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Magma Copper Company

The now-defunct Magma Copper Company was at one time the largest producers of copper in the industry. Headquartered in Tucson, Arizona, Magma began in 1910 and employed 4,548 workers at multiple facilities. The company was acquired by the Australian firm Broken Hill in 1995 for $2.5 billion. The company was folded into Broken Hill and the new entity rebranded BHP Copper Group.

History of the Magma Copper Company

The Magma Copper Company was first organized in 1910 around the Silver Queen Mine, which had been in operation since 1877. Magma was founded by Colonel William Boyce Thompson, a mining engineer by training who would later make his fortune on Wall Street.

By 1950, Magma found itself as the eighth-largest copper producer of copper in the United States. Throughout the 1960s, Magma increased its overall copper production through the purchase and exploitation of new properties. By 1968, the company's annual net income had reached $11 million.

In March of 1970, Magma began construction on an electrolytic copper refinery. This more efficient refining process promised a capacity of 200,000 tons per year and resulted in a drastic decrease in operational costs. By 1980, Magma was the lowest-cost copper producer in the country.

Despite this, economic circumstances resulted in an eight-year hiatus at the original mine site, though work continued at a mine at San Manuel.

Operations as BHP

After the acquisition by Broken Hill in 1995, BHP Copper (as the company is now called) continued to expand. Today it owns and operates three mines in Arizona, including an underground copper sulfide mine and an open pit copper oxide mine at San Manuel. BHP also operates an open pit copper sulfide mine at Pinto Valley and an underground copper sulfide mine at Superior.

Copper Smelters and Asbestos

For most of the 1900s, when combustion or excessive heat was a danger, various forms of asbestos were selected as a building material. Plants such as Magma Copper Company, as a result, were often made with asbestos-containing materials. Resistance to electrical current is one of the other properties of various types of asbestos. Because copper refining not only requires high temperatures but also uses large amounts of electricity, asbestos was used throughout most copper smelters. Asbestos' resistance to acids also meant it was used in coating materials, safety clothes and counter tops. Asbestos, however, had a significant downside that was either not known or at times deliberately ignored: grave and often lethal diseases were found to be the result of exposure to asbestos.

Most of this asbestos was the form called chrysotile. Companies for a number of years professed that chrysotile was the "good asbestos" - despite mounting proof to the contrary. This chrysotile or "white" asbestos was frequently mixed with amosite or crocidolite and used to create asbestos transite, which was utilized for many years before it was outlawed for construction purposes in the 1970s.

Like cement, asbestos transite could be laminated, sprayed onto ductwork and pipes and molded into working surfaces. This form of asbestos did not present a health hazard so long as it stayed solid. However, as asbestos-containing transite got older, it was prone to becoming powdery, which enabled the deadly, tiny fibers to float into the air. In other words, such asbestos is friable, which means easily pulverized.

Why Is Friable Asbestos Dangerous?

When they are friable, asbestos particles are easily dispersed into the atmosphere. Breathing asbestos particles can result in conditions like cancer. Another unusual, but often lethal, disease linked to asbestos is mesothelioma. The pleural form of the disease, one which affects the lining between the lungs and the pleural cavity, is the most common. If those particles of asbestos in the air settle on food or drinks and are subsequently ingested, pericardial or peritoneal mesothelioma can result, although they are rarer than pleural mesothelioma.

Because research led to a better awareness of the risks of asbestos exposure, people today are protected by stringent laws regulating how to use asbestos. When facilities such as Magma Copper Company were first online, however, asbestos was much more prevalent. And in all too many cases people worked with asbestos-containing materials without the benefit of respirators or other protective gear.

Asbestos Exposure - a Hidden Danger

Asbestos cancer in contrast to typical work-related injuries, which are easily observed and known about soon after the incident, may take ten, twenty, or even thirty years to manifest. Given such a lag time between exposure and the onset of symptoms, a worker might not even associate his or her current condition with work done 10 or more years earlier. It is vital, therefore, that people who worked at or spent much time around plants like Magma Copper Company inform their health care professionals about the possibility of exposure to asbestos. New drugs for treating mesothelioma cancer are being developed, and early detection provides patients and their doctors the best chance of beating the once deathly disease.



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