Stopping the Rosemont Copper Mine

Since 2007 the Center has been fighting the proposed Rosemont Mine, a massive open-pit copper mine planned for the beautiful Santa Rita Mountains in the Sky Islands region outside Tucson, Arizona. The mine, a project of Hudbay Minerals, Inc., was proposed to be sited in the Rosemont valley, planned to be a mile wide, a mile-and-a-half long and more than 3,000 feet deep. Billions of tons of toxic waste excavated from the pit would be piled 600 to 800 feet high on thousands of acres of public lands surrounding the privately owned copper deposit, fouling the air and water and permanently damaging and destroying thousands of acres of habitat that supports a rich diversity of wildlife.

Coleman's coralroot. Photo by Russ McSpadden, Center for
Biological Diversity.

In some very relieving news for the wildlife and habitat of Rosemont valley, in February 2016 Hudbay announced an indefinite construction delay for the proposed mine. We don't know what's next, but this is a respite for at least a dozen imperiled species, including the endangered jaguar and ocelot, both of which have been documented living in the project area. In fact, the Center (and our partner CATalayst) used a dog to help us obtain the very first video footage of the only animal of its kind known to exist in the United States.

But if Rosemont does still come to pass, insatiable groundwater pumping at the mine would lower the regional aquifer and possibly dry up nearby Cienega Creek, home to two endangered fish — the Gila chub and Gila topminnow — plus the Chiricahua leopard frog, southwestern willow flycatcher, Huachuca water umbel, and two species that recently earned Endangered Species protection, the northern Mexican garter snake and yellow-billed cuckoo. In 2010 the Center petitioned to protect Coleman's coralroot, a beautiful orchid that grows in the mine's footprint, and in 2012 we petitioned for two freshwater snails, the Rosemont and Sonoran talus snails, due to threats from the mine and other factors. The aquifer in the Rosemont valley also supplies the Tucson basin with 20 percent of its natural groundwater recharge every year — a significant contribution to the city's drinking-water supply that would be directly threatened by the mine's pollution and vast groundwater pumping.

In fighting this disastrous proposed project, the Center and our allies with the Save the Scenic Santa Ritas coalition submitted formal comments on the Coronado National Forest's "environmental impact statement," which analyzes the proposed mine's destructive, far-reaching impacts. The Center has also been involved in multiple legal actions against the proposal, including an appeal of a state-issued aquifer protection permit.

Santa Rita foothills. Photo courtesy Flickr/RK & Tina.

The Rosemont project was recently purchased by another Canadian mining company, Hudbay Minerals Inc., which succeeded in a hostile takeover of Augusta Resource Corporation when this financially struggling company was on the verge of bankruptcy in 2014. The project is currently in limbo, with several key permits still outstanding. The Coronado National Forest — on whose land the mine would be built — hasn't issued its final decision on the environmental impact statement, which the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency assessed as one of the worst it had seen in 40 years among thousands of other such documents, calling it "environmentally unsatisfactory" and recommending that the "project should not proceed as proposed." The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which must decide whether to provide an essential Clean Water Act permit for the proposed mine, has stated that the Rosemont plan to temper its environmental damage is woefully inadequate.

In May 2016, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service delivered a biological opinion giving approval to the mine while admitting that it will destroy the home of America’s only known jaguar and harm a number of other imperiled species. The Rosemont biological opinion was first released 2013 and then retracted. Documents obtained by the Center through the Freedom of Information Act showed that, in four different drafts of the previous document, agency scientists concluded that the mine would cause unacceptable harm to the jaguar, but their conclusions were reversed at higher levels of the agency. This is an example of politics trumping science when it comes to protecting America’s disappearing wildlife. We continue to fight to protect all endangered species threatened by the mine.

BACKGROUND

The Santa Rita Mountains are one of Arizona's incredibly beautiful and diverse Sky Island mountain ranges, a region full of high peaks rising from intervening deserts and grasslands that boasts the highest biodiversity of the inland North American continent. The Sky Islands lie at the intersection of several very different types of ecosystems, including the Rocky Mountains and Sierra Madre to the north and south and the Chihuahuan and Sonoran deserts to the east and west. Fewer than 100 years ago, the Santa Ritas were home to a breeding population of jaguars — until they were exterminated by ranchers and predator-control agents of the federal government.

The Rosemont Valley has been a subject of mining interest for more than 100 years. Thousands of acres of public land in the area have been "patented" under the outdated provisions of the 1872 Mining Law — and in fact sold to mining companies for a mere $5 per acre. In 1994, just before a moratorium was issued on patenting, Asarco mining company got one of the last of these federal handouts and began preparing to extract billions of dollars worth of copper ore with a massive open-pit mine in what can only be characterized as a theft of public resources on a grand scale. Not satisfied with its windfall, Asarco sought a vast land exchange that would have allowed the company to gain private control of 13,000 acres of public land in the Rosemont area and thereby dodge crucial environmental regulations regarding mining on public lands.

In 1996 the Save the Scenic Santa Ritas coalition formed to fight against Asarco's plans to destroy the Rosemont region. After a spirited grassroots campaign in opposition, Asarco gave up on its plans in 1998 and eventually sold the land to real estate speculators, who then flipped it to Augusta in 2005, spurring us to renew our opposition campaign. Rosemont remains a poster child for reform of the badly outdated 1872 Mining Law, which allows federal agencies such as the Forest Service precious little discretion when it comes to approving mining proposals and continues to put sensitive areas like the Santa Ritas at risk.

 

 

Jaguar photo courtesy Flickr Commons/Nav Tombros