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Hudbay tells state it will build three open pits on the Santa Ritas' west slope

Hudbay Minerals Inc. will build three open pits to mine copper on the Santa Rita Mountains’ west slope facing Green Valley and Sahuarita, it says in a reclamation plan it filed with the state.

While the company has said it won’t make a final decision on the west slope — an area it calls Copper World — until completing more studies and drilling tests, it appears it will make a full-court press to mine there. 

Hudbay officials told investors Tuesday that Copper World appears promising enough that it’s likely to be developed before Hudbay’s long-stalled Rosemont Mine project, which is on the Santa Ritas’ east slope facing the Sonoita highway.

The company’s president and CEO, Peter Kukielski, told investors Copper World could start production in 2027 if all goes smoothly in permitting and other steps.

Company officials made it clear they envision possibly if not likely linking Rosemont and Copper World. They’re now exploring a newly discovered deposit lying just west of Rosemont and east of where earlier Copper World exploration has proceeded.

Hudbay told the Green Valley News on Friday it plans to mine that deposit and a neighboring one, “which will alter the profile of the ridge in localized areas.”

Company officials told investors they see Copper World as a quicker project to move than Rosemont partly because it can be done entirely on private land, while Rosemont needs U.S. Forest Service land for disposing its mine wastes.

The Forest Service land issue has caused interminable delays for Rosemont due to the numerous federal reviews required to mine public lands. An unfavorable 2019 federal court ruling has kept that project on hold while an appeal is pending.

Copper World, by contrast, requires only three major permits, all from the state, Hudbay officials told investors.

They didn’t address the possibility, raised by the Environmental Protection Agency, that a federal Clean Water Act permit would be needed for this project, if a more recent federal court ruling overturning the Trump administration’s scaled-down version of permitting requirements survives any appeals.

Investors were told that Copper World drilling continues to show its deposits have higher copper grades and are found at shallower depths than those at Rosemont, making the Copper World deposits easier to reach.

If Hudbay were to prevail in its appeal over Rosemont and could start mining there, “Copper World would go first, regardless, looking at it holistically,” a top company official, Cashel Meagher, told investors.

At the same time, the investor presentation, the reclamation plan and Hudbay’s statements to the Star about the plan show the company is making different pitches about the Copper World project to different audiences.

To the State Mine Inspector’s Office, Hudbay’s Arizona subsidiary Rosemont Copper portrays the mining effort as a given. The reclamation plan says, “The mine will consist of two open pit areas” with three actual pits. It also says, “Rosemont’s Copper World Project will include the following facilities,” then lists a number of specific mining facilities to be built.

To its investors, Hudbay officials portrayed Copper World as a likely mine but not a sure thing.

In responses to the Star to questions about its reclamation plan, Hudbay emphasized the plan’s preliminary nature, saying, “Modern mining begins with the end in mind.”

“Submitting our initial plan and reclamation approach allows us to get feedback on our site plan and approach to reclamation early from the state agency so that it could be incorporated into the mine design earlier in the process,” the company told the Star in a written statement.

“Bonding for reclamation prior to the initiation of construction ensures that the funds are available regardless of the financial resources of Hudbay or a subsequent owner at the time reclamation needs to begin.”

The proposed reclamation plan lays out details of how Hudbay would mine the site and try to reclaim land once the copper is gone. The plan pegs the total reclamation tab at $19.7 million.

The company plans to produce a preliminary definition of Copper World’s available resources by the end of this year, Kukielski told investors Tuesday. A preliminary economic analysis of the project could follow by the first half of 2022. Then would come a preliminary feasibility study, taking another six months to a year, he said.

“You can assume it would take roughly two years” to complete permitting, and mine construction would likely take another three years, he said.

While Hudbay’s Copper World reclamation plan portrays a mine plan on a far smaller scale than Rosemont’s, Hudbay officials told investors last week that once its drilling is finished, Copper World’s known deposits will be large enough to produce two-thirds of what Rosemont will produce.

