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Untold Arizona: Mining Coming Back To Skull Valley
To commemorate Arizona’s birthday, we dispatched our reporters far and wide to bring you stories from the region you've probably never heard before. Hear more from our Untold Arizona series.
What does a rock sound like? Ask geologist Al Burch, who is never too far from a rock hammer at any time.
“I never leave home without a rock hammer, are you kidding me?” he said, as he went to his SUV to pull it out.
Burch said this kind of soft, white rock we’re standing on has a sort of metallic ending to the sound it makes when it’s hit.
“There!” he said, listening closely. “You can tell, when you hit it with a hammer, there’s a little tink to it? That’s how you tell the silica content.”
This pearly rock’s special sound comes from the high amount of silica, or glass, inside it.
“It’s very unique because it has just the right chemical composition and just the right physical characteristics to be able to be used as a high quality natural pozzolan,” Burch said. “And the high quality natural pozzolans are very rare.”
Pozzolan is a silica-rich substance used to strengthen concrete. The high grade of this particular mineral technically puts it in the same mining category as gold. More fairly, though, it’s along the lines of something like high quality limestone because this material isn’t metallic, it’s just valuable and uncommon.
This pozzolan is on Bureau of Land Management (BLM) land, overseen by Hassayama Field Manager Rem Hawes.
Hawes points out the rocks at the bottom of the mine site that are considered pozzolan. This rockbed formed after volcanic ash settled here and became glassy rock, or tuff.
“And all you’re seeing in front of you here, the white cliffs and the hillsides, is the volcanic tuff material.” Hawes said, describing how the area looks.
Pozzolan can also be made from fly ash, which is a by-product of burning coal. With coal plants shutting down across the country, Burch said the timing is right to profit from this pozzolan mine.
“Since that is dwindling, and going away, these old natural pozzolan deposits now are being looked at to being opened up again,” Burch said.
To get to the actual mine site, Burch, BLM officials and I pile into a car in Skull Valley, 40 minutes southwest of Prescott. The SUV drives slowly up a dusty road flanked by jagged white stone spires.
“One of the reasons we’re considering this at all is because of the demonstrated economic value of the material,” Hawes said about the mine proposal.
At the top of the mine, Hawes surveys the 76-acres Kirkland Mining Company, who employs Burch, plans to dig into.
The plan is the ivory rock crunching under our feet will be mined and crushed for less than $20 a ton, without adding labor costs, then sold to buyers for around $50-$60 a ton.
And this project would last decades.
Kirkland Mining Project Manager Burch said using the land for its resources follows in the footsteps of Skull Valley’s mining past.
“So there’s a long history of mining in the region and that’s what really led to the discovery and the use of this deposit through time,” Burch said.
Skull Valley’s name comes after white settlers found the sun-bleached remains of a large Native American battle left in the area.
Anywhere the land could be used, it was. That’s how this mine began, too.
Settlers carved out the rock to build their homes in the 19th century. Those stone blocks even made it all the way to build part of Arizona’s capital building in Phoenix.
Agriculture and railroads were built to support the mines and other industries popped up, as those looking to strike it rich found they needed a day job to support themselves.
From Economic Development To Human Habitation
Skull Valley resident Allison Dixon has her home by that same railroad, where she keeps a small peach orchard, chicken coop and her prized Arabian horses.
“If you live in Yavapai County you live near an old mine,” she said, opening the gate to the field she keeps.
Dixon is staunchly against the mine. She said if the mine were on private property she might feel differently. But she thinks the potential 85 trucks a day the mine could bring through this pastoral area are just one of the many downsides.
“It is private interests looking to profit off of public lands and in doing so, negatively impact the local community and destroy a beautiful environment,” Dixon said.
She works with the local volunteer fire department who opposed the mine. She said they are not staffed for any more emergencies than usual and that trucks going up and down windy, two-lane Iron Springs Road is not safe.
“When you drive through an area like this, someone’s going to call 911, it’s going to go maybe to my cell phone if I’m on dispatch and I’m going to call a team of volunteers, who are mostly retired guys, and we’re going to do the best we can until an ambulance can arrive,” Dixon said.
The volunteer fire department wrote a letter in opposition, and so did the city of Prescott back in July 2017. More than 1,000 public comments poured in to the BLM from citizens echoing those worries.
“This is a county that mining built but all that is in the pretty distant past,” Dixon said.
This is a shift in attitude from economic development to human habitation in Skull Valley.
Brigitte Pleitgen lives with her husband in a home right next to the public land and the mine claim.
“We moved here for peace and quiet, we didn’t move here to mine,” Pleitgen said. “Nobody was mining here when we bought, we were told nobody was going to mine here.”
Pleitgen can see the white dust blow off disturbed rock from her kitchen window.
And she knows every rocky crag and outcrop of land she’s hiked on for the past 20 years.
“Scraping all this open is now creating the issue of having dust,” she said as she hiked over where the mining claim would be. “This is new, they just dug all this up.”
Pleitgen points out the dug-out spot where the company has taken 1,000 tons of rock for sampling and processing.
She also points out where she’s found pottery shards, desert tortoises and a hawk nest.
To her, the land is worth more than the economic value that can be derived from it. And she’s been to public meetings about the plan with the company and the BLM.
Right now the BLM is studying the environmental impact of the mine, and the mine company is looking at the traffic.
At the top of the mine, BLM field manager Rem Hawes said officials are listening to the community.
"Any concerns from the community that we can’t mitigate absolutely, that would give me pause.” Hawes said. “If this project is to go forward we want to make sure we mitigate any or all impacts that have been identified.”
Things like biological and cultural resources, and air and water quality.
If all goes according to plan for the mining company, operations will start in the spring of 2019.