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Jaguar versus the copper mine

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Red Lodge | Sep 18, 2012 05:55 AM

By Heather Hansen, Red Lodge Clearing House

There’s an extraordinary 70,000-square-mile region that encompasses part of southeastern Arizona, southwestern New Mexico and northwestern Mexico. This area, called the Sky Islands, is characterized by forested mountain ranges divided by desert or grassland valleys. 

Santa Rita mountainsBecause of the topographic, climatic and biological complexity of this zone, the Sky Islands harbor some of the most diverse ecosystems in the world. Over half of all North American bird species use the area, as do 104 mammal species and 3,000 plant species. Four species listed as candidates for protection under the Endangered Species Act live there, including the desert tortoise and western yellow-billed cuckoo, as do nine species listed as threatened or endangered under the ESA including the ocelot and the jaguar (more news on this cat later in this post). 

Roughly 30 miles south of Tucson, smack in the middle of the Santa Rita Mountains portion of the Sky Islands is where a Canadian company, Augusta Resource, would like to blast a 6,000 to 6,500-foot-wide and 1,800 to 2,900-foot-deep hole in the ground. 

According to the draft environmental impact statement (DEIS) done by the U.S. Forest Service  on the open pit mine proposal, Augusta Resource (or Rosemont Copper, as its subsidiary is known here) plans to excavate 550 million tons of ore annually of copper, molybdenum and silver. The Rosemont Mine would also unearth 1,228 million tons of waste rock per year, over its estimated 20-year life span. 

Rosemont Copper owns 995 acres that would be used for the mine and processing facility but is seeking 3,670 acres of the Coronado National Forest, 15 acres from the Bureau of Land Management and 75 acres from the state of Arizona, mostly to be used for the dumping of waste rock and the “dry stacking” of mine tailings, the often-toxic crud that’s left behind after the ore has been recovered. 

Rosemont Mine map

Map of area around proposed mine courtesy Sonoran Institute.

Since the USFS started studying Rosemont’s proposal several years ago, the list of potential negative impacts has grown from a trickle to a torrent. Locals are concerned about water use, surface and aquifer contamination and air, noise and light pollution. (The area is prized for its dark skies, which is why two observatories do astronomy research there.) They worry that tourists will be turned away from its scenic canyons, where waste rock will be deposited, and from the Arizona National Scenic Trail, four miles of which passes through the proposed area and would need to be relocated. 

The community of Green Valley in Pima County has come out against the mine; in fact the board of supervisors in both Pima and Santa Cruz Counties have passed resolutions rejecting the project. The mayor and the Tucson City Council also oppose it, as does the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. 

In their review of the DEIS, EPA said, “Despite the inclusion of all proposed mitigation into the air quality modeling for the Project, these impacts are projected to remain at levels that are unacceptable in their risk to human health and the environment.” They went on to talk water: “EPA also believes that the water quality analysis presented in the DEIS may underestimate the project’s potential to release contaminated drainage into Waters of the U.S.” EPA gave the proposal a rating of “Environmentally Unsatisfactory” and said it should not proceed as proposed. 

In its report EPA also made reference to the tribal and cultural resources at risk; this is perhaps the most shameful part of the proposal. The DEIS says the Rosemont Mine would impact a total of 96 properties listed on the National Register of Historic Places, including 28 prehistoric sights that are known, or likely to have, human remains. “The cultural landscape would be irrevocably altered by the massive movement of rock and soil and transformation of the topography,” the Forest Service concluded. 

The DEIS also references 63 springs and seeps that would be affected. “Springs are considered sacred by all of the tribes consulted by the Coronado…The sanctity and power of each spring are also unique and cannot be replaced once the spring is destroyed.” 

While the USFS is reviewing thousands of comments submitted on the draft EIS (the record of decision is not expected until January at the earliest), there are two comment opportunities currently open that may affect the Rosemont Mine proposal.  

