The Arizona State Mine Inspector's Office has approved a reclamation plan for a large copper mine on the Santa Rita Mountains' west slope, despite opponents' concerns that Hudbay Minerals Inc.'s plan is premature and inadequate.
Pima County officials and environmentalists had submitted detailed comments to the state, warning the reclamation plan for the company's Copper World project failed to address major issues involving water quality, water supplies and Sonoran Desert protection.
The mine inspector's office said those comments failed to address the reclamation plan itself. Instead, they raised concerns that should be handled by other agencies reviewing mine plans, the office's staff said.
State Mine Inspector Joe Hart approved the plan on Oct. 19, four days after the office's formal deadline for taking public comments on it.
State approval of a reclamation plan is required for any Arizona mining project that would disturb 5 or more acres of private land. Hart's approval letter said the company must also provide a financial assurance mechanism — more commonly known as a bond — by Dec. 18 to guarantee that the mine's reclamation costs are taken care of well in advance of its closing.
Without going into detail, Hart wrote to Rosemont Copper official David Krizek the plan had been found to meet applicable requirements and criteria for such plans laid out by the State Mined Lands Reclamation Act and the rules used to implement it. Rosemont Copper is Hudbay's Arizona subsidiary.
In their comments, County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry and a consultant hired by a conservation group outlined what they saw as shortcomings in the plan dealing with dust control, tailings disposal, groundwater quality, impacts to cultural resources, impacts to the neighboring, state-owned Santa Rita Experimental Range, and long-term monitoring and maintenance of the site.
The two argued the reclamation plan is premature, having been filed with the state before Hudbay even formally proposed a plan to mine this area.
On its Facebook page, Hudbay Minerals posted late last week that it is pleased Copper World has taken another step forward with the mine inspector's approval.
"The plan includes the requirement of a bond from Hudbay, that ensures sufficient funding is in place to cover the costs of reclamation prior to initiating work on our private land," it said. "The reclamation plan and bonding are an important part of the permitting process that protects residents and taxpayers from the funding needed to reclaim the land after mining activities take place on our private land."
Letters came in
for and against
Huckelberry and environmentalists told the state that before the inspector approves a reclamation plan, the company should first submit an actual mining plan to give reviewers a better indication of what potential mine impacts could be.
"A mine reclamation plan must depend on the predictions of the potential impacts on both surface and ground water quality. These predictions for the Copper World project are not available," wrote Dave Chambers, a professional geophysicist and environmental consultant who was paid to review the Hudbay plan by mine opposition group Save the Scenic Santa Ritas.
"Copper mining in Arizona has contaminated many miles of surface streams. In the Tucson area, sulfate plumes have affected groundwater downgradient of tailings impoundments," wrote Chambers, director of the Center for Science in Public Participation in Bozeman, Montana, in comments to the state on Oct. 13.
"In order to make predictions on potential impacts to water quality, both geochemistry and hydrology information is required. Neither hydrology nor geochemistry information is being presented as a reference to the Reclamation Plan," Chambers wrote.
The comments from Huckelberry, on Oct. 7, and Chambers, who was representing three environmental groups, were among more than a dozen written comments submitted on the reclamation plan to the mine inspector.
The majority of the comments, many from mining industry officials and advocates, were strongly in favor of the Copper World project, although only a couple of the favorable comments discussed the reclamation plan in detail.
"Arizona is the Copper State and we need new mines like Copper World to support the supply chain businesses that keep mines running and families that benefit from the high paying jobs," wrote Randy Graf, president and CEO of the Green Valley-Sahuarita Chamber of Commerce & Visitor Center, on Oct. 11.
"As the same time, high standards in reclamation measures and protecting our water is crucial. I believe we can have both — new mines and the protection of the environment," Graf wrote.
The Southern Arizona Business Coalition, a pro-mining advocacy group, wrote on Oct. 7, "We know the impacts mining operations have on the surrounding environment, which is why we know the importance of beginning planning for reclamation before operations begin.
"Based on the submittal by (the) applicant, we believe they have provided a comprehensive preview and we support Rosemont Copper's Copper World reclamation pan and their commitment to the process and bonding needed to complete the proposed plan."
Office says its
hands are tied
Besides saying the concerns raised by the critics weren't relevant to the reclamation plan, the Mine Inspector's Office said it lacks authority to require Hudbay to submit a mining plan to accompany its reclamation document.
The inspector's office turned down opponents' request for a public hearing on the same grounds — that their concerns weren't directly related to the plan.
"The comments received to date are concerns regarding water, air, noise and zoning which does not lie within ASMI's jurisdiction," said Amanda Lothner, a reclamation specialist.