Pits, buildings, roads

The reclamation plan says copper would be mined from two “open pit areas” on the Copper World site. A map included in the plan, however, shows two open pits in one pit area, meaning the plan actually calls for three pits, called Peach, Elgin and Copper World.

The plan says “limited site preparation work is anticipated beginning in September 2021” and that mining will be finished in 10 years.

But in response to a question about that, Hudbay said the main work of that nature going on now involves only biological surveys, “to make sure they are complete and current.”

Copper World spans 3,430 acres from near the Rosemont site on the mountains’ east slope, west to the historic Helvetia mining area where copper was removed from the 1880s through the early 1960s. Of those acres, 1,292 acres are slated to be disturbed by the construction.

The Toronto-based company’s reclamation plan calls for:

Waste rock and tailings disposal areas, mineral processing facilities and offices, warehouses and storage yards.

Routes for water and power lines to serve mining, and various roads, including haul roads, access roads, roads to accompany water and power lines and miscellaneous service roads.

About 165,000 square feet of buildings: two flotation buildings, a crusher building, a grinder building, a molybdenum plant, a molybdenum filtration building and a concrete load-out building from which mined materials are loaded for shipment.

The proposed plan was filed with the mine inspector’s office in June. It was updated twice, most recently on Aug. 26.

“As we continue our exploration program and identify new deposits, we will update our plan as necessary and provide a revised (reclamation plan), and updated reclamation costs to the state for review and approval,” Hudbay said.

Plan taken “with a grain of salt”

A longtime opponent of efforts to mine the Santa Ritas, Randy Serraglio, said Hudbay’s “mishmash” of statements about possibly changing this plan shows it’s “very premature and essentially meaningless at this point in time.”

“Take whatever is written with a grain of salt. They could completely change it 10 more times,” said Serraglio, a conservation advocate for the Tucson-based Center for Biological Diversity. “They don’t even know yet the extent of the ore body and exactly how much is there and what this thing is going to look like.”

Pima County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry, who has opposed Rosemont, called Hudbay’s “premature submittal” an effort to maintain investor interest in the company while Rosemont remains stalled by litigation. But he believes Hudbay has every intention of eventually mining at Copper World.

“There are many fewer constraints assuming they restrict their actions to their private holdings. The question is whether there is sufficient mineral return to justify the return on investment of developing the infrastructure,” Huckelberry said.

A longtime supporter of Hudbay’s efforts at Rosemont and Copper World, Rick Grinnell, said Hudbay’s filing a reclamation plan containing an intent to mine is part of a broader process.

“It’s part of the requirements as they move forward and are trying to determine the realistic opportunities to potentially mine there,” said Grinnell, vice president of the Southern Arizona Business Coalition. “I don’t think there’s anything more to it than that. It’s like anything else in a permitting process. You have to get certain things done. You have to take one step at a time.”

Mine opponents who take shots at Hudbay’s reclamation proposal now are guilty of sour grapes, Grinnell said: “They apply by the rules and now everybody wants to change the rules. It’s sad that we have to go through all this just to get people to go to work.”

Another Rosemont/Hudbay supporter, Sahuarita Mayor Tom Murphy, said, “I wouldn’t see anything out of the ordinary here. I think there’s a whole process that you have to follow. I think it’s just them needing to be communicating, wanting to communicate with stakeholders. While the other side (of the mountain) is held up, they will keep forward on both tracks.”

New copper deposits

On Sept. 22, Hudbay announced its ongoing drilling has uncovered three additional copper deposits underneath private land that makes up the Copper World project.

Copper World now has seven deposits covering a little more than three linear miles, the company said in a news release.

It was the latest in a string of announcements by the company proclaiming rich copper deposits in the Copper World area.

Hudbay, after drilling there for a year, says it plans to spend about $34 million on drilling and related studies by the end of 2021. One place it’s drilling is a previously unexplored area lying between a newly discovered deposit it calls Bolsa and existing Rosemont site deposits, Hudbay said.