The first involves an air quality permit being considered by the state. This is a funny story because when Pima County denied Rosemont this permit, the company sued the county. A superior court judge ruled last June that the county was “arbitrary and capricious” in denying the permit. After having decided the county should lose its power to protect its own air, the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality is now reviewing the permit application itself. The public can weigh in on Rosemont’s application through October 9. 

jaguarThe second open for comment issue must be the result of some kind of stellar alignment in those dark skies over the Santa Ritas. Through October 19, the public can give their opinion on a proposal by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to designate critical habitat for the endangered jaguar on 838,000 acres in Arizona and New Mexico, including the area in the Santa Ritas where the mine would be located.

There have been three confirmed jaguar sightings in Southern Arizona in the past five years and now that poaching isn’t the number one danger to the cat (habitat loss and fragmentation are), a critical habitat zone is now “prudent” under the ESA. After 15 years on the endangered species list, the jaguar may ultimately thwart the type of development that drove it from this region.

It’s no surprise that Rosemont is crying foul over the timing of the critical habitat proposal. In a recent statement James Sturgess, Rosemont Copper Senior Vice President of Corporate Development and Government Affairs said, “…it’s unclear how a fringe area on the northern periphery of the Santa Rita Mountains could possibly be considered essential to the species’ conservation and recovery especially when the area has a century of ongoing human use.” Actually, southern Arizona has been inhabited by humans for several millennia, and historical records indicate the jaguar once lived as far north as the Grand Canyon and Santa Fe. The two once coexisted, until around the time we started blasting big holes in the ground.

But I’ve got to hand it to Rosemont Copper, whose spin on the project has been persuasive. They talk of the need for domestic sources of copper (while giving no guarantee that the resource will stay in the U.S. and not be sold by its Canadian parent to the world’s biggest copper consumer, China). They trumpet the importance of supplying the clean energy economy with copper (wind turbines and hybrid engines use it); of digging a smaller hole at Rosemont than copper miners generally do; of using less water than traditional copper mining by “dry stacking” the tailings (which actually may not be such a great idea considering the boom and bust nature of desert hydrology). 

And, of course, the words “jobs” is tossed to locals like catnip to a jaguar. The company recently told the New York Times that an estimated 400 direct positions would be created, which seems unlikely. I’m dubious that those jobs won’t be filled by outside experts from, say, Canada. The DEIS states that the mine would result in a “small increase in regional employment, taxes and revenue” and—here’s the part that’s not in Rosemont’s press kit—“a possible decrease in property value” and “potential degradation of area quality of life.” 

Upon getting to know this unexpectedly lavish region in the 1930s, Aldo Leopold wrote of the Sky Islands, “These oak-dotted hills fat with side oats grama, these pine-clad mesas spangled with flowers, these lazy trout streams burbling along under great sycamores and cottonwoods, come near being the cream of creation.” 

Whether or not you’re swayed by sanctity or species, human health or property value, the Santa Ritas are the wrong place for this mine.

Essays in the Range blog are not written by High Country News. The authors are solely responsible for their content.

Heather Hansen is an environmental journalist working with the Red Lodge Clearinghouse /Natural Resources Law Center at CU Boulder, to help raise awareness of natural resource issues.

Image of the Santa Rita Mountains courtesy Pima County.

Image of the jaguar courtesy USFWS.

