The proposed Rosemont Mine is one big step closer to reality after the U.S. Forest Service’s approval Wednesday.
Just as it did more than three years ago, the Forest Service determined Wednesday that the mine in the Santa Rita Mountains will meet environmental laws, while acknowledging impacts such as diminished groundwater. But unlike the service’s tentative December 2013 decision, this one is final.
It does not authorize mining at the 5,400-acre site about 30 miles southeast of Tucson, however. That will require a Clean Water Act permit from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and separate Forest Service approvals of a detailed mining plan and a reclamation plan from Hudbay Minerals Inc., the Toronto firm seeking to build the project.
But it clearly puts the Forest Service on record that the mine will meet all applicable environmental standards under the service’s purview. The service said the mine will meet the Clean Air Act, the Endangered Species Act and the Arizona Environmental Quality Act that protects water quality in the state.
As for the Clean Water Act, the Army Corps will have the final say.
The $1.9 billion mine would create more than 400 permanent jobs and remove about 224 million pounds of copper annually for 19 years from an open pit of at least a half-mile deep and more than a mile in diameter. Hudbay’s predecessor Augusta Resource Corp. proposed the project more than a decade ago.
“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,” Patrick Merrin, vice president of Hudbay’s Arizona business unit, said Wednesday.
The proposal has been tied up by massive opposition from environmentalists and by numerous inter-agency conflicts over its potential effects on water supplies, water quality and endangered species including the very rare jaguar.
The Forest Service’s decision faces a certain court challenge from environmental groups.
On Wednesday, a chorus including the Center for Biological Diversity, Save the Scenic Santa Ritas, and the Defenders of Wildlife issued news releases blasting the decision as premature and environmentally unsound. They cited the fact that the Forest Service has previously said it will approve the mine if it meets all environmental laws, but that the Corps hasn’t weighed in on that point.
They were joined in their criticism by U.S. Rep. Raúl Grijalva, D-Tucson, and Pima County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry, who are also longtime Rosemont opponents. The office of Republican Rep. Martha McSally, whose district includes the mine site just west of Arizona 83, didn’t return a phone call seeking comment on the decision.
“The Forest Service’s announcement is a hollow paperwork maneuver,” said Randy Serraglio, conservation advocate with the Center for Biological Diversity. “This huge mine is just too dangerous to get a free pass. ... Apparently, with the Trump administration, promises are meant to be broken.”
But the Tucson Metro Chamber of Commerce greeted the decision warmly, with its president and CEO Mike Varney saying “it will mean a lot more jobs and more in the way of paychecks and prosperity for a lot of local families.”
He noted that the chamber’s board conditioned its recommendation for the project back in 2010 on its ability to show it met environmental laws, which the group now believes it has done.
“It will bring 1,500 to 2,000 full-time construction jobs at the mine in a two-year construction process,” Varney said. “That means that the construction industry, which was the hardest-hit sector of our community after the Great Recession, will get welcome construction jobs and that will mean significant paychecks for families across Southern Arizona.”
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,” Hudbay’s Merrin said.
“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,” he said. “The (Forest Service’s) final Record of Decision was granted based on years of public input allowing rigorous study and analysis of fact and science.”
Coronado National Forest Supervisor Kerwin Dewberry said Wednesday tjat he has delayed a decision as long as possible after completing his review well over a month ago. Because the Army Corps has declined to say when it will make a decision, Dewberry said he now believes he must be “reasonable and prudent” and give the mining company a timely decision.
“I have nothing else to stop me from making a decision,” Dewberry said. “I’m really trying to make sure, as a decision maker for this project, that I’ve taken all analyses and all things into consideration. I’ve done my job in relation to this project.”
But Save the Scenic Santa Ritas spokesman David Steele noted that federal environmental law requires the Forest Service to analyze all the project’s impacts. The Army Corps’ public record is “plentiful, full of technical information that clearly spells out the mine’s impacts to water resources of Southern Arizona,” he said.
“For Dewberry to suggest that he wanted to move it off his desk, move it along and reward Rosemont and its investors with a likely windfall, without waiting to determine whether it meets the Clean Water Act, is irresponsible,” Steele said.
Dewberry’s decision authorizes the mine’s Barrel Alternative, which will concentrate the mine’s waste rock and tailings in Upper Barrel Canyon and part of Wasp Canyon on the east side of the Santa Ritas. That alternative was recommended nearly six years ago by his predecessor Jim Upchurch as a way to keep wastes out of neighboring McCleary Canyon. The service says that’s the most biologically diverse canyon near the mine site.
Dewberry and Upchurch said the Barrel Alternative will have the fewest environmental impacts of any alternative studied except for a “no action” option, which the service has long said it can’t legally approve for Rosemont because of federal mining laws.
Dewberry wrote that Barrel will disturb the least amount of riparian areas and other vegetation, the smallest number of springs, and the smallest number of acres that could attract invasive species after the land is disturbed. Dewberry said Barrel is the only alternative that can meet federal air quality standards.
But many issues remain legally and scientifically unsettled. Although the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service wrote a favorable biological opinion on the mine, the Center for Biological Diversity has signaled its intention to sue to have that opinion tossed out. Although the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality has certified the mine will meet state water quality standards, Pima County is challenging that in court.
And although the Forest Service has said it doesn’t believe that the mine project will dry up nearby Davidson Canyon and Cienega Creek, University of Arizona associate professor Jennifer McIntosh wrote the service just last week that a new study she headed 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.”