A top U.S. Bureau of Land Management official in Arizona said at a 2013 press conference that “a lot of progress” was being made to address the agency’s concerns about the proposed Rosemont Mine.
But at the same time, memos obtained by the Arizona Daily Star show, his staff wrote a half-dozen memos and emails raising serious concerns about potential environmental damage from the mine and the Forest Service's final Rosemont environmental impact statement. One BLM biologist went so far as to write that his boss’ public statement didn’t represent “our” position in the eight-year dispute over the mine project 30 miles southeast of Tucson.
In a recent interview, Tim Shannon, head of the BLM district that includes the Rosemont site, declined to discuss the disparity between his comments about the environmental impact statement and the staff memos, penned in late 2013 and early 2014. But detailed comments written last month show that the bureau remains concerned about the mine’s impacts on Las Cienegas conservation area and what it sees as the U.S. Forest Service’s failure to properly acknowledge them in its various environmental reports.
The Star obtained copies of the memos and comments through the federal Freedom of Information Act.
The BLM is trying to resolve its concerns with the Forest Service, Shannon said, “but we’re not there yet.”
“You’re seeing where our position is right now,” he said. “What we’re saying now, that’s our position.”
The $1.2 billion mine would be built on 995 acres owned by Toronto-based multinational corporation Hudbay Minerals Inc. and about 3,670 acres of Forest Service land in the Santa Rita Mountains.
The BLM is a key player because it owns and manages the 42,000-acre Las Cienegas National Conservation Area east of the mine site. At issue is whether the mine would drain the conservation area’s Cienega Creek, with its bright green cottonwood and willow trees.
PLAYING THE ODDS
The BLM memos take issue with computer models the Forest Service used to analyze the mine’s potential effects. Those models formed the basis for the Forest Service’s Rosemont environmental impact statements, which the agency relied on to grant tentative approval of the mine.
BLM scientists especially objected to the way Rosemont’s Final Environmental Impact Statement handicapped the odds that the mine could dry up Cienega Creek or its tributaries. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has called Cienega and the neighboring Davidson Canyon nationally significant because of their lush riparian groves and the diversity of wildlife they support.
At issue is whether removing groundwater to create the mine’s open pit would drain the aquifer feeding the state-protected stream. The pit would range from 1,800 to 2,900 feet deep and be more than a mile wide.
The Forest Service sought to answer that question with three computer model forecasts. Information about geology, streamflows, springs, groundwater depth and more was fed into the models, two developed by Rosemont consultants and the third by a consultant for mine opponent Pima County.
Critics — including the BLM and the EPA — argued it could be impossible for the models to accurately predict impacts. Models most accurately predict water table declines of at least 5 feet — yet lesser declines could draw down enough streamflow to kill neighboring trees and shrubs, critics said.
In September 2013, BLM wrote a series of stinging comments about forecasts made in a preliminary draft of the environmental impact statement. In response, the Forest Service used the final impact statement to predict the best, worst and most likely possible impacts.
At Upper Cienega Creek, all three models found it most likely that, 50 years after the mine closed, the aquifer would drop less than .1 of a foot, making it unlikely that any streamflow would disappear.
After 1,000 years, the groundwater could drop more, and those declines could be aggravated because two Cienega tributaries — Empire Gulch and Gardner Canyon — are likely to lose streamflow. In 1,000 years, the computer models predicted, it’s most likely that Upper Cienega could go dry for 3 to 351 days per year.
For Empire Gulch, which has had 0.65 of a mile to more than one mile of perennial flows since 2006, all models found that in 1,000 years it’s most likely to be dry except in storms. After 150 years, two models predicted that the gulch would most likely be dry up to 32 days a year; the third predicted it could be dry 363 days a year.
BLM SCIENTISTS DUBIOUS
Two weeks after the environmental impact statement was released, Coronado National Forest Supervisor Jim Upchurch used it as the basis of his December 2013 draft decision approving the mine. At a news conference three days later, BLM official Shannon heralded the progress he and his staff felt was being made toward meeting the bureau’s concerns about the project and the final Rosemont environmental report.
“I think right now we are in a pretty good position with the Forest Service,” he said. “The resource specialists at BLM are pretty happy with how the mitigation and monitoring discussions are going. They have addressed quite a few of our earlier concerns.”
But memos obtained by the Star contradict that:
• On Jan. 6, 2014, BLM biologist Jeff Simms wrote a memo detailing a phone conversation during which he told an EPA official that the newspaper article carrying Shannon’s comments “did not accurately reflect our position.”
• A December 2013 BLM memo to the White House Council on Environmental Quality, which has been trying to mediate the interagency dispute over the mine, warned that, because of its doubts about the computer models, “there is no way to determine the impacts that the Rosemont Mine will have” on water levels in Las Cienegas.