Kirsten Holland
Kirsten Holland
Sep 18, 2012 08:28 AM
Heather - There's precious little in this article that would give your readers any context for the jaguar sitings in Arizona. We're talking 6 males in 16 years. Lone males, that for whatever reason, left the viable populations of males, females, and cubs 130 miles south of the Arizona border in the Sierra Madre Mountains and just kept heading north. The last jaguar (Macho B) was killed by gross negligent biologists who used female urine and scat to attract this elderly male animal and stressed it to death. Six lone males in 16 years do not a population make. Classifying 833,000 acres as "critical habitat" for this extremely rare species will in no way increase the population in Arizona. To increase the population, you need females and babies. The last female in Arizona was recorded more 100 years ago. They have different habitat needs including good thicket and denning sites...and they won't cross major roads. The best use of conservation effort is to support the work of organizations like the Jaguar Conservation Fund helping this animal in Mexico, Argentina, and Brazil. I'm doing this...how about you?
Kirsten Holland
Kirsten Holland
Sep 18, 2012 08:38 AM
"The company recently told the New York Times that an estimated 400 direct positions would be created, which seems unlikely. I’m dubious that those jobs won’t be filled by outside experts from, say, Canada."
Heather...have you done research on employment stats at the copper, molydenum, gold, coal, potash, and other mines and quarries including those owned by Canadian, Australian, and UK firms or are you just speculating? If you had done your research, you would have found that historically the work force for industrial operations in the western US regardless of operation and domestic/foreign owner is always dominantly locally derived. It's cost-prohibitive to import workers from out-of-country when skilled workers and professionals can be sourced within the region. Visa difficulties would arise as another difficulty. The Canadian mining industry is going great guns on its own and offers competitive wages to its own work force...they don't have surplus individuals to staff foreign operations with haul truck drivers, technicians, loader operators, engineers, HR reps, pipemen, mill operators, electricians, and welders, etc.
Heather Hansen
Heather Hansen
Sep 18, 2012 09:48 AM
Kirsten, thanks much for reading and taking the time to comment. I'm basing the critical habitat parameters I describe on the scientific analysis. This from the USFWS:"The areas the Service has identified as potential critical habitat was informed by the Recovery Outline for the jaguar that was recently completed by a Service-assembled, binational team of scientists. The team relied on a scientific population viability analysis and a population and habitat viability analysis for the jaguar in the northern extent of its range in Mexico and the U.S." I don't propose to know more than a bi-national team of jaguar experts.

As for the projected job numbers, this is from the DEIS: "The proposed action would result in a small increase in regional employment, taxes, and revenue. There would be increased funding needs for road maintenance on State Route 83 and other roads during the operational phase of the mine. The proposed action would result in a possible decrease in area property value and would cause a potential degradation of area quality of life in terms of community values. There potentially could be a change in regional tourism spending." I'm guessing the net result is why Pima County's leadership, and their constituents, are opposed to mine. I don't live in Pima County, so I defer to what they believe is best for their families (which is no mine).

When I comment to the state of Arizona on the air quality permit I will oppose it, and to the USFWS regarding the jaguar's critical habitat, I will support it. Regardless of your opinion, I encourage you to make your voice heard as well; that's the democratic process at work.


