While the company planning to build the Rosemont open-pit copper mine has long touted its reclamation efforts, it’s keeping their costs and some other key details out of the public eye.
That information, including the size of the bond the company posted to insure reclamation will occur, is blacked out in the mine’s Forest Service-approved reclamation plan.
About two-thirds of the plan’s 475 pages are redacted from the document available on a public Forest Service website.
The mining company, Hudbay Minerals Inc., defends the redactions as a way to protect proprietary information.
But two outside experts denounced the redactions as excessive and say they’ve never seen a reclamation plan so heavily redacted.
The Forest Service says these redactions fall within its policies governing information releases.
One of the critics, however, says the redactions make it impossible for the public to determine if the bond posted is adequate to cover all reclamation costs hat might be necessary.
“We believe in turning a site back to nature”
On its website, Hudbay describes its reclamation philosophy as “Begin with the end in mind.” That’s the essence of what Hudbay and Rosemont’s previous owner, Augusta Resource Corp., call concurrent reclamation.
Activities to reclaim the mine site in the Santa Rita Mountains southeast of Tucson would start early in the project’s 20-year life and continue long after it closes. The Hudbay website shows the reclaimed site blanketed with stands of bright green grass.
“Outer slopes, created by earth and rock placement, will be graded, topped with soil and then seeded with native grasses and other plants,” Hudbay’s website says. “Stormwater controls will also be constructed on the outer slopes. Reclamation in this manner allows Rosemont and the Forest Service to monitor and adjust reclamation practices as needed to ensure success.
“We believe in returning a site back to nature, as soon as possible,” the website says.
But the actual reclamation document, besides blacking out cost-related totals, redacts numerous drawings, maps and other figures associated with the reclamation activities.
These include monitoring well locations, a conceptual design of how the reclaimed areas will look after the mine closes, and locations of roads, soil stockpiles, fences, diversion channels and ponds, among many other facilities.
Overall, 21 of 22 figures and all but one of a large number of appendices contained in the document are blacked out, as are descriptions of them in the table of contents. It’s impossible to determine precisely how many appendices are in the report because of the redactions.
The Arizona Daily Star was able to obtain Rosemont’s reclamation bond figures from another source: a 13-page Hudbay document that the Forest Service filed in U.S. District Court in March this year, in connection with one of five lawsuits mine opponents have filed seeking to block the project.
It showed that the company has posted about $50 million in bonds, split into $35 million and $15 million bonds, with no obvious explanation for the split, for the Forest Service reclamation plan. The document contains no reclamation cost figures backing up the bond totals or any other information about the plan.
This bond doesn’t include bonds Hudbay will post with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in connection with that agency’s Clean Water Act permit for the mine. That figure hasn’t been determined yet.
It’s also separate from the $4.3 million that Hudbay posted in October 2018 with the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality to cover what ADEQ calls the mine’s closure and post-closure activities associated with its state Aquifer Protection Permit.
That bond would cover the cost of water treatment, “should the water quality be affected as a result of our operations,” Hudbay said Friday in a statement to the Star.
The reclamation plan document contains no explanation for the redactions. But Hudbay’s statement said such information should be excluded as proprietary. In response to repeated questions from the Star, the company did, however, say that the Forest Service and ADEQ bonds together totaled $54.6 million.
“In simplest terms, it is information that in Rosemont’s view is unrelated to the public interest but if released would create a competitive disadvantage for our company or for other companies that have or might do business with us,” Hudbay said. “For example, it includes financial information provided in confidence as part of bidding processes.”
The reclamation plan contains information that’s linked to company financial records, Coronado National Forest Supervisor Kerwin Dewberry said. The redactions are consistent with the service’s policies under the federal Freedom of Information Act, Dewberry said.
The service considers reclamation costs and bonding posted to be redactable information, he added.
“It was based on what our FOIA rules allow,” Dewberry said.
“Shouldn’t be kept from the public”
But the redactions drew sharp criticism from two outside consultants who say they have reviewed many mine reclamation plans over the years.
The Rosemont plan is the first such reclamation plan they’ve seen containing such a large number of redactions, said Jim Kuipers, a private engineering consultant, and David Chambers, director of the nonprofit Center for Science and Public Participation. Both experts are based in Montana.
“This is stuff that’s intended to address costs. It’s public information. For the life of me I can’t see where you can begin to call it business confidential,” said Kuipers, who runs a consulting business and from 2009 through 2017 reviewed Rosemont plans for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
“They are giving themselves a black eye,” he said. “The industry is generally proud to be able to say we are providing this.”
Without the redacted information, it’s impossible to judge the adequacy of the bond that’s been posted, “which is not particularly large for a mine this size,” said Chambers, who at least five years ago did some reviews of the mine for Pima County government, which opposes Rosemont.
“This absolutely makes you wonder” what the company is hiding, Chambers said. “This kind of information shouldn’t be kept from the public. It’s the public’s liability. If something goes wrong, we want to make sure the bond is adequate.”
