In a closed-door session Tuesday, the Pima County Board of Supervisors is slated to discuss whether to lodge a formal objection to the Forest Service’s tentative approval of the Rosemont Mine and to its final environmental impact statement.

Such an objection would legally force the Forest Service to respond to the county’s detailed concerns about the copper mine planned for the Santa Rita Mountains southeast of Tucson.

Pima County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry said the final environmental impact statement is a clear improvement from earlier drafts but still has a ways to go in disclosing all the mine’s impacts.

The mine’s mitigation and monitoring measures are also “woefully inadequate,” Huckelberry wrote in a recent memo to the Board of Supervisors. The administrator wrote that he will likely recommend the county pursue all possible administrative remedies to ensure full disclosure of the mine’s impacts and maximum mitigation measures to compensate for environmental damage.

Coronado National Forest Supervisor Jim Upchurch gave tentative approval to the mine in December after the Forest Service’s final environmental impact statement came out in November.

Huckelberry’s memo said, “The fact remains that this mine is being proposed in an area that is clearly unsuitable for such an industrial use. The impacts to the health, safety and welfare of the public are significant and long-term. The short-term benefits pale in comparison and accrue to a few.”

Upchurch told the Star in an email that the Forest Service won’t respond in the media to such concerns about the environmental impact statement until it formally responds to all detailed objections to the mine, which are required to be filed with the service by Feb. 14.

One of the most prominent concerns raised in Huckelberry’s memo and other county memos accompanying it is that the Forest Service is clearing the way for future mining at three sites north and west of Rosemont where Rosemont Copper also has mining claims. Those areas lie in or near a sensitive, 13,000-acre Forest Service parcel north of the Rosemont site that county officials fear will be ecologically cut off by the Rosemont Mine and any additional mining in that area.

The county officials are also concerned about a new Forest Service management plan for the entire Coronado National Forest that creates a new management area including the Rosemont site and at least one of the other three sites -- and declares mining compatible with these areas.

The mining company, Rosemont Copper, has said in correspondence that it intends to conduct detailed explorations of the three sites at some point, at a total cost of about $29 million.

In a written statement last week, Rosemont Senior Vice President Jamie Sturgess said that more detailed exploration hasn’t been planned at Broadtop Butte, the new site that’s gotten the most attention in the past, but he didn’t mention the other two, Copper World and Peach Elgin.

Sturgess said, however, that the county’s concerns about the Forest Service clearing the way for mining those three sites aren’t reasonable because the Forest Service is proposing to approve only the Rosemont plan. The Forest Service would have to approve any change in that plan for mining to occur at the other three sites, Sturgess said.

In his Jan. 16 memo, Huckelberry listed the following improvements in the final environmental impact statement and the mine proposal itself:

  • The current Rosemont mining layout would minimize the filling of McCleary Canyon with waste rock and tailings — the Forest Service says it would eliminate the filling — so it can continue to allow storm runoff to flow into Barrel Canyon, a tributary to ecologically sensitive Davidson Canyon.
  • The current Rosemont plan, known as the Barrel Alternative, also eliminates heap leaching and copper-oxide mining that had been part of earlier plans.
  • The mine would divert stormwater around the open pit to reduce water-quality impacts because stormwater wouldn’t come into contact with the pit and its associated metals and chemicals.
  • The mine has agreed to a lighting plan that would slash outdoor lighting and better protect dark skies. But Huckelberry says the plan won’t comply with the county lighting code, while Rosemont Copper has said it will.
  • Monitoring has been planned to reduce the potential for unanticipated failures in the mine’s mountain face pit wall.
  • The final environmental report “is also a more honest document,” acknowledging impacts that the county and other agencies have pointed out for years, Huckelberry wrote. At the same time, these impacts show the mine remains environmentally unsatisfactory, he said.

Some specific mine impacts and problems with mitigation that Huckelberry and other county staffers cited in various memos:

  • Permanent destruction and alteration of more than 5,400 acres in the headwaters of the Cienega Creek watershed. Huckelberry’s staff observed that the final environmental impact statement repeatedly said that various impacts “might” or “could” occur, when it should have said they will occur.
  • The mile-wide open pit will draw in regional groundwater and lower regional wells, and will ultimately create a pit lake that will exceed water-quality standards for lead, cadmium, mercury and other heavy metals. At the same time, the environmental report discloses that the lake water quality isn’t regulated by any agency.
  • An increase in 9 to 14 annual highway accidents on Arizona 83.
  • The loss of $2 million to $7 million a year in visitor spending due to the mine, and the loss of thousands of oak trees and up to 300,000 agaves cleared.
  • County land conservation guidelines call for saving 13,000 acres to compensate for the land Rosemont will disturb, but Rosemont Copper proposes to set aside 4,500 acres, and only 3,300 acres inside Pima County.

Huckelberry wrote that one problem is that mitigation measures are being approved piecemeal by a number of different state and federal agencies. Given the mine’s scale and impacts, it’s clear that a “more holistic approach” to mitigation is needed, he wrote.

In response, Rosemont Copper’s Sturgess said Huckelberry’s comments appear to show “that Pima County has recognized the Rosemont project is moving forward and now wants to be involved in the mitigation negotiations.”

Many of the mitigation measures that Huckelberry disparages have been accepted as “adequate and appropriate in both scale and nature” by other federal and state agencies, including the Forest Service and the Arizona Game and Fish Department, wrote Sturgess, although the Environmental Protection Agency has criticized them.

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