One giant scar runs through the otherwise pristine Arizona Highways landscape that spreads in all directions around desolate Arizona Highway 177. In between the towering rock walls, desert mountains, and tree-filled river beds, the Ray Mine sits like its own kind of toxic canyon carved into the landscape. Run by ASARCO, a corporation known for unfair labor practices, a long history of often violent labor disputes and blatant disregard for the environment, the Ray Mine dominates the economic and environmental geography of Route 177.
In this corner of the state mining touches everyone, from supplying jobs and shaping community to destroying the environmental health of the whole region. Meanwhile ASARCO fights bankruptcy and attempts to maintain competitiveness in a changing global economy. Outwardly, what we see is a man-made landscape that has been ripped into the pristine high desert and outdoes the Great Pyramid of Giza in all measure of scale other than classic beauty, but within the Ray Mine lies a monumental apocalyptic beauty that transcends human reality.
The Ray Mine is located in central Arizona between Winkelman and Superior along scenic Hwy 177. It is surrounded by low broken granite hills. The tailings from the mine are visible for miles around, long before you can see the large open pit and the full magnitude of how much earth has been displaced to reach the copper rich ore deep beneath the surface. Open pit mining began in 1948 at this location, and the Ray mine is the third largest copper producing mine in the United States. Along with the smelting facility in nearby Hayden, the Ray mine has been identified by the EPA as the largest single-source toxic waste producer in the state of Arizona; as a result of this, residents of Hayden have a 50% higher incidence of lung cancer than residents of the state’s major metropolitan areas in Phoenix and Tucson.
When you look into the abyss of the Ray Mine, it is hard to imagine where in this massive void the two vanished towns of Ray and Sonora were located before being subsumed by the mine. The mine simply grew and swallowed up everything around it, including entire towns. The residents of those towns were forcibly moved to the new company-built town of Kearney. You have to wonder what it felt like for the workers who dug the earth from beneath their home towns and watched as they then fell into the gaping open pit of the mine. Did they watch their own houses and the streets where they played as children tumble into nothingness and feel a sense of loss, or were they just happy to have a job and be able to feed their families? Did they feel that their lives had been undercut and that they were being swallowed up by the mining company that employed them?
The best overall view of the Ray mine is found at a public viewing area maintained by ASARCO. To get there you have to drive several miles along a winding, toxic dirt road. When you get to the observation point, you find mothers showing children where their fathers go to work each day and boyfriends proudly explaining to their girlfriends what they do in the mines. When viewing the mine in person, it is impossible not to be awestruck by the scale of destruction. Giant mining trucks capable of carrying more than 400 tons of earth slowly work their way up and down the graded vehicle tracks along the edges of the mine. One guy next to me pointed out to his girlfriend how the traffic was controlled on the tracks. He also commented that in most mines twelve foot light-whips were required, but in the Ray mine they use sixteen foot ones.
A light-whip is a fiberglass pole attached to a mining vehicle with lights and a flag on top. The primary purpose is to increase visibility while operating inside the mine, but it has a secondary function when a vehicle is covered by a rock slide or other cave-in. Then it serves as a marker to help rescue workers locate and dig out the trapped miners below. In real life, when the world comes crashing down on you, it would be nice to feel that you had a personal light-whip, a marker to let people know you need help. But when you really need them, it seems there is never anyone around and you have to dig yourself out alone, brush yourself off and simply move on. Certainly, there are times when a sixteen foot light-whip would give us comfort.
Mining accidents have a deeper psychological effect on us than most other disasters. It is easy to identify with the plight of the trapped miners. We can relate to being buried alive, buried by our very lives while knowing deep inside that we have no savior or rescuers. People followed the media coverage of the 2010 Chilean mining accident as if it were a religious experience. In its final days, this mining accident became the most followed news event on TV ever. Even the most cynical found themselves near tears when the first miners were brought to the surface while putting aside their feelings that they were being “played” by the media (as was so well characterized in the 1951 Billy Wilder classic film Ace in the Hole).
When everything comes down on us, we know that we will die alone with only our memories of the good and the bad and the love that we found in this harsh world. Life is for the living and everything continues on after we are gone. The Ray mine will survive as a landmark of our existence as a species long past the death of the last living human on earth.