Spain’s historic mining district remains a vital source for metals and regional commerce
By Oscar Martinez, Latin American Editor
Admiral Christopher Columbus set sail from Spain’s Palos de la Frontera, an ancient port located 6 km away from Huelva to discover America in October 1492. History tells that he “went for copper and discovered gold.” Of course, in that time he didn’t know about the rich copper deposits located along the Tinto River (Rio Tinto) near the town of Nerva in Huelva.
Today, the Port of Huelva is currently among the five ports with the highest volume of traffic in Spain. Its location in the southwest of the Iberian Peninsula makes it a strategic enclave as an import and export facility for new trends in international maritime trade, especially between Europe and the Atlantic Basin.
The Andalusian mining industry and, therefore, the foreign trade of its products is widely spread throughout the region. In fact, seven of the eight provinces have shown double-digit growth in their exports so far this year. Huelva is the leading province, with one out of every three euros sold by the community abroad, EUR1,412 million ($1.5 billion).
Within Europe, Poland and Spain have the largest copper reserves. The Iberian Pyrite Belt, which is 30- to 50-km wide, stretches some 250 km from Seville to Portugal.
Andalusia has the greatest amount of mining activity in Spain and it’s one of more prospective regions in Europe,, with a rich copper and zinc deposits for local development. Likewise, Andalusia’s mining value chain has developed great potential by taking advantage of the growing demand for sustainable raw materials, positioning itself at the forefront of technology and circular economy processes, favoring environmentally sustainable mining.
Atlantic Copper is Spain’s leading copper exporter and its sole shareholder is Freeport-McMoRan. It also operates the third largest copper smelter in Europe. The company is currently focused on ensuring the sustainability of its operations.
“CirCular will be an innovative, responsible and efficient way of using natural resources, since it will complement the production of metals from primary sources and which are essential for the energy transition and electrification of the world in the coming decades,” said Atlantic Copper President Javier Targhetta, with an emphasis on the Cu in circular. “In this sense, this metallurgical project will prevent the uncontrolled disposal of these residues and the corresponding pollution caused by them.
“Through ‘CirCular,’ Atlantic Copper will set a trend in Europe and serve as a benchmark for other regions of the continent, as it is a project that is aligned with the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) and with the EU’s Green Deal and the Plan of Reconstruction that aims to make Europe climate neutral by 2050,” Targhetta said. “Copper is among the key raw materials that Europe will need to achieve that goal of a sustainable, environmentally neutral economy.”
E&MJ visited Atlantic’s Copper Metallurgical Complex in Huelva, which belongs to the Association of Chemical, Basic and Energy Industries of Huelva. Concentrated copper ore is treated to yield Atlantic Copper’s main product, 99.7% purity copper anodes. The smelter processes about 1 million metric tons per year (mt/y) of ore to produce 300,000 mt/y of copper anode. At the smelter, raw materials are separated into their three main components, copper (anodes), sulphur (suphur dioxide, SO2) and iron (iron silicate). The copper refinery within the complex, uses solvent extraction and electrowinning to produce high purity (99.99%) copper cathode.
The complex has three sulphuric acid plants, where SO2 recovered from the smelting process is used to produce 98.5% pure sulphric acid. Currently, the plants can produce 1 million mt/y of acid.
Atlantic Copper’s facilities in Huelva also have a power plant whose function is to produce electricity from the heat recovered from the smelter.
Traveling Back in History
Retracing this historic route of the metals mined in this part of Andalusia, E&MJ visited the facilities of the Rio Tinto Mining Park, copper and pyrite mines that converge with lands that were conquered by Tartars, Phoenicians and Romans. In ancient times, the legendary Rio Tinto mines supplied rich metals to the ships that departed for the mythical temple of Solomon. The Rio Tinto mines are the fabled mines of King Solomon, and a section of the area is still known as Cerro Salomón today. Tales of the Iberian Peninsula’s mineral wealth that drew Phoenician merchants to its shores, followed by a succession of Greek, Carthaginian and Roman invasions. The Rio Tinto mines were worked so intensively by the Romans they were among the most prized rewards that control of Iberia yielded.
