PHOENIX - Gov. Jan Brewer is throwing her support behind a large and controversial plan by a Canadian firm to mine copper in Florence by pumping weak acid into the ground.
Brewer attended a closed-door meeting Tuesday with executives of Curis Resources and other area business leaders, a meeting that was not on her public schedule or disclosed ahead of time. Gubernatorial press aide Matthew Benson said no one was told because the event was secret and that Brewer was only "there to learn as much as possible about the project."
"She hasn't made a final decision on the project," Benson said.
But that's not what she told those present. "I'm grateful for the opportunity to stand together with you tonight in support of such a wonderful economic development opportunity," Brewer said in prepared remarks obtained after a public-records request by Capitol Media Services. "I hope that we'll be able to see this through and that Florence, Pinal County and Arizona will continue to thrive."
And the company, in a news release issued Wednesday, described the event as a "rally in support of the Florence copper project."
The Arizona Guardian reported there were about 30 to 40 protesters outside the meeting at the Windmill Winery as Brewer was ushered in through a different door.
The company says it acquired the property, entirely within town boundaries, in February 2010. It has 1,342 acres, including 1,182 acres it owns outright and another 160 acres of state mineral leases.
It plans what is called "in-situ copper recovery," in which a weak acid is injected into the ground where it dissolves the copper. The solution is then pumped to the surface through other wells.
Company officials say that all of the solution is recaptured and that groundwater is not endangered.
Neighboring landowners, however, have raised questions of whether the weak acid solution might affect the groundwater in the area.
Benson, asked if the governor would meet with those landowners, said, "I'm not aware we have had a request."
Benson said Brewer's interest is in the jobs that would be created, a theme the governor noted in her speech.
"You know, contrary to popular belief in some political circles, state government can't create jobs," she said. "What we can do, though, is create an environment that's conducive to job growth and friendly to small businesses and entrepreneurs."
Benson said Brewer has no say in whether the facility ever operates, saying those decisions rest with local officials. He acknowledged, though, that the company will require some permits from the state Department of Environmental Quality, which is headed by a Brewer appointee.
Chuck Coughlin, whose company represents Curis, figures the facility eventually would create 170 to 250 full-time jobs.
Some of the objections are coming from Southwest Value Partners, an investment group co-founded by Phoenix Suns owner Robert Sarver, which bought 4,500 acres adjacent to the site around the same time with plans to develop housing.
Justin Merritt, Southwest Value's senior account manager, said the fact Curis will be injecting only a 2 to 3 percent acid solution into the ground does not tell the full story. He said that, by definition, Curis is using the acid solution to dissolve the copper ore beneath the ground.
"When you're pulling it out of the ground, you're going to have all kinds of metals and other chemicals that are coming out of the ground," Merritt said.
The more often the solution is recycled, he said, the greater the concentration.
Coughlin said the company will have to meet environmental regulations to protect the groundwater.
Beyond that, he said, the wells Curis is planning will go down 450 feet into the bedrock, below the aquifer where other landowners would be drawing their water.