"Mining operators are independently responsible for obtaining any permits required by federal, state, and local agencies. Any concerns the public may have about issues outside of the ASMI’s jurisdiction must be brought to the pertinent regulatory agencies," Lothner said in an email to the Star.
Gayle Hartmann, president of Save the Scenic Santa Ritas, said she was disappointed and frustrated by the state's response to the group's concerns. Randy Serraglio of the Center for Biological Diversity said of the reclamation plan's approval, "I think the technical term is actually 'rubber-stamped.'"
"If it isn’t the business of the reclamation plan to address such issues such as its impacts on groundwater quality, long-term monitoring and maintenance and tailings disposal, what is its purpose?" Hartmann said.
"There's no discussion of acid drainage and groundwater impacts — shouldn’t they be part of a reclamation plan?
"It seems that Arizona just has accepted for many years the downside of mining and doesn’t address the reclamation issues. They seem to feel it’s not their place. Whose place is it?" Hartmann said Thursday.
Chambers noted that while the inspector's office has the responsibility to approve a reclamation plan, its officials claim they have no authority to deal with issues fundamental to reclamation, like protection of water.
"For a regulator, unless the level of responsibility is matched with a similar level of authority, the regulations are meaningless," Chambers said Friday.
Up to three open
pits are possible
Hudbay officials have said the company's drilling on private land has found copper deposits on the Santa Ritas' west slope that are potentially rich enough grades to support up to three open pits.
They have also said it's likely they'll be mining the west slope before they mine the Rosemont Mine site on the east slope. That's due in large part to the extended delays at Rosemont because of two federal court rulings involving several issues halting mine construction. One ruling and part of the second ruling is under appeal.
Hudba Minerals, in response to questions from the Star, have said they won't make a formal decision to mine the west slope until finishing their drilling work at the site and completing a preliminary economic analysis of its value. The latter will happen in the first six months of 2022, they've said.
In its Copper World reclamation plan, by contrast, the mining company said explicitly it will build three open pits on the west slope.
In his letter to the Mine Inspector's Office, James Hurley of Pioneer Equipment Inc. of Phoenix wrote on Oct. 10 that as a supplier of equipment to Arizona mines for more than 30 years, he has visited virtually every Arizona mine and found all to be both safe and environmentally protective.
"But I know that the Rosemont Mine will far exceed them all as it is the most proactive, using the most advanced technology to assure more than environmental compliance but a high level of corporate responsibility as well.
"I trust that the Arizona State Mine Inspector's Office review will be impressed with their plan and will provide the feedback needed to ensure the reclamation process application submitted by Rosemont Copper's Copper World is complete," Hurley wrote.
On Oct. 14, Dave Efnor wrote that while mining has had a "sordid past" regarding the environment, modern mining companies today view land stewardship as a priority in their mines' design and operation. Hudbay's reclamation plan follows modern-day trends in which reclamation activities start on Day 1 of any new mine development, he wrote.
"That essentially means that reclamation has become a critical value in the development of a property that requires altering the surface by extracting a mineral product. Each item submitted in the Hudbay plan has been addressed by engineering and reclamation professionals considering the local environment and the magnitude of the material involved."
Facilities needed for processing mineral content will be removed at the end of operations, Efnor wrote. That means the reclaimed land they had occupied will enhance "the viewshed, leaving the property with a more aesthetic appearance with its surroundings and ultimately made available for a variety of other activities," he wrote.
Leon Punt, of Copper State Bolt & Nut Co. in Tucson, said visual impacts to the Sonoran Desert are a concern for all his employees, "and I am happy to read that revegetation will occur on all disturbed areas, especially the tailings facilities" at Copper World.
"The importance of mining can be understated, however, responsible remediation is a part of the process as well," wrote Punt, the company's regional vice president, on Oct. 12. "I believe your review will provide the appropriate feedback, including bonding requirements for the efforts and am confident the applicant will comply with your direction."
Charles Stack, of the Quail Creek area in Sahuarita, wrote to the inspector's office that Copper World's mining will deplete and pollute the area's underground aquifer. Mining will disrupt community life with the use of explosives and large mining trucks for transport of copper concentrate for shipping, wrote Stack, a consulting environmental engineer in the mining industry, on Oct. 6.
"The mining operation will be a significant source of air emissions and greenhouse gases from diesel fuel consumption in trucks, excavators, generators and so forth. At the proposed elevation of the mine, emissions may settle into the Santa Cruz valley during weather inversions and aggravate asthmatics and others sensitive to emissions," wrote Stack, whose suburban community faces the Santa Ritas' west flank.