Coronado National Forest Supervisor Jim Upchurch is walking a scheduling tightrope for the proposed Rosemont Mine.
He wants to make his final decision on the mine by Sept. 27 - after a group of cooperating government agencies comment on his draft of the final Rosemont environmental-impact statement, and his staff reviews the comments.
That day will usher in a new set of U.S. Forest Service rules governing how people can object to such projects - rules that would delay a Rosemont decision three to four months and maybe longer.
But Upchurch says he doesn't know if he can get the decision made by Sept. 27, due to several unresolved Rosemont issues. Heightening the mystery, Upchurch says he'll know if he can meet that timeline only "when Sept. 27 comes." In the past he's also been perennially under pressure from both sides of the issue, either for moving too quickly or too slowly.
This time around, Rosemont Copper officials, weary of repeated delays on their project, favor a Sept. 27 decision under the old rules. Environmentalist opponents of the mine are divided over whether the new rules should be applied to the Rosemont decision.
But they and Pima County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry, a mine opponent, say that the forest supervisor is rushing the review of the new draft of the final environmental report to meet the Sept. 27 deadline.
Huckelberry says he's concerned that the latest environmental report contains major changes from the first one from 2011, and the public won't get to comment on it under the current system.
Upchurch denies that he's rushing anything. He's given the county and other cooperating agencies such as the Arizona Game and Fish Department an extra 15 days, until Aug. 15, to comment on this latest draft, he says.
"If circumstances arise in which we cannot meet the current timeline … then we will work with our interested parties … and implement the new regulations," Upchurch says.
Under the current system, the Forest Service will decide on the mine once it releases a final Rosemont environmental impact statement. Those who don't like it can't comment before the decision, but can file appeals afterward to Forest Service higher-ups. Once appeals are exhausted, opponents can go to court.
The new regulations require the Forest Service to review public objections before making a decision, and after releasing the environmental report.
Objectors get 45 days to raise concerns. The service gets 45 to 75 days to respond, but has no deadline for a final decision. Afterward, administrative appeals aren't allowed. Objectors' next step would be litigation.
The new rules, required by congressional legislation, were adopted in March by the U.S. Agriculture Department, the Forest Service's parent agency.
In describing these new rules, the department says that considering public comments before making a decision creates a more open process, matching the Forest Service's typically collaborative approach. It increases the likelihood of resolving public concerns, resulting in more informed decisions, the department says.
Upchurch, however, says he believes the current rules work better for the Rosemont case because the public is familiar with them and because the Rosemont environmental analysis is so complex. Since that analysis is one of the most complex of its kind nationally, testing it under the new format "could be difficult for all parties involved," he said.
There's no rational reason to delay the decision past Sept. 27, Rosemont Copper President and CEO Rod Pace says.
Pace says the mine's review has been delayed more than three years, which he says has affected "thousands of local residents and their families in Southern Arizona who would benefit from jobs supporting the Rosemont Copper project. With every delay, our local communities are losing millions in tax revenues to help schools, roads and public services.
"After seven years of studies, more than 450 reports by experts and issuances of major state permits, everyone knows that this is one of the best, least impactful and most environmentally planned copper mine developments in the world."
The Tucson-based Center for Biological Diversity's Randy Serraglio, a mine opponent, counters that the service should use the new rules, so the public can comment before a decision is made.
"The Forest Service is implementing new rules to improve the process and establish a better way to resolve conflicts and protests, and here they are, trying to race to beat an artificial deadline to avoid trying to use those new rules," says Serraglio. "That doesn't make sense."
For Save the Scenic Santa Ritas board member Tom Purdon, the new rules put his group in a difficult position.
He says the latest draft environmental report isn't complete, with cultural and endangered-species issues still unresolved. Under the current system of objections, the decision is likely to be rushed, without any public comment on the final environmental report beforehand, he says.
But if the new system is used, and results in a better-thought-out decision, it won't be as easy to litigate, he says. Regardless of which system is used, the group is likely to sue because it doesn't believe the ultimate decision will satisfactorily address the mine's issues, he said.
Arizona Game and Fish Assistant Director Lawrence Riley says he's not equipped to compare the current system on objections to a future system that no one has experience with. But "I'm betting that Mr. Upchurch and his staff will be very attentive to the feedback that they get from their cooperators and will make a decision that is in the best interest of serving the public," he said.
"I'm betting that Mr. Upchurch ... will make a decision that is in the best interest of serving the public"
Arizona Game and Fish
Contact reporter Tony Davis at firstname.lastname@example.org or 806-7746.