The federal government won't make a decision on the Rosemont Mine as expected next month and it's not clear when it will, the Coronado National Forest's chief said Friday in announcing the latest of many delays for the $1.23 billion project.
Coronado Forest Supervisor Jim Upchurch also said he doesn't know when he will decide whether to prepare a new or supplemental draft environmental impact statement on the proposed mine. That move is favored by mine opponents and the Environmental Protection Agency but opposed by Rosemont Copper and its supporters.
Upchurch's stated reason is the same as he has given for past delays. He said he is still sorting through numerous complex issues and waiting for more studies relating to the mine's impacts, including air quality, endangered species, cultural resources, lighting and Rosemont's changed mining plans.
He said the process is 85 percent to 90 percent complete, however, and that most analysis that has been done shows either improvements in the project's impacts or better information about them. But he also said some of the information he needs must come from Rosemont Copper.
"Before I can make a decision on this, I have to be assured we have met all the required laws and requirements I have to meet as a decision maker," Upchurch said Friday at a Tucson briefing. "Exact dates are hard to predict. I don't like to keep putting out dates, hoping we can make them and not making them."
Officials of Augusta Resource Corp., the parent of Rosemont Copper, issued a response late Friday, saying they expect that both the final environmental impact statement and the final decision on the mine "can be concluded within 60 to 120 days."
"We are also pleased to see the USFS referring to working towards the issuance of Rosemont's final EIS, thereby mitigating any belief that a supplemental report is required," Gil Clausen, Augusta's president and CEO, said in the written statement.
Rosemont Copper wasn't invited to Upchurch's briefing - only the media and congressional staffers were, although supporters and opponents who came on their own were admitted, Upchurch said.
The company has expected a December federal decision on the mine for some time. Augusta Resource had mentioned that timetable in its most recent quarterly financial statement, covering the period ending Sept. 30, that it provides U.S. and Canadian securities officials.
The Forest Service permit to use about 3,300 acres of national forest lands for mining activities is the most important and most controversial of all the permits needed for the mine because it is the most comprehensive. The company also needs an air quality permit from the state and a Clean Water Act permit from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The Corps, however, legally can't make its decision on the mine until the Forest Service makes its decision.
Jonathan DuHamel, a Tucson mining geologist and Rosemont supporter who attended the briefing, said that the process to approve this mine seems endless and many people are frustrated. The Forest Service began work on the environmental impact statement in spring 2008, and released a draft last October.
"Maybe it means the laws controlling the process need to be changed," DuHamel said.
Gayle Hartmann, president of the leading mine opposition group, Save the Scenic Santa Ritas, said she was surprised and a little concerned that the Forest Service has been so indecisive on the question of a supplemental or new environmental impact statement. "That seems somewhat contrary to the letter and spirit of the law, since we believe Rosemont is making significant changes" in its operational plans, Hartmann said.
On the other hand, she said she applauds Upchurch for taking longer on other areas of his review.
"Significant issues such as critical habitat for the jaguar and cultural resource issues will never be resolved to anyone's satisfaction," Hartmann said.
Julia Fonseca, environmental planning manager for Rosemont opponent Pima County, called Upchurch's non-decision decision "a wise move on their part. They are not going to shortcut the process. … It's wise not only from the standpoint of conforming with the law, it will also help Rosemont have a better process as well."
For three years, delay has been the order of the day for the mine, which would be built on about 4,400 acres of public and private land in the Santa Rita Mountains southeast of Tucson.
Deadlines for releasing the original draft environmental report were pushed back at least four times. The Forest Service took a long time to commit to the since-discarded December 2012 decision date after receiving 25,000 public comments on the environmental report.
The delays have irritated supporters who want to see the mine get going with its 450 high-paying jobs. Opponents say delays are natural with a project of this scale. It would be the country's fourth largest copper mine.
Upchurch had one piece of good news for Rosemont and its supporters. He said that studies, still unreleased, found the mine's impacts on the Las Cienegas National Conservation Area, Cienega Creek in general and Davidson Canyon would not be as great as once feared. The concern has been that de-watering a large part of the area's groundwater aquifer to dig out the mine's open pit would dry up the creeks.
Issues to be resolved include:
• A review of the mine's effects on numerous endangered species, including jaguars, to be done by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service by January. The mine's impacts on proposed jaguar critical habitat must also be considered.
• The service must complete work with 11 Indian tribes, including the Hopi in northern Arizona and the Mescalero Apaches in New Mexico, to address mine impacts on more than 80 actual or potential cultural sites, including possibly human burial sites. This work is required under the National Historic Preservation Act.
• The Forest Service must coordinate with the Corps of Engineers, which uses the final environmental report to shape its own analysis of the project's impacts on washes and creeks.
• The Forest Service wants Rosemont Copper to provide a complete package of mitigation measures to ease the mine's impacts and to complete additional air quality computer model forecasting, Upchurch said.
• The service is also waiting for more answers from Rosemont Copper to its questions about the environmental impacts of the mine's announced changes in its plans. They include eliminating a heap leaching area to mine copper oxide from ore and boosting production by more than 20 percent of copper sulfide.
The company said in its statement late Friday that the consultation with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is nearing completion; the consultation with tribes and the State Historic Preservation Office is under review; and an update of air quality models will be submitted this month.
Contact reporter Tony Davis at email@example.com or 806-7746.