Rosemont Mine

The $1.9 billion mine would create more than 400 permanent jobs at the open half-mile-deep pit, which will be more than a mile in diameter.

Kelly Presnell / Arizona Daily Star

The U.S. Forest Service gave a major boost to the proposed Rosemont Mine today by approving a formal decision authorizing the project.

Coronado National Forest Supervisor Kerwin Dewberry posted the decision shortly after 1 p.m. today, putting the mine three steps from being able to start construction. Dewberry selected the Barrel Alternative for the mine out of five previously studied. It's the same alternative that his predecessor Jim Upchurch tentatively selected for the mine nearly three and one-half years ago, before the project got bogged down due to the discovery of an endangered ocelot near the site in April 2014.

Dewberry's decision also made many of the same arguments for the Barrel Alternative as did Upchurch, who wrote that it would have the fewest environmental impacts of any alternative studied except for a "no action" alternative, which the service has long said it can't legally approve for Rosemont.

For instance, Dewberry wrote that Barrel will disturb the fewest acres total, of riparian areas and of terrestrial vegetation, the smallest number of springs, and leave behind the smallest number of disturbed acres that could be welcome turf for invasive species. Dewberry, also like Upchurch, wrote that Barrel is the only alternative that can meet federal air quality standards. Dewberry also noted that the Barrel Alternative will leave alone McCleary Canyon, which he termed the most biologically diverse of the canyons near the mine.

Before construction can begin, the Forest Service must also separately approve a detailed plan outlining the mine's day to day operations. Hudbay Minerals Inc., the Toronto company proposing to build the project, must also develop a reclamation plan and submit a bond guaranteeing payment for the reclamation work.

Finally and probably most importantly, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers must approve a federal Clean Water Act permit for the project. The mine must also survive expected lawsuits by opponents.

Particularly because the Corps hasn't decided, the leading mine opposition group Save the Scenic Santa Ritas blasted today's decision by repeatlng its past assertion that it's premature.

The action "is a waste of taxpayers' money and is nothing more than a public relations victory for a foreign mining company and its investors,” said Gayle Hartmann, the group's president, in a statement. "“This mine is far from reality - Save the Scenic Santa Ritas (SSSR) will continue to fight it in every relevant arena. The stakes are too high to do otherwise.”

In mid-afternoon, U.S. Rep. Raul Grijalva, another longtime Rosemont opponent, added that the Forest Service could have waited until the Corps completed its assessment, "which will be key to our community’s environmental and economic well-being.

"Instead it pushed out a premature decision that ignores widely understood science on Rosemont’s potential damage to habitats, waterways and land quality. This was not necessary, it is not helpful, and it will not be the final word on whether this unpopular mine is built," Grijalva said in a statement.

Hudbay said that this decision concludes "a thorough process involving 17 co-operating agencies at various levels of government, 16 hearings, over 1,000 studies, and 245 days of public comment resulting in more than 36,000 comments."

Now, Hudbay will work with the Forest Service to complete its mining plan over the next several months, the company said in a statement.

"This decision brings us another step closer to being able to build a modern mine that will fulfill the requirements of its permits, create jobs and strengthen the local economy," said Patrick Merrin, vice president of Hudbay's Arizona business unit. "The Final Record of Decision was granted based on years of public input allowing rigorous study and analysis of fact and science.

"The Rosemont team thanks the Forest Service and all the other cooperating agencies for their hard work and dedication to the public interest over the past 10 years."

But the Center for Biological Diversity noted today that the mine’s footprint lies "squarely" in jaguar critical habitat, land that’s been scientifically determined to be critically important for the survival and recovery of jaguars in the United States. The mine would destroy much of the home territory of the jaguar El Jefe, who was photographed more than 100 times in the Santa Ritas over a period of three years, the group said.

 “Forest Service officials have said repeatedly that they would approve the Rosemont Mine only if it complied with all other applicable laws,” said Randy Serraglio, a conservation advocate for the center. “Apparently, with the Trump administration, laws no longer have meaning and promises are meant to be broken.

Dewberry's decision clears a major hurdle for Rosemont, about a decade since Rosemont Copper first proposed a mining plan for the site covering well over 4,000 acres in the Santa Rita Mountains. Dewberry's predecessor, former Coronado Supervisor Upchurch, had tentatively approved the mine in Dec. 2013 but put off a final decision in spring 2014 after the ocelot discovery and after other endangered species issues arose. That kicked off three more years of environmental reviews and studies.

But in his decision today, Dewberry wrote that this and other new information obtained about the project since then did not require any major changes in the mine proposal. The information also wasn't considered significant enough to warrant additional, detailed analysis in the form of a supplemental or revised Rosemont final environmental impact statement, Dewberry wrote.

Just last month, Rosemont opponent Pima County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry and environmentalists asked the Forest Service to hold off on a decision to give more time to review impacts to lands near the mine site from two recent fires, led by the Sawmill Fire that burned nearly 47,000 acres in late April and early May 2017. But after an interdiscplinary team of officials reviewed post-fire conditions in those areas, Dewberry wrote that it's been again determined that "correcting, supplementing, or revising the EIS is not necessary."

