As a practicing architect here in southern Arizona, I’ve had the privilege of helping preserve the historic Empire Ranch headquarters on Las Cienegas National Conservation Area north of Sonoita. I am always struck by the great beauty of this part of our state, with its rolling hills and the shadowed canyons of the Santa Ritas. It’s a Shangri-La — one of the most beautiful places on earth.
So where does Hudbay Minerals want to plunk the Rosemont copper mine? Right in the middle of Shangri-La. Still, this is about more than physical and spiritual beauty: there are costs involved, both financial and environmental.
In a recent guest opinion piece in the Star, the author suggested that copper mining was “in Tucson’s blood” as a rationale for the Rosemont project. Something more important is actually in our blood: water.
That column failed to mention that the proposed mine — with its mile-wide, half mile-deep open pit and potentially toxic mine waste piled 600 to 800 feet high — would be located in a watershed that provides a significant portion of the groundwater recharge in the Tucson basin.
Arizona’s groundwater laws are exceptionally generous to mines. The proposed mine could pump as much of our best quality drinking water as it wants. Rosemont admits it would use 4.8 million gallons of our groundwater per day.
Given that the mine pit will be excavated into the aquifer, pumping would be required to dewater it during operations. The pit would act as a hydraulic sink into the regional aquifer, in perpetuity. Reversing the natural flow of groundwater into the mine would create an artificial lake of contaminated water 1,200 feet deep, permanently altering the hydrology of the Santa Rita Mountains.
The proposed mine would forever deplete and pollute drinking water supplies that a growing regional economy needs. Mine proponents tout the short-term economic benefits of the project as justification for it to proceed — but how prosperous can a community remain, after the mine depletes the ore and shuts down in a few years, without an adequate long-term and clean water supply?
There are other negative economic impacts of the proposed Rosemont Mine. Consider the impacts to our outdoor recreation economy that, according to the Arizona Department of Tourism, brings $3.4 billion into southern Arizona’s economy every year.
The Arizona Game and Fish Department has stated that the Rosemont project would “render the northern portion of the Santa Rita Mountains virtually worthless as wildlife habitat and as a functioning ecosystem....” The proposed mine would destroy this area, and preclude access and enjoyment by outdoor enthusiasts of all stripes — hunters, birdwatchers, equestrians, hikers and off-road vehicle users.
Rosemont and its proponents complain loudly about how long the process is taking to permit this mine. Considering that the environmental destruction caused by the proposed mine would be forever, any amount of time it takes to review and permit this mine (or not) is justified. We must consider not only the present, but the lives of future generations.
Historically, Southern Arizona has seen a lot copper mining, We live with the consequences of that legacy every day: air and water pollution, and environmental degradation. To destroy Rosemont and its surrounding areas for all time, in exchange for a few years of mineral extraction by a foreign mining company, is the devil’s own bargain.
There are some places that just shouldn’t be mined, and the Rosemont site is one. This is a critical issue and a critical time: we need to build an environmental economy for the future, not an extractive economy. In the best interests of all Southern Arizonans, the proposed Rosemont mine should be rejected.
Robert Vint is a native Southern Arizonan, an architect and assistant professor of practice in the U of A School of Architecture.