Kirsten Holland
Kirsten Holland
Sep 18, 2012 10:33 AM
Heather...as pointed out to me by a friend in Arizona and subsequently verified when I read the USFWS technical docs related to the Jaguar Recovery Plan, there are no metrics in the FWS recovery plan for knowing how and when this recovery plan will be deemed a success. Will it be successful when 10 male jaguars are spotted in Arizona or New Mexico in the 16 years versus the 6 they have had? Will FWS have to import females to Arizona to make it a success? The females are very particular about denning sites. What about natural population growth expected in the next few decades? The jaguar is not in danger of extinction in its majority habitat (Mexico, Paraguay, Argentina, Brazil). It's just rare. It was designated as extremely rare in the 1970s when it was put on the Endangered Species list. This animal does not rely for its very survival on the northern fringe of its potential and past range across north and south america. US support in the past has helped with research and funding for the conservation efforts where these animals actually live...in Mexico and Paraguay. We should continue these efforts rather than cause a huge economic impact to Arizona and New Mexico with little hope of success. Really...what are we expecting from this recovery plan? That these animals will become so abundant they'll be taken off ES list and a hunting season will be initiated. Not likely no matter how much money is thrown at the problem or how many land restrictions are put on property in New Mexico and Arizona.
Kirsten Holland
Kirsten Holland
Sep 18, 2012 10:44 AM
"When I comment to the state of Arizona on the air quality permit I will oppose it, and to the USFWS regarding the jaguar's critical habitat, I will support it."
As you mentioned the Air Quality Permit, I assume you’ve read the Public Notice, Technical Support docs, and the draft permit related to this project. You noted therefore that the Public Notice states the following: “You will have an opportunity to submit written comments on the air permit and make oral comments on the permit at the public hearing (Oct. 9 in Vail, AZ). The written comment shall state the name and mailing address of the person, signed by the person, their agent or attorney, and shall clearly set forth reasons why the permit should or should not be issued. Grounds for comment are limited to whether the permit meets the criteria for issuance spelled out in the state air pollution control laws or rules.”
No doubt ADEQ will receive lots of “I don’t want the mine” and “I want the mine” comments, none of which are relevant to their purpose.
Ray Ring
Ray Ring Subscriber
Sep 18, 2012 11:52 AM
Can the U.S. Forest Service say NO to this mine -- or any other mine? Does the agency have the guts and legal authority to do that? Here's a link to a recent HCN cover story exploring that fundamental question -- http://www.hcn.org/issues/42.20/hardrock-mining-showdown -- Ray Ring, HCN senior editor
Kirsten Holland
Kirsten Holland
Sep 18, 2012 01:41 PM
Ray...Guts don't really factor into it. The NEPA process does though which is intended to consider public input and minimize impacts to the greatest extent possible. Forest Service land is multi-purpose. That means timber, mining, quarries, conservation, wildlife protection, and recreation are all legally allowed to occur....not just recreation or conservation. Mining has been going on in the Santa Rita Mountains and nearby mountain ranges since the territorial days...including when Arizona was part of the New Mexico territory! The southern Arizona region includes large military bases and military reservations, urban population centers, agricultural areas, and mines, and is crisscrossed by interstate and state highways. So...would folks please be realistic with expectations about an animal that won't cross a major road and the fact that any males who come here will have to turn around and head south to mate with the females who are located 130 miles south of the border?
Heather Hansen
Heather Hansen
Sep 18, 2012 01:58 PM
Thanks for the clarification, Kirsten. I would also encourage commenters to be as specific as possible in disputing the air quality permit.

I will be commenting to the state of Arizona (these two points are verbatim from the US EPA's report):

"The Preferred Action (Alternative 4) and all action alternatives will violate, or risk violation of, the National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS) for particulate matter of 10 microns or less (PM10), particulate matter of 2.5 microns or less (PM2.5), and nitrogen dioxide (NO2)."

"Despite the inclusion of all proposed mitigation into the air quality modeling for the Project, these impacts are projected to remain at levels that are unacceptable in their risk to human health and the environment. Numerous scientific studies have linked particulate pollution exposure to a range of health problems, including premature death, increased hospital and emergency room visits for cardiovascular and respiratory effects, and development of chronic respiratory disease. Likewise, exposure to NO2 and ozone has been correlated with increased visits to emergency rooms and hospital admissions for respiratory issues, especially asthma."

The project should not proceed as proposed.
Deb Dedon
Deb Dedon Subscriber
Sep 18, 2012 03:22 PM
Any regulation that stops Rosemont has my support. The tide of high-gloss mining promotion threatens to drown all voices of reasonable objection.

I've lived in southern AZ for more than 30 years. People seem to forget that mining is a boom and bust operation. As long as copper prices are elevated, it's a boom. If they drop, or demand drops, it's a bust. And when the bust hits, are the huge holes filled in, the land and water returned to pristine conditions?

