After spending most of a day researching how to get here we connected with the tourist office in San Pedro first thing today (Monday) and they gave us all the info necessary...for those in the vicinity: phone 055-322122 or firstname.lastname@example.org to make reservations.
We called and were lucky enuf to get into the 3:30 pm tour today...no room in any more tours thru the rest of the week! Hustling a bit we got the bus to Calama and w/ help from bus operator folks, got a colectivo to the new tour bus terminal (opened April 30, 2010).
For those in Montana, this mine began as Anaconda Copper in 1915 and operated as such until nationalized by Allende in 1971. It is now the largest open pit mine in the world, 5 km long (3 miles), 3 km wide (2 miles), and 1 km deep (.6 mile) which is soon to grow almost twice this size when they remove the material between this, the S. mine and the N. mine thereby connecting the two. If you think the Butte, America hole is big...well, it can't hold a candle to this one!
In 1942 the Anaconda company shipped what was then the largest steam shovel in the world to the mine...each scoop picked up 10 tons of material and it required 12 people to operate. The shovels used today load 50-110 tons per scoop and require just one operator! They wet the roads down frequently for health as well as preservation of vehicles keeping the roads smooth. This area has not had rain since 2006 which makes a huge difference for the operating variables between Butte and this mine! The entire town of Chuquicamata (which means spear head in the native lingo) was recently moved to Calamata since it is surrounded (and even some covered by tailings) by mine and tailings...once it was quite a distance away but due to environmental laws people cannot live closer than 10 km. The last family moved in 2008...so a town once entirely built by the company with free housing for all and all services incl theater, shopping centers, and all infrastructure now is a ghost town/museum.
The compàny operates 24/7 with 20,000 employees. The trucks, built by German and Japanese manufacturers, run on 8 Michalen tires each costing $30-40,000 US so maintaining the roads for optimum efficiency is critical and even at that the tires only last one year! Each truck carries 400 tons of material (ore) - that's 4-8 scoops from the shovels now in use, and that along with the truck weight of 300 tons requires tires that are huge! The air alone in one would fill a swimming pool, they almost reach the top of the tour bus! There are 75 trucks in operation all the time with 25 in a 2 week rotation of maintanence.
The trucks are 8 m. high (25 feet) and 7 m. wide (22 feet)...monsters, costing $4 million dollars each, another manufacturing loss for US since they are replaced every ten years...the mine is expected to continue into the indefinate future, already 95 years old.
The white material dug out is 33% copper and 1% molybdenum which must be reduce to .3mm in size for further refining via heat (1000 degrees F.) to separate the copper from the copper sulfate which holds it.
The resulting copper is 99.9% pure, the purest in the world. Chile ships 40% of this to Asia (22% China alone).
Check it out...http://www.codelco.cl/english/index1.asp