Rosemont attended meetings; foes didn't
The Coronado National Forest committed a "clear violation of law with extremely damaging implications" by allowing Rosemont Copper officials to attend 13 closed meetings with government agencies to discuss the proposed Rosemont Mine - while excluding other outside interest groups, said a letter from mine opponents.
It appears that Rosemont representatives attended numerous meetings in which key decisions would be made on what mining alternatives would be analyzed, what measures might be required to compensate for the mine's environmental impacts and other important issues, the letter stated.
Opponents Farmers Investment Co., Save the Scenic Santa Ritas and the Center for Biological Diversity sent the letter to the service on Monday.
"Yet while Rosemont Copper was represented, none of our organizations, which have submitted comments adverse to Rosemont, were invited to participate in these meetings," the letter said. "The meetings were neither publicly noticed nor open to the public."
Coronado Forest and Rosemont Copper officials had no immediate reply to the letter, although a Forest Service spokeswoman did make a brief statement acknowledging that Rosemont had been invited as a guest to some meetings.
The letter asked the Forest Service to halt work on the environmental statement and start over, in full compliance with federal law, by inviting all interests affected by the proposed mine, including government, agriculture, tourism, business, communities, ranching, major water providers and others.
It called the service's Draft Environmental Impact Statement "irreversibly tainted" and said the environmental groups and FICO may take legal action if the service doesn't take steps to comply with federal law in this matter.
The opponents' letter was written as the service is entering what appears to be the final leg of a highly complex process stretching more than three years to prepare the draft statement on the proposed mine.
Until last week, service officials had said they planned to release the environmental report by the end of 2010.
But last week, the service announced that it is still not ready to release the statement and didn't know when it would be released, other than that it would be in 2011.
Rosemont has proposed to mine 220 million pounds of copper annually from the Santa Rita Mountains southeast of Tucson, and to store waste rock and mine tailings on federal land in that area.
The letter alleges the service violated the Federal Advisory Committee Act, a 1972 law aimed at laying out ground rules for management of advisory committees to federal agencies.
In their letter, Rosemont's opponents wrote that in passing this law, Congress was trying to respond to concerns that committee meetings often didn't adequately represent the public interest because of a bias in the committee's membership. It was also concerned the meetings were too often closed to the public, the letter said.
Under the law, all federal advisory committee meetings shall be public, and any interested party is allowed to attend or file statements with such committees.
The law requires that committee memberships be "fairly balanced in terms of the points of view represented and the functions to be performed," said the General Services Administration website.
The law applies when a federal agency forms a committee to obtain "consensus advice or recommendations" on issues or policies, said the Coronado National Forest's Rosemont Mine website.
Meetings strictly of government officials are exempt from this law when they involve intergovernmental activities, the Forest Service's Rosemont website said.
But opponents said the exemption doesn't apply when an affected interest such as Rosemont actively participates in the meetings.
From April 2009 through July 2010, Rosemont officials, consultants or other Rosemont representatives attended 18 of 23 meetings of a group of cooperating government agencies that was advising the Forest Service on how to write the draft environmental statement, said the opponents' letter.
Rosemont representatives made presentations to the agencies at five meetings, which the opponents said could be allowed at cooperative agency sessions under federal law.
But at the other meetings, there was no indication Rosemont representatives made a presentation, the letter said.
"Rather, it appears that their invitation to attend these meetings has become a regular, systematic pattern and practice," the letter said.
A review of meeting agendas by the Star found that a Rosemont consultant was an invited guest to many meetings, although it wasn't clear on most agendas whether consultant Gordon Cheniae actually attended. Cheniae is president of Cheniae and Associates, which prepared the mine's operating plan.
At a July 2009 meeting, an official from another Rosemont consulting firm, Westland Resources, was shown as an invited guest. Rosemont officials and consultants were invited to make presentations at six cooperating agency meetings, the agendas showed.
David Steele, a FICO spokesman, said that even the fact that Cheniae was invited was a problem because opponents weren't invited.
From looking at the service's Rosemont website, "you can see" that Rosemont was an invited guest to some meetings, service spokeswoman Heidi Schewel wrote the Star in an e-mail. But, "at this point I can't tell when the company was a presenter," Schewel said.
Save the Scenic Santa Ritas President Gayle Hartmann said the opponents want the service to rerun all cooperative agency meetings where various options for the proposed mine were discussed.
This time, all affected interest groups, including Rosemont, should be at the table or none should be, she said.
"Whenever they start considering options, that part needs to be done fairly," Hartmann said.
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