In the desert southwest, water is far more precious than copper. Water is life. Copper is only a commodity.
Kirsten Holland
Kirsten Holland
Sep 18, 2012 04:17 PM
Deb...I can list examples for New Mexico but for southern Arizona where you live, Morenci is well past 100 years. Ray is at 101 this year. When Mission Mine started 50 years ago, it had a 20 year mine life. It still has a 20 year mine life. San Manuel had a 50-year mine life and should still be going today, but the company decided to close it down when copper prices were $0.65/pound. Yes, there are ups and downs and temporary cessations, but it's hard to use a boom-and-bust terminology with mines that have been around for so many decades. The question I have for you is where do you want the resources YOU use to come from? Afghanistan? Brazil, Canada? Peru?....anywhere but here? We use the resources and other people around the world get to suffer the impacts? One word for that...NIMBY.
Kirsten Holland
Kirsten Holland
Sep 18, 2012 04:33 PM
Heather - You may want to read the technical support docs before sending an EPA comment to ADEQ that they are already intimately familiar with. I found the tech support doc for the draft permit you mentioned at http://www.azdeq.gov/download/calendar/080312dtsd2.pdf. In addition to DEIS information being out of date, the resource numbers you quoted in your article are also out of date. A simple check of the two different company websites (Augusta Resource or Rosemont Copper) anytime since July would have shown you that they were in the process of redoing their feasibility study, which would affect resource numbers. New reserve figures were announced in August. I'm glad you are doing articles that link wildlife and mineral resource extraction issues as those are my interests as well, but I encourage you to do your own research. The EPA comments were made months ago and many adjustments have been made since then, which have been reported by other newspaper sources. It's starting to feel like you've done a cut and paste exercise using older info. Sorry to be blunt and no offense meant.
Heather Hansen
Heather Hansen
Sep 18, 2012 05:15 PM
Thanks, Kirsten. With all do respect, I am aware of the "new and improved(!)" Rosemont Copper resource numbers and I remain skeptical that they have solved the air quality issue (and that the Arizona isn't already slouching toward an approval regardless of what numbers are proposed). If those PM numbers change significantly in the FEIS, that may get my attention. Until then, I'll stick with the assessment of the EPA and the USFS. The project should not proceed as proposed.
Dan Roper
Dan Roper Subscriber
Sep 18, 2012 05:18 PM
Kirsten, do you work in the mining industry? I agree with your point that if we are going to use resources, then we should be willing produce them domestically. My guess is copper prices will be high for quite some time, so the mine will be economically viable for a while. But I agree with Deb, and am concerned about the water usage. Also, who is responsible for the mine tailings 100 years from now? I think too often industry gets off too easy. Reap the rewards than leave the mess for the taxpayers to deal with. If Pima County doesn't want the mine...then no mine. As for the Jaguar, I am thinking maybe we should focus our conservation efforts outside our borders- is it realistic to have a domestic population one day??
Kirsten Holland
Kirsten Holland
Sep 18, 2012 07:56 PM
Dan I'm a practical environmentalist. I've worked in several industries in past decades including geotech labs, nursing care, mineral exploration ...now am in environmental-management related business. More than one type of business has its ups and downs over time as we can all attest from watching the housing industry implode.

Water is the number one concern I've tracked in newspaper articles I've read about this particular project over the years so is is getting appropriate scrutiny. A number of cooperating agencies are involved from what I've read including the local county. The USFS, not the county, is the lead agency.

I agree with you completely that we should focus our conservation efforts (in some cases) outside our borders. If taxpayers think jaguars in U.S. are what we want, then someone needs to come up with a realistic plan other than just restricting activities on 833,000 acres of land. This will not ensure that the jaguar population in the U.S. will increase. If we want to secure jaguar habitat and safety in Northern Mexico, then the U.S. govt should work with Mexican govt to ensure protection in the Sierra Madre mountains where they actually live in family groups.
Larry Audsley
Larry Audsley
Sep 20, 2012 02:44 AM
Designating 838,000 acres in the Southwestern U.S. as a jaguar critical habitat and/or recovery zone is both an absurdity and an outrage. Prior to the report from USFWS, the only biologists I'd seen supporting such a designation were a few locals who were looking to use jaguar studies as a meal ticket. Read what leading jaguar authority Alan Rabinowitz had to say about it. http://www.nytimes.com/[…]/25rabinowitz.html?_r=0

This is a reckless abuse of the Endangered Species Act. Using the ESA to stop a controversial mine, especially in the absence of sound scientific facts and reasoning, puts the Act itself in jeopardy. Imagine the field day ESA opponents in Congress could have with this one. If the ESA can be used as a tool to stop a mine on behalf of an animal it can't possibly benefit, what else can the ESA be used for?