A third mining expert, Michigan Tech University professor Gary Campbell, said that as a general principle, the more that’s disclosed, the more a community will feel comfortable with what the mining company is trying to do.
“If the company is keeping things secret, than of course people will start wondering why,” said Campbell, a professor of natural resource economics.
On reviewing a copy of the redacted plan, Campbell gave Rosemont credit for doing “a fairly good job on getting a handle on the local ecology.”
“I was not surprised at removing the cost material. I was surprised at the amount of technical detail removed. Much of it will become public knowledge anyway since I am sure there will be lots of tours once operations begin,” he said.
The Star has filed a Freedom of Information Act request with the Forest Service for a copy of the reclamation plan that includes formal reasons for the redactions and how they are justified under the law.
On May 31, the service responded that the records the Star seeks may contain information prohibited from release under FOIA Exemption 4, shielding “confidential business information.”
The service gave Hudbay 15 business days from that date to provide a statement objecting to disclosure, said the letter from Forest Supervisor Dewberry. If Hudbay does object and the service decides to release the records over those objections, it must give Hudbay another 10 days to initiate legal action, if it desires, to block disclosure, he wrote.
The first 15-day period was due to run out on June 21, said Celena Soto, Dewberry’s executive assistant and FOIA liaison. Since that day, the Star has received no response from the service about its plans for the reclamation document.
Complex plans for half-mile-deep pit
As laid out in the company’s planning document, the reclamation work will be highly complex and very detailed, covering a wide array of the mine’s facilities.
When the mine closes, for instance, all operating facilities and buildings at the main mine site will be demolished, the plan says. All slabs and surface soils will be inspected for potential contamination. Contaminated materials will be excavated and disposed of off-site if needed. Below-ground foundations will be broken up and buried in place.
Rosemont’s half-mile-deep open pit will be surrounded with fencing consisting of at least three strands of barbed wire and an additional strand of smooth wire at the fence’s bottom. A 6-foot-high chain link fence, topped with three barbed-wire strands, may also be installed around sections of the pit, “as needed,” the plan says.
Another prominent part of the reclamation plan involves what Hudbay calls the landform. That includes the waste rock left over after copper ore is removed from the rock mined in the pit.
It also includes the dry stack tailings that have been a hallmark of the mine plan from the time Rosemont’s first proponent, Augusta Resource, first proposed it in 2007.
The reclamation plan lays out highly specific details for the landform. They range from the locations, size and spacing of “benches” on the landform’s outer slopes, to the placement of soils and the planting of various seeds and grasses on the slopes in the name of revegetation. The tailings will also be encapsulated with waste rock.
During the mine’s early years of operation, waste rock from the open pit will be placed along portions of the separate, general waste rock and the tailings storage areas.
This will help screen active mining operations from public view along Arizona 83, the plan says. It will also protect downstream water quality, stabilize the tailings stacks and prevent tailings from eroding into downstream washes, the plan says.
Also, soil and woody debris will be salvaged from the mine’s footprint and placed directly on reclaimed areas or stockpiled for future use, the plan said.
While the mine is operating, Rosemont Copper, Hudbay’s Arizona subsidiary, also plans to assess the possibility of encouraging plant growth on the upper benches of the final pit configuration, the plan says.
Expert: “mistake could cost taxpayers tens of millions”
The reclamation bond lies at the heart of what it takes to ensure that the plan is successful.
A mining company typically posts such a bond with a government permitting agency such as the Forest Service. It’s to provide assurances that the needed reclamation work will be done in case the company goes out of business or files for federal bankruptcy protection from its creditors.
Among the redacted items that Chambers found important were all direct costs for labor, equipment and materials.
Also redacted were indirect costs, including contingencies involved in soliciting bids for reclamation work, engineering redesigns, mobilization and demobilization efforts, performance bonds, estimated sales taxes on direct costs, profit, overhead and inflation.
Together, the indirect costs typically amount to 25 to 40 percent of a mine’s total reclamation tab, Chambers said. Also, locations of surface and groundwater monitoring points were redacted, he said.
“I have long argued that this kind of information should be included in an environmental impact statement for a mine,” Chambers said. “The amounts involved are so large, that if the mining company or government agency responsible for reviewing the data makes a mistake, it could cost the taxpayer tens of millions of dollars.”
Kuipers’ concern about the redacted reclamation plan wasn’t eased by the publication of the bond totals in the document the Forest Service supplied to the federal court, he told the Star.
He has worked for government agencies, tribes and conservation groups as well as other non-governmental organizations in the second half of a nearly 40-year career as a mining engineer, after working mostly in the industry for the first half.
“Why the hell should the public or any party have to go to court to get this information, which is normal, standard, available information?” Kuipers asked. “This is crazy.”
Under Forest Service regulations, certain kinds of information submitted by a mining company won’t be released when they concern “trade secrets or privileged commercial or financial information.”
That includes but isn’t limited to the extent and location of mineral deposits and locations of mine exploration pits, drill holes and excavations made under U.S. mining law “and other commercial information which relates to competitive rights of the operator.”