The Forest Service’s final impact statement also failed to address that if Empire Gulch was drawn down significantly, the Las Cienegas conservation area “could not be sustained,” the BLM memo said.
• BLM hydrologist Ben Lomeli wrote in a memo that same month that, with the proposed open pit only a few miles from Las Cienegas, “all logic indicates it will eventually completely dry up all water resources on the NCA (national conservation area). … The only question is how long it will take.”
• Also in December 2013, BLM biologist Marcia Radke wrote that the final environmental report acknowledged but did not analyze potential impacts to individual wetlands and riparian areas in the conservation area. “The description of the affected environment is not accurate, and impact analysis to these areas cannot be correctly conducted without knowledge of what the environment truly is,” Radke wrote.
• BLM memos also criticize Rosemont’s plans for mitigating negative impacts to the area near the mine. The mine company has offered $2 million for a trust fund as well as purchases of land and water rights in Lower Cienega Creek outside the conservation area and at the Sonoita Creek Ranch in Santa Cruz County. BLM said those plans are vastly inadequate.
The best way to mitigate the mine’s impacts is to seal and refill the open pit once the mine is closed “so it does not become a permanent evaporation lake acting as a huge groundwater sink” and continuing to drain water from the aquifer, Lomeli wrote in a Dec. 11, 2013, memo.
Former Forest Supervisor Upchurch, however, said he can only require Hudbay to mitigate for impacts on Forest Service land. Upchurch was recently promoted to assistant regional forester in Albuquerque.
“If BLM wants to require additional mitigation, it’s up to them — it’s debatable whether they have the right to require it,” he said in a recent interview.
Upchurch declined to comment on memos by BLM officials. But the Forest Service has incorporated all such comments into the service’s records for review, he said. “I have to hear from BLM management as to what their concerns are” to determine if the scientists were speaking for themselves or for the agency as a whole, he said.
Actually, criticisms of the computer models made by individual BLM scientists closely resemble comments made by the agency as far back as 2012. The only difference is that the staff scientists have argued for specific improvements to the modeling in their memos, whereas the BLM as a whole has been more cautious on that point.
NEW REPORT, NEW CRITICISM
This year the Forest Service prepared a new, supplemental report on the mine’s potential impact to Cienega Creek. It was sparked in part by a federal decision last May to reconsider the mine’s impacts on imperiled species including fish, frogs, birds, snakes and plants that live along Cienega Creek.
After seeking input from other federal agencies, the Forest Service formed two teams of scientists that used additional data on climate change, pool depths and volumes, and streamflow trends. The new analysis, published in draft form in March, reached virtually the same conclusions the 2013 final impact statement did about impacts to Cienega Creek.In some cases it was more optimistic.
The BLM wrote 14 pages of detailed criticisms of the report last month, concluding that uncertainty remains about impacts on groundwater sustaining Empire and Cienega creeks and asking the Forest Service to refine its analysis.
In its comments, the BLM said the Forest Service had improperly discounted an increase in new wells and groundwater pumping in the neighboring Sonoita area, making it hard to calculate the combined effects of pumping and the mine. It also questioned the service’s calculations of how much groundwater the surrounding area is pumping.
The bureau objected that the Forest Service used monitoring data of wells, springs and surface water provided by Rosemont Copper in January rather than from the late-June-early-July dry season. It also faulted the Forest Service’s computer models for disregarding some impacts on “distant” water sources such as Empire Gulch — since such sources are exactly what the bureau is concerned about. And it raised detailed concerns about potential impacts on surface and groundwater quality.
The EPA also submitted comments critical of the new Forest Service report. The service will review all the comments from federal agencies as it prepares its final report, which it hopes to publish reasonably soon, said Jamie Kingsbury, acting Coronado National Forest Supervisor.
A final Forest Service decision on whether the mine can be built won’t come until the service completes a revised biological assessment of the project, perhaps this summer, and after the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service finishes a revised biological opinion on the mine’s impact on endangered and threatened species.
If the divisions between BLM and the Forest Service persist, the bureau’s water rights manual appears to lay out a path by which it could try to stop the project if it believes the mine threatens Cienega Creek. One responsibility of the bureau’s state director is to file a protest or take other action to protect its water rights “if evidence is observed of potential conflicting water uses that impacts BLM management objectives,” the manual says.
But it’s way to early too consider such options, BLM spokesman Adam Milnor said.
“It’s speculative for us to even talk about that,” Milnor said, “until the Forest Service makes a final decision on the project.”
Contact reporter Tony Davis at 806-7746
On Twitter: @tonydavis987