The decision is one of the last government approvals needed to allow Hudbay to remove 224 million pounds a year of copper from an open pit in the Santa Rita Mountains, 30 miles southeast of Tucson. The pit would drop more than a half-mile deep and spread more than a mile in all directions.

The Rosemont mine is expected to produce an estimated 5.88 billion pounds of copper, 194 million pounds of molybdenum, and 80 million ounces of silver. This represents approximately 11 percent of U.S. copper production and less than 1 percent of world copper production, based on 2011 statistics, Dewberry wrote in his decision.

Ultimately, mine construction could disturb a total of about 5,431 acres of private, state and Forest Service lands, Dewberry wrote.

The decision follows emotional, often gut-wrenching public debates and inter-agency disputes over this project. At various times, it has been billed as either the U.S.'s third or fourth largest copper mine.

The business community has hailed the mine as an economic boon. The company has said it would hire at least 400 people to permanent jobs, paying good salaries in the $60,000-a-year range. Its economic analysis concluded that the mine would generate another 1,600 indirect jobs for suppliers, contractors and other outside parties.

At public hearings and at news conferences, business leaders said the mine offered a better economic future for a county that has one of the highest poverty rates in the U.S. Some business leaders and other mine supporters have derided opponents as people insensitive to economic concerns.

Environmentalists and community leaders and neighborhood activists from Green Valley to Sonoita, however, saw pollution, congrestion and degradation where the business community saw progress. In particular, they're concerned about the potential for water and air pollution from the mine, about the potential for mine grading and operations to affect a dozen endangered species living in and around the site. They've also said the mine will discourage tourists -- a point contested by supporters -- and that protecting this area will offer the surrounding communities a better long-term economic future than they'll get from the traditional boom and bust cycle of mining.

Their biggest concern, however, has been about potential impacts from the mine's water use and its pumping of water from the nearby aquifer to empty out its open pit.

"Rosemont is proposing to dig an open-pit that is a half-mile deep, and one mile rim-to-rim, piling potentially toxic mine waste 600-800 feet high covering more than 3,000 acres of the Coronado National Forest, in a vital regional watershed,” opponent Hartmann said. "It’s indisputable that this project threatens our drinking water along with critical desert aquatic habitats and must be stopped.”

Yet the decision comes as no surprise, since the Forest Service has said for many years that it can't say "no" to the mine if it meets all environmental laws. And, it has said repeatedly that it believes the mine would meet all applicable state and federal laws, including the Endangered Species Act, the Clean Air Act and the Arizona Environmental Quality Act.

Today, Dewberry wrote that his decision "is guided by federal law," primarily the long-debated and in some circles despised 1872 Mining Law, granting citizens and private companies  the right to conduct mining activities on public lands that are open to mineral prospecting, exploration, and development. Dewberry also cited the Multiple-Use Mining Act of 1955, which he said reaffirms the right to conduct mining activities on public lands, including mine processing facilities and the placement of tailings and waste rock.

But many of the issues raised by opponents remain both legally and scientifically unsettled today. Although the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service wrote a favorable biological opinion on the mine, the Tucson-based Center for Biological Diversity has signaled its intention to sue to have that opinion tossed out as inadequate. Although the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality has certified that the mine will meet state water quality standards, Pima County is challenging that certification in court.

And although the Forest Service has said it doesn't believe the pit dewatering will dry up nearby Davidson Canyon and Cienega Creek, University of Arizona Associate Prof. Jennifer McIntosh wrote the service just last week that a new study that she headed the research on found that the Cienega Basin's groundwater resources "are vulnerable to over-extraction from unregulated groundwater use with resulting depletion of connected surface water resources."

Summing up his case, Dewberry wrote, "Conducting a mining operation of this type and size will undoubtedly impact the natural, cultural, and social resource values found on the Coronado National Forest as well as adjacent lands outside the forest. There will also be associated economic and job creation effects, as well as contributing to the worldwide supply of copper.

"This decision incorporates a wide array of mitigation and conservation measures that will minimize or avoid impacts on (forest) lands to the extent practicable. In addition, a comprehensive monitoring program will be implemented to verify that effects disclosed in the FEIS are within predicted ranges and to ensure that mitigation requirements are being met."

The biggest remaining unknown about the mine and environmental laws is the federal Clean Water Act. That unknown underscores the one remaining outstanding permit for the mine, with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Before Hudbay can start construction, the Corps must authorize it to dredge and fill material from several washes surrounding the project site. So far, the Corps has not been favorable to this project but it has yet to make a final decision on it. Its Los Angeles and Tucson staffs have repeatedly written critical memos and letters on the mine. The Corps' Los Angeles District office last July recommended denial of the permit.

Since then, the Corps' San Francisco-based South Pacific Division, which will make the final decision, has been publicly mum on the permit issue. Its staff toured the mine site in December, met with Hudbay officials in San Francisco in March and hosted a San Francisco meeting attended by EPA, ADEQ, Hudbay and Pima County officials in April. But to date, the Corps has refused to even give a timetable for making a decision, let alone indicate which way it's leaning.