand for copper is equally high in Malaysia and India. Asian developers are using copper for new home construction and infrastructure improvements, and overseas businesses are trying to keep pace in an ever-changing global electronics industry.

Consequently, the price of copper has rocketed, jumping from 60 cents a pound in 2001 to around $3.50 currently.

The ravenous demand has encouraged American copper producers to expand existing operations, open new mines or restart those that were idled for years.

In Clifton and surrounding areas, it also pressed Phelps Dodge officials to find creative housing solutions.

The company plans to spend $122 million in the next year to build 495 homes in the Copper Verde Park area of Clifton, where the Boardmans and other residents spent the spring, summer and fall in rows of about four dozen white trailers.

There’s a long waiting list for the new homes — more than 300 workers — and the first phase won’t be finished until spring.

“Our objective is to get a productive work force in place. We want them to be happy,” Hansen said.

The challenges haven’t discouraged jobseekers.

Phelps Dodge has processed more than 1,500 job applications over the past two months. The company opened employment offices in Tempe and Tucson, as well as in El Paso, Texas — 225 miles from Clifton.

There are other housing allowances and sign-on bonuses, and anyone who drives more than 65 miles to work can qualify for travel reimbursements. Rates vary, depending on whether miners live in their own RVs or choose company housing.

“I live rent-free, I don’t pay utilities and they give me $65 a day to live here. I don’t fuss about it,” said worker Charles Cory, a single miner and company trailer resident who came from Tolar, Texas.

Meanwhile, buses ferry workers up to 70 miles each way to and from the two mines — making pickups at the San Carlos Indian Reservation, Lordsburg, N.M., and elsewhere.

Other copper companies are facing housing issues, too, but the Morenci mine differs dramatically because of its location — distant from large population centers.

Quadra Mining, for example, is preparing to build a new open-pit mine next year near Miami, Ariz., and other producers are ramping up in that area, about an hour’s drive from Phoenix’s eastern suburbs.

“We’re not in as bad of shape as those folks over at Clifton, simply because we’re much closer to the Phoenix metropolitan area,” said Mark Blakely, project manager at Quadra’s Carlota project mine.

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