Kirsten's history of jaguar sightings in the past century is accurate, but I should add that two of the sightings are believed to involve transplants that were captured south of the border and flown in by an outfitter for canned hunts. These were in the 1950s and 1960s.

For the record, I don't like the mine either. But let's not abuse a well-intentioned law in order to stop it.
Ray Ring
Ray Ring Subscriber
Sep 20, 2012 12:23 PM
Responding to your faith in NEPA, Kirsten: Covering NEPA processes for more than 30 years, I've come to conclude, the process has good intentions but is inherently arrogant and corrupt. For instance, NEPA assumes that with our science, we can know everything about how a decision will work out, and if we're wrong, we can always use "adaptive management" to change course -- which looks good on paper but is not the real world we live in, which is shaped by funding constraints over decades, as well as politics, personalities, countless unknowables etc.

As far as I know, no NEPA process has ever concluded with a decision to take "no action." Environmental lawyers pointed that out to me -- lawyers who sue over the process time and time again, and privately view the whole exercise as somewhat bogus. Once the NEPA process is begun, the basic decision has already been made. Then everyone must go through the tedious process to decide the fine details, not the big picture.

I still have faith that strong individual leaders in agencies like the Forest Service can show more guts taking stands on mining and other developments. In the history of the agencies, a few strong leaders have emerged, not only atop the agencies in D.C., but also at a local level (such as, a few Montana and Wyoming forest supervisors making decisions to ban oil and gas drilling). I'd like to see more strong leaders everywhere in the agencies, and I think they would either discover they had leeway to be leaders, or they would force the issue by stepping forward.

- Ray Ring, HCN senior editor
Kirsten Holland
Kirsten Holland
Sep 20, 2012 10:18 PM
Ray - Banning production of oil & gas production and the few commodities in which the U.S. does actually have some self-sufficiency does a few things for us: 1) disconnects us even more than we already are on "where things come from" in terms of personal awareness of what is enabling our self-interested, resource-intensive lifestyle 2) increases U.S. trade imbalance, 3) pushes the impacts of our incredible me-first needs to those in the world who have zero chance for NEPA involvement, 4) makes peasants and villagers around in the world in numerous countries slaves to our resource desires, meanwhile making us dependent on the whims of the these folks' corrupt governments.

It would be helpful for us to become aware of what goes into the stuff we buy, then to be honest about how much we personally use. Why do we have oil fields and mines? Because there are 7 billion people on the earth and more every day...most of whom want a mere shadow of the type of lifestyle you and I are privileged to enjoy. Our lifestyle is in part owing to our access to inexpensive electricity and abundant natural resources. It's tough to man up to the fact that we are the number one per capita consumers out there in the world. Why should others with far less protective enviro regs, safety provisions, labor laws, and health and cultural resource awareness be forced to suffer so we have our goodies? I've heard folks call this environmental imperialism.
Ray Ring
Ray Ring Subscriber
Sep 26, 2012 11:16 AM
One-of-a-kind EIS? Tony Davis, a Tucson journalist and a friend of mine, would like us to know, in the history of countless government agencies doing countless Environmental Impact Statements, he knows of one EIS that decided to take "No Action." It's a super unusual case -- a Texas proposal to build a 4,000-mile $175 billion "Superhighway" system, pushed by Gov. Rick Perry and some of his cronies in that state's highway agencies. It was such a huge boondoggle and bad idea, eventually the political support for it within Texas collapsed, and the lead Texas agency asked the Federal Highway Administration to call it off, so the federal EIS came to the "No Action" conclusion. Anyone who wants more info -- http://www.txdot.gov/business/partnerships/ttc35_feis.htm AND http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Trans-Texas_Corridor AND http://www.txdot.gov/business/partnerships/ttc35_feis.htm AND http://corridornews.blogspo[…]action-alternative-for.html -- Ray Ring, HCN senior editor

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