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Risky venture: Copper mining in Milford brimming with high hopes, fears of failure

'Potential payoff is huge' if mineral can be extracted, investors believe

Published: Sunday, July 3 2011 3:43 p.m. MDT

MILFORD, Beaver County — Millions, perhaps billions, or — gasp! — trillions of dollars might lie under the sage brush covered hills surrounding this middle-of-nowhere, going-nowhere town.

Maybe that's why this declining southwestern Utah backwater has drawn interest from thousands of speculators, a celebrity or two and an international playboy who was once photographed with the Duchess of York in a compromising position.

There's copper in those hills. Lots of it, apparently. Gold and silver, too. Not to mention other possibly lucrative minerals. This fact is not new. It has been known for at least a century.

But the most recent effort to extract those precious metals resulted in large debts and bad feelings, not to mention loads of alleged Securities and Exchange Commission violations.

Mayor Bryan Sherwood, who is in the middle of tearing down dilapidated Main Street buildings, winces at the rise and fall of Copper King Mining Corp.

Outside the Circle Four hog farm and Heritage Plastics, jobs in the high-desert town of 1,600 are scarce. Once a key stop on the Union Pacific Railroad line 230 miles southwest of Salt Lake City, Milford has little to attract anyone these days.

"Having that mine open would help everything," Sherwood says.

Efforts to salvage the bankrupt company took a turn last week when a dogged shareholders committee attempted to take control of the four-member board of directors. The committee wants to put into place its own people, including two mining experts.

"These guys are real rock busters," said Florida investor Dave Wright.

The proposed board appears headed for a showdown with the current CEO for control of what they all believe to be the most vast copper deposit in North America, if not the world.

Only time will tell if they or anyone can do what others before them could not: turn that copper into cash.

Mark Dotson shook numerous hands and received dozens of hugs from local residents at the grand opening of Copper King Mining Corp.'s processing mill in March 2009.

The Milford man who headed Western Utah Copper Co. spent nearly half his life assembling 60,000 acres of fragmented mining claims northwest of town. Western Utah merged with Copper King a year earlier, and Dotson had big plans for the newly formed, publicly traded company.

Dotson talked about creating "cash flow, income and economic freedom" for his family, his workers, Beaver County and Milford.

"We have virtually an ocean of copper out there," he boasted at the time. "We believe we have enough resources to operate this endlessly."

The Milford Mineral Belt town covers 144 square miles and spans three mining districts. More than 20 mines dot the area, with names such as Hidden Treasure. Exchange Place, the Boston Building and the old Newhouse Hotel in downtown Salt Lake City were built with money from those mines. The area yielded its last copper around 1980.

Unlike Kennecott's Bingham Canyon mine, the copper in the Milford belt runs in veins, making it trickier to extract.

But Dotson, whose family mining roots go back to the 1850s, believed he had just the formula to make a fortune.

He borrowed heavily to build a $60 million processing plant. He wooed investors through a slick marketing campaign featuring a billboard next to iconic Capitol Records in downtown Los Angeles and actor John O'Hurley of "Seinfeld" and TV game show fame.

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