The mining museum (Museo Minero) of Huelva exhibits tools used by the Roman miners and their slaves, old mining maps, a timeline showing the mining history of Rio Tinto, as well as artifacts evidencing 100 years of British presence in the area. There is a variety of invaluable pieces of history connected to mining and metallurgy, as well as emblematic objects of industrial archaeological such as the “Maharajá Car,” the most luxurious narrow route railroad car in the world, built for Queen Victoria of England and brought to Rio Tinto for a visit to Alfonso XIII.
The museum is lodged in the former English hospital built by Río Tinto Co. Ltd. in 1927 to attend the medical needs of the staff in Rio Tinto. Now it’s managed by the Rio Tinto Foundation for the study of mining and metallurgy, a non-profit private cultural institution, whose aim is the conservation and restoration of the historical heritage. Since the end of the 1980s, Rio Tinto Foundation has been carrying a project to recover the old hospital following the English architectural patterns with the aim to house all the archaeological and historical artifacts produced by 5,000 years of mining activity in the area. In 1992, this building opened again with a new purpose: to be the central building of the Mining Museum.
Rio Tinto owes its name to the river which flows close to it, which is colored red due to all the mineral ores, such as iron and copper, in its waters. It is located 65 km northwest of Seville. Close to the town itself are a number of large open-pit mines spread over a wide area. Corte Atalaya is perhaps the most impressive as it is the largest open-pit mine in Europe. Elliptical in shape, 1,200 m long, and 350 m deep, it started production in 1907 and closed in 1992.
Coincidently, the Rio Tinto Mining Park was set up in 1992, so that visitors can learn about the important history of these mines, being the Peña de Hierro (iron rock) mine one of the most interesting to visit. Located in the extreme northeast of Rio Tinto, about 10 km from the town of Minas de Rio Tinto and about 3 km from Nerva, Peña de Hierro was founded in Roman times but its greatest productive activity takes place from the mid-19th century to the third quarter of the 20th century.
The journey to the park ended with a train ride that since 1875 connected the mines with the Port of Huelva. Aboard wooden wagons rebuilt from 19th-century plans, and with locomotives that are jewels of world railway heritage, E&MJ crossed landscapes transformed by the hand of man during 150 years of mining activity, along the Tinto River and its unique ecosystem.
MMH Brings Andalusia to the World
In 2021, the Andalusian metals and mining industry had a turnover of EUR4,000 million, which represents an increase of 33% compared to the previous year, according to the information provided by the companies that form the Association of Research, Extraction, Mining-Metallurgic Transformation and Service Companies (Aminer).
Production stood at 21.5 million metric tons (mt) of processed ore, slightly above the previous year. Likewise, the value of exports grew by 30%, standing at EUR2,000 million compared to EUR1,400 million in 2020.
In Seville, E&MJ visited the Mining and Minerals Hall (MMH). At the Palacio de Congresos y Exposiciones (FIBES), the fourth edition of MMH Seville, October 18-20, 2022, had a balance that represents “a success in quantitative and qualitative terms” according to Javier Targhetta, who was also the commissioner of the event. “The MMH has revalidated the success figures that have consolidated Seville as the European capital of mining.”
With a total attendance of around 10,000 visitors to the exhibition area and more than 1,000 representatives from 39 nationalities coming from all continents, this fourth edition has had the participation of 180 exhibiting companies from all over the world and 115 world-class national and international speakers.
E&MJ attended the opening ceremony, visited the Andalusian stands and spoke with different exhibitors to know more about their innovative products and breakthrough solutions. E&MJ also participated in a small group of company presentations of international and Andalusian companies that were part of the Reverse Mission organized by Extenda.
MMH becomes a focus of increasing interest for domestic and international mining companies, and it takes places within a global context in which mineral raw materials have proven essential to tackle the transformation towards a green and sustainable economy.
