Jaguar versus the copper mine

 

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. 

Because 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. 

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. 

The 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.

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