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Small New Mexico Town Faces Trouble

September 11, 1999

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) _ Raymond Dominguez and hundreds of fellow copper workers lost their livelihoods as a smelter shut its doors, dooming the company town of Playas to a grim future.

The Phelps Dodge plant cast its first copper in 1976. Departing employees said their goodbyes at the front gate Friday.

Many residents of the tiny town in New Mexico’s Bootheel, as the southwestern corner of the state is known, fear Playas will fade away.

Of 500 employees, 450 lost their jobs. There is little other employment in the region.

Dominguez and his wife, Debbie, are staying so their children can finish the school year. But if nothing changes, they will be forced to leave in search of work.

Dominguez started work at the plant in 1978. Four of his five children have graduated from Animas High School 22 miles west.

He hopes to find work as a ranch hand to pay the bills until his youngest daughter, Valerie, a 16-year-old senior at Animas High School, can graduate in May.

``I cannot take that away from the baby,″ Dominguez said.

The closing’s financial effect on the area will be immense. Phelps Dodge paid Hidalgo smelter employees $21 million in wages last year. Children of employees accounted for 70 percent of the enrollment in the Animas School District.

The plant paid about $3 million a year in taxes and $25 million to other New Mexico business and services in the area. After everyone is gone, the payroll will drop to $1.6 million, Phelps Dodge spokesman Richard Peterson said Friday.

In about a month, a skeleton crew of 50 will remain, monitoring environmental compliance, performing maintenance, providing security and taking care of some clerical duties, Peterson said.

The employees took pride in producing a copper product _ 800-pound rectangular copper anodes _ from copper mined in Arizona. After processing at an El Paso, Texas, plant, the copper was used to make wiring for cars, electric motors and homes.

There are plans to keep operating the Phelps Dodge Mercantile, the only grocery store in Playas, even after the copper workers are gone.

The mercantile is likely to end up being the hub of activity in what is left of Playas, said manager Patsy Burk, who has lived in Playas since the plant opened.

``It looks like we’re going to stay open because of enrollment in the schools,″ she said.

Mrs. Dominguez works at the mercantile. She says Playas is a peaceful place where parents don’t have to worry about gangs.

``The sad thing is we have to be boxed up and ready to move out the day after,″ the graduation, she said. ``That’s the hard thing.″

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