Renewable energies, electric vehicles and technologies linked to the energy and digital transition have increased the demand for metals and minerals such as copper, zinc, silver, lead, aluminum, steel, stainless steel, tin, lithium, nickel and cobalt, as well as all kinds of industrial minerals, plaster, lime, limestone, aggregates, marble, potash, magnesite, cement, ceramics and glass, among others.
This edition focused on the strategic importance of mining and how to encourage and support economic recovery of the sector. Many of the presentations talked about the use of clean and digital technologies, and the new approaches to address energy transition.
Several regional mining companies, alongside their suppliers and contractors, exhibited, supporting the MMH 2022 event. E&MJ visited their booths to learn more about their expectations and operations in the region:
Atalaya Mining is a mining and development company which produces copper concentrates and silver by-product at its wholly owned Riotinto mine site in southwest Spain, and is currently undertaking an expansion.
It is an open-pit copper operation located in the Iberian Pyrite Belt, 65 km northwest of Seville. With a commercial production rate of 15 million mt/y at the plant facility, the mine site has an excellent infrastructure with access to power and water. It is located 75 km from smelter and major seaport.
Atalaya declared commercial production at the Riotinto mine on February 1, 2016 at an initial processing rate of 5 million mt/y. The mine has an expected life of 11 years.
First Quantum owns Cobre Las Cruces, a mining and metallurgical complex located in the Seville province. Las Cruces operates an open pit mine and a hydrometallurgical copper production plant. It is a unique operation in Europe, in which mining and industrial activity coexist at the same site and the complete process — from mine to refined metal — takes place in the same facilities.
Las Cruces represents one of the largest private industrial investments made in the province of Seville in recent decades.
The company began copper ore mining activities in 2009 and, since then, it has produced almost 600,000 mt of copper cathodes.
Development of current mineral deposits at Las Cruces is in its final stage. However, new polymetallic, mineral resources, rich in copper, silver, zinc and lead, have been located under the current ore body. The mine has developed a unique technology in the world that will allow these four metals to be produced at the same time. The Polymetallurgical Refinery (PMR) project will consist of an underground mine instead of the current open pit, and an expansion of the metallurgical plant to produce copper, silver, zinc and lead. The project is expected to help increasing the mine life at least for another 15 years.
Minera Los Frailes, owned by Grupo México, involves a direct investment of more than EUR300 million in the Aznalcóllar polymetallic deposit, with reserves of zinc, copper, lead and silver.
Tharsis Mining is the only company with 100% Andalusian capital dedicated to the metallic mining sector in the Iberian Pyrite Belt. The Tharsis mine is located in the Andévalo region of the Huelva province. The mine has been active for several centuries going through different civilizations, from the ancient Tartars, continuing through the Roman Empire and finishing the last of its golden ages in the 20th century after decades of exploitation by the British company Tharsis, Sulfur and Copper. This is the most unique deposit in which Tharsis Mining works. With an extension of more than 3,700 hectares, its iron caps have produced gold and silver already in modern times.
Sandfire MATSA is a modern mining company which owns and operates the MATSA Mining Operations in the Huelva, province of Spain. The company has a processing plant located to the north of the Iberian Pyrite Belt that sources ore from three underground mines, Aguas Teñidas and Magdalena mines in Almonaster la Real and the Sotiel mine in Calañas. Sandfire MATSA produces copper, zinc and lead mineral concentrates that are sold and shipper from the port of Huelva. Sandfire MATSA is a wholly owned company of Sandfire Resources Ltd.
Andalusia is accountable for a 90% of national sales in mining sector of Spain, with 464 mining operations deployed in Almeria, Cadiz, Cordoba, Granada. Huelva, Jaen, Malaga and Seville. The region is spearheading the national mining sector with EUR5,697 billion in exports in raw materials and it’s a bridge between the Atlantic and the Mediterranean, and a gateway between America and Asia. Large mining resources with deposits containing gold, copper, gypsum, barite, kaolin and bentonite, among others, are still unexploited.
Some major international companies have chosen to invest in Andalusia as they see a growing development of innovative mining and transformation projects, now and in the years to come.