The latest permitting delay for the Rosemont Mine leaves a raft of unanswered questions about when and how the final decisions on the project will be made.
The U.S. Forest Service announced that it won’t meet its own legal deadline this week for responding to objections to its plans to approve the mine. The service says it needs more time to respond to 600 comments from 101 individuals, groups, agencies and Indian tribes criticizing the draft Rosemont decision and final environmental impact statement.
Its regulations required individual responses to the objection by April 30. Instead, Calvin Joyner, the service’s Albuquerque-based regional forester, sent objectors a letter saying a delay is necessary due to the large number of complex issues.
“The Rosemont Copper (final environmental report) is one of the most comprehensive environmental analysis documents ever undertaken by the Forest Service,” Joyner said in a news release. “The complexity of the content of the objections will require additional time to thoroughly review and give full and deliberate considerations to the issues raised.”
Unanswered questions include:
When will responses come? The service can’t say. It promises an update by the end of May, and Joyner wrote the objectors that he will "strive to issue a response in a timely manner without undue delay."
Will the service conduct more, time-consuming research on issues raised by the objections?
That’s not certain, said Jim Upchurch, the Coronado National Forest supervisor.
Will the service prepare a new or supplemental environmental impact statement?
“We haven’t decided on any course of action at this point until we finish discussions with our other federal partners,” said Upchurch, referring to the Environmental Protection Agency, the Bureau of Land Management and other agencies that have worked with the service to discuss mine issues.
Will the service’s final decision come by June 30, when Rosemont Copper’s parent company, Augusta Resource Corp., has told potential investors it expects one?
“The answer at this point is we just don’t know,” Upchurch said, although service officials hope for a decision schedule by May 31.
Water is the biggest question mark needing resolution, he said. Declining to be very specific about individual issues, he said they include those related to the Army Corps of Engineers Clean Water Act permit, impacts on “downstream resources” such as Davidson Canyon and Cienega Creek, and water-supply and water-quality issues in general.
“If you look at the objections, water was certainly the biggest issue raised,” Upchurch said.
Another big issue under consideration is the mine’s impact on federally protected species and wildlife in general, he said.
Another factor in the service’s not meeting this deadline was that this was the first time it has handled a major project using the objection process, he said. The new process replaces a system in which the service would make a decision, get and respond to appeals, and then be sued if interested parties didn’t like the decision.
Rosemont Copper and Augusta got a second piece of not entirely welcome news this week when the Army Corps of Engineers apparently told them that there is a “shortfall” between the company’s environmental mitigation plan and what is needed to fully offset impacts of the mine to federally regulated washes on and near the site, in the Santa Rita Mountains southeast of Tucson.
Augusta disclosed this development in a news release. It added that it was told by the Corps that this shouldn’t be taken as an indication that it’s decided to deny the permit. The Corps told Rosemont it intends to make a decision by the end of June if the Forest Service makes its decision by then, Augusta said.
The Corps, generally tight-lipped on its Rosemont permit, didn’t respond to a request from the Star to confirm Augusta’s statements.
Opponents of the mine portray the Forest Service’s delay and the Corps’ reported statements as major setbacks for the project, now in its seventh year of permitting.
In its Rosemont Mine Truth blog, the group Save the Scenic Santa Ritas noted that cash-strapped Augusta is trying to fend off a hostile takeover by Toronto-based Hudbay Minerals Inc. Augusta has said repeatedly that one reason it opposes Hudbay’s “lowball” offer is that it expects to get all permits by June 30. Hudbay says it has more financial staying power to keep the project going if permits get delayed.
“It’s good news. It’s better that the Forest Service does this than go ahead and rush through with it,” said Gayle Hartmann, president of Save the Scenic Santa Ritas.
Rosemont and Augusta took the delays as not major setbacks, as they typically do.
“The Rosemont Copper project remains one of the best-planned and most-analyzed mines in the world and continues to have a full suite of financing options available while these last details are completed,” said Jamie Sturgess, the company’s senior vice president of corporate development and government affairs.
“There is no reason to question the finality of the FEIS (final environmental impact statement) and the quality and quantity of data, and the breadth of analysis used to address the scope of issues for this project,” Sturgess said.