Hudbay has expanded its drilling plans from 40,000 feet originally to 200,000 feet today.

It says it now has 4,500 acres of private land in that area. That includes more than 2,000 acres of patented mining claims, former federal land that predecessor mining companies purchased decades ago at very low prices. The company’s reclamation plan would cover only its private land.

Hudbay has also said it will try to explore nearby U.S. Bureau of Land Management lands where it’s filed 101 unpatented claims, in which the federal government retains land ownership but the company could mine there. But the plan it filed with the state only covers mining on private land, although it does include burying a mine tailings pipeline underneath BLM land.

The bureau would have to approve running that pipeline under its land, said BLM spokeswoman June Lowery. She has also said the bureau would have to approve any exploration on the land on which Hudbay has unpatented claims.

In a statement, Hudbay said it’s excited by the discovery of these new deposits, adding “we believe there is more to come,” because of its exploration between the west slope and the Rosemont site.

Gayle Hartmann, president of a Rosemont Mine opposition group, said Hudbay’s reclamation proposal is premature for the state to accept. Because Hudbay keeps announcing new discoveries, the current plan is irrelevant, she said.

“Hudbay states it is continuing exploratory drilling that could ultimately link Copper World with Rosemont. Combining Copper World and Rosemont into one giant project, which is something we have long anticipated was Hudbay’s ultimate plan, should require the state and federal permitting process to be completely redone,” said Hartmann, president of the group called Save the Scenic Santa Ritas. “We will take all legal steps to ensure the permitting process is not circumvented.”

She contends Hudbay would destroy a large part of the mountain range and drain groundwater without limit.

When asked about a water supply, Hudbay said in August, “Hudbay is in the preliminary stages of our exploration, planning and feasibility process for Copper World. Sourcing a sustainable water supply for mining operations will be part of that process.”

It’s not possible to say right now if this project can be stopped because so much is unknown about it, Huckelberry said.

“This is not a feasibility study, an economic analysis or mine plan of operation. It’s more of a sketch or concept,” he said. “However, if the return on investment can be justified and there are few regulatory constraints, mining at Copper World is likely.”

“I’m sure they are doing their due diligence on the whole thing. These are big projects. A lot of prework has to be done to bring anything like that to fruition,” said Randy Graf, president and CEO of the Green Valley-Sahuarita Chamber of Commerce, which supports the Rosemont and Copper World projects.

Smaller scale than Rosemont for now

The mining plans laid out in the Hudbay reclamation plan appear to be on a much smaller scale than the Rosemont Mine, at least for now.

As it has said before, Hudbay said last week that Copper World has the potential to be a standalone project, or one operating in addition to Rosemont. Which way will depend on how court rulings go, as a decision is pending on Hudbay’s appeal to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals of a U.S. district judge’s 2019 ruling blocking Rosemont’s construction.

Some key differences in scale as of now between Copper World and Rosemont:

The Peach-Elgin area’s two pits would total about 1,200 feet in diameter and 780 feet deep. The Copper World pit would be about 1,100 feet in diameter and 730 feet deep. The Rosemont pit would be up to 6,500 feet in diameter and up to 3,000 feet deep.

At the Peach, Elgin and Copper World open pits, Hudbay would mine about 99 million tons of copper ore, with about 61% coming from the Peach-Elgin area. At Rosemont, Hudbay would mine about 550 million tons, said the U.S. Forest Service’s 2013 final Rosemont environmental impact statement.

Mining of the west slope deposits would last less than 10 years, said the reclamation plan. At Rosemont, Hudbay has said it intends to mine for around 20 years.

For Copper World, about 1,292 acres of land are likely to be disturbed for mine construction. At Rosemont, 5,431 acres will be disturbed, the Forest Service’s has said.

Copper World would have 905 acres for waste rock and tailings, compared to 2,447 acres at Rosemont.

Contact Tony Davis at 520-349-0350 or Follow Davis on Twitter@tonydavis987.

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