The Environmental Protection Agency — which has veto power over a key permit needed by the Rosemont Mine — is urging another federal agency not to approve that permit.
EPA regional water chief Jane Diamond has written to the Army Corps of Engineers that Rosemont’s application for a federal Clean Water Act permit “based on the information currently available ... does not appear to comply” with federal guidelines for approving such permits.
The letter, released this week, gave a highly detailed thumbs-down to Rosemont Copper’s plans for compensating for the proposed mine’s impacts.
Rosemont Copper officials expressed confidence, however, that the mine will still be permitted and that construction will start in the first half of 2014. A Rosemont vice president, Jamie Sturgess, said it won’t be possible to accurately discern the mine’s environmental impacts and develop final mitigation plans until the Forest Service releases its environmental report on the mine.
He noted that Diamond wrote that the EPA remains available to assist the Army Corps of Engineers and Rosemont Copper by doing studies to determine the full extent of mine impacts and the best mitigation plans.
“That’s how the process is designed to go forward,” added Gil Clausen, president and CEO of Augusta Resource Corp., Rosemont’s Canada-based parent company.
An opposition group, Save the Scenic Santa Ritas, termed the EPA letter a “dramatic and potentially devastating blow” to the mine project because of the agency’s veto power, although the EPA has used that power only 13 times in its history.
U.S. Rep. Raúl Grijalva, a Tucson Democrat who opposes Rosemont, praised the EPA letter, calling it “the most careful, substantive and meaningful scientific analysis to date of the mine’s potential impacts.”
“This mine would be an ecological disaster and violate the Clean Water Act. If Augusta has better data, let’s see it,” Grijalva said. “This should be the standard as this process moves forward.”
The EPA letter comes at a crucial time. Possibly as early as next week, the Forest Service will wrap up a five-year review by releasing a final Rosemont environmental impact statement. Four months later, the Forest Service is supposed to issue its own decision on whether the mine can be built.
The corps will make its decision then or shortly afterward, said Jay Field, a corps spokesman. He declined to say if the agency is leaning either way.
In its letter, EPA said that after reviewing Rosemont Copper’s mitigation plans this fall, the agency is sticking to its earlier conclusion that they’re not solid enough to avoid “significant degradation” of watercourses.
“Such degradation would be a substantial and unacceptable impact to aquatic resources of national importance,” including Cienega Creek and Davidson Canyon, wrote Diamond, water division director in the EPA’s San Francisco regional office.
These impacts “will result in the loss, conversion and functional degradation of aquatic and terrestrial habitats over several thousand acres,” amounting to an “ecological regime shift” to drier conditions, the EPA’s Diamond wrote.
Rosemont Copper and the Forest Service, using computer model forecasts, have disagreed with the EPA’s predictions. But the company has committed to compensate for damage by buying 1,122 acre-feet of water rights along lower Cienega Creek, so its water will no longer be diverted for a private golf course.
The company has agreed to buy a 1,200-acre ranch near Sonoita and its 590 acre-feet of water rights, and to upgrade the ranch’s wetland and riparian habitats. It’s also agreed to preserve 160 acres in Mulberry Canyon near Davidson Canyon. Between these and other mitigation plans, the company has agreed to spend $25 million total.
EPA’s concerns include:
— The Cienega Creek plan is “ecologically inappropriate,” because it promises to replace functions of 18 miles of impacted streams, Cienega and Davidson, by improving “a single segment ... less than two miles in length.”
— That plan carries high risk because its success depends on the creek’s carrying far more water than has actually flowed in recent years.
— The EPA is skeptical of the prospects for Sonoita Creek Ranch restoration, given the site’s geologic characteristics. The ranch is far removed from the Davidson-Cienega watersheds, meaning it doesn’t provide ecological benefits for the impacted areas, the EPA says.
— The Mulberry Canyon property doesn’t have water rights, isn’t surrounded by federal land and isn’t threatened with damage from other causes. But because it lies downstream from the mine, it “would be adversely affected by the very impacts it is meant to mitigate.”
Rosemont’s Sturgess said the first step in moving a mitigation package forward will be for the corps to finalize its own determinations of the mine’s impacts. The EPA, for instance, has estimated that the mine will damage nearly 130 acres of streams, compared with Rosemont’s estimate of 66.
“Those numbers don’t mean anything as to the final design of the mitigation,” Sturgess said. “They just show confusion over the number of acres impacted.”
He said he would be foolish to try to convince the EPA that it should accept the company’s plans as now presented. But Sturgess said he hopes to show by clarifying the impacts and by working over details of the company’s plans that they do meet federal requirements.
But he added, “I can guarantee you there will be added (mitigation) efforts and costs ... before we get to the final conclusion.”