School of Hard Rocks

UA Mining Laboratory

By:
Tim Vanderpool

In the depths of the earth there is a web of tunnels where human industry uncovers the most basic elements. In chasms, they find minerals and metals from copper and iron to zinc and aluminum. 

The passages remain a mystery to most of us. But not to students at the University of Arizona. 

I am descending into the dusty depths of the University’s San Xavier Mining Laboratory.  On the ladder below me is Chris Zanin, a sophomore in the Department of Mining and Geological Engineering.  

Once ranked among Arizona’s top zinc producers, much of this 90-acre mine site has been under UA stewardship for more than 50 years. While other schools boast similar labs, the UA is alone in possessing a multilevel facility with a working vertical shaft.  

Reaching 250 feet beneath low-slung hills in the historic Pima Mining District south of Tucson, these workings were started by the San Xavier Mining and Smelting Company in the 1880s. They changed hands several times over the years before ceasing commercial operations in 1952.

Now, rather than feeding global ore markets, San Xavier nourishes the minds of students like Zanin, who also serves as the lab’s maintenance manager. “Clear!” he hollers from below, signaling that the stout metal ladder is now open for me to descend. Fellow student Tim Busby remains above ground, keeping tabs on our whereabouts as part of the mine’s safety regimen. 

Soon I’m walking along a hushed tunnel. In this classroom, the blackboard is a wall of rumpled rock, and Zanin happily points out a tapestry of copper, iron, and other ore just above our heads. “The UA is the only college that has a multilevel mine that’s student-run,” he says. “We actually get to do the work. It’s not just in a book, or a teacher’s lecture.” 

Down here, students put in eight hours a week filling real-world positions ranging from routine maintenance to mine development.  

They’re also exposed to the latest technology, including a 40-foot, $400,000 drill recently donated by the ASARCO mining company.  

Threading through all activities is an intense focus on safety, in conjunction with the Laborer’s International Union of North America.  

All of which make this one of the nation’s top mining programs. It’s also among the oldest; now celebrating 125 years, the mining school still provides a seamless transition from academia to a mining industry hungry for new engineers. The lab is a huge part of that, says Mary Poulton, director of the Lowell Institute for Mineral Resources. “It allows us to do real hands-on education, training, and research. The facility we’re working with is a turn-of-the-century mine, but the things we do out there are state-of-the-art.

“Students start out as miners, working on a project, and work up to supervisory roles. Those who show the best all-around skills by their senior year usually become the mine managers. Every year they put together a plan, from putting in new tunnels to reinforcing and putting utilities into existing tunnels.”

Bree McAllister '12

New Faces of Mining

They roam the remotest corners of the world, scale the highest mountains, and descend deep into the earth. They go places few women have ever gone. They are not afraid of adversity or a good challenge. 

For years, women have been carving out a place for themselves in an industry where their exclusion likely is as old as the profession itself — but where their inclusion today is critical to meeting a shortage of skilled workers.

“The success of women in the mining industry will attract more and more women to the profession,” says Mary Poulton, director of the Lowell Institute for Mineral Resources, “and the public benefits from that as much as the industry.”

Visit UANews.org to read the complete New Faces of Mining series.

Mary Poulton
 
Collegiate and Campus Showcase
U.S. Mineral Mining: In Need of a Winning Hand

Friday, Nov. 8, 1 p.m. 
Student Union Kiva Room

UA expert Mary M. Poulton, director of the Lowell Institute for Mineral Resources, discusses why a sustainable future for mineral mining and recycling is essential as the United States competes in a changing global economy where the geological deck is stacked against us.

But none of that means anything unless they also learn to work safely. “The No. 1 goal for using this facility,” says Poulton, “is safety training.”

Zanin is now shining his cap light on a rich vein of copper and zinc, exposed by some long ago miner. “You can see where they started digging the deposit out,” he says. “The green is copper, and the brown and dark red is oxidized iron.” 

Then he pauses, glancing around at this fascinating and hidden universe, before we start climbing back toward daylight.

In the depths of the earth there is a web of tunnels where human industry uncovers the most basic elements. In chasms, they find minerals and metals from copper and iron to zinc and aluminum. 

The passages remain a mystery to most of us. But not to students at the University of Arizona. 

I am descending into the dusty depths of the University’s San Xavier Mining Laboratory.  On the ladder below me is Chris Zanin, a sophomore in the Department of Mining and Geological Engineering.  

Once ranked among Arizona’s top zinc producers, much of this 90-acre mine site has been under UA stewardship for more than 50 years. While other schools boast similar labs, the UA is alone in possessing a multilevel facility with a working vertical shaft.  

Reaching 250 feet beneath low-slung hills in the historic Pima Mining District south of Tucson, these workings were started by the San Xavier Mining and Smelting Company in the 1880s. They changed hands several times over the years before ceasing commercial operations in 1952.

Now, rather than feeding global ore markets, San Xavier nourishes the minds of students like Zanin, who also serves as the lab’s maintenance manager. “Clear!” he hollers from below, signaling that the stout metal ladder is now open for me to descend. Fellow student Tim Busby remains above ground, keeping tabs on our whereabouts as part of the mine’s safety regimen. 

Soon I’m walking along a hushed tunnel. In this classroom, the blackboard is a wall of rumpled rock, and Zanin happily points out a tapestry of copper, iron, and other ore just above our heads. “The UA is the only college that has a multilevel mine that’s student-run,” he says. “We actually get to do the work. It’s not just in a book, or a teacher’s lecture.” 

Down here, students put in eight hours a week filling real-world positions ranging from routine maintenance to mine development.  They’re also exposed to the latest technology, including a 40-foot, $400,000 drill recently donated by the ASARCO mining company.  

Threading through all activities is an intense focus on safety, in conjunction with the Laborer’s International Union of North America.  
All of which make this one of the nation’s top mining programs. It’s also among the oldest; now celebrating 125 years, the mining school still provides a seamless transition from academia to a mining industry hungry for new engineers. The lab is a huge part of that, says Mary Poulton, director of the Lowell Institute for Mineral Resources.

“It allows us to do real hands-on education, training, and research. The facility we’re working with is a turn-of-the-century mine, but the things we do out there are state-of-the-art.

“Students start out as miners, working on a project, and work up to supervisory roles. Those who show the best all-around skills by their senior year usually become the mine managers. Every year they put together a plan, from putting in new tunnels to reinforcing and putting utilities into existing tunnels.”

But none of that means anything unless they also learn to work safely. “The No. 1 goal for using this facility,” says Poulton, “is safety training.”

Zanin is now shining his cap light on a rich vein of copper and zinc, exposed by some long ago miner. “You can see where they started digging the deposit out,” he says. “The green is copper, and the brown and dark red is oxidized iron.” 

Then he pauses, glancing around at this fascinating and hidden universe, before we start climbing back toward daylight.