A scarlet "A' for ASARCO?

  A controversial open-pit copper mine proposed for the Santa Rita Mountains of southern Arizona (HCN, 9/1/97) has been put on hold. In a Jan. 21 letter from ASARCO Inc. to the Coronado National Forest, the company blamed low copper prices for the pullout and said the project would be delayed for "at least a couple of years."

ASARCO proposed to develop its mine on 2,800 acres of private land in the Santa Ritas, but also wanted to expand its property in the mountains through a land swap with the Forest Service. The trade would have given ASARCO 13,272 acres of Forest Service land while the agency gained 2,222 acres of company property around Arizona. It would also have eliminated most federal oversight of the mine. But on Jan. 30, Coronado National Forest Supervisor John McGee announced that the land exchange process was officially terminated.

"It doesn't make sense to us to maintain a proposal that's not going to have any work done on it for the next couple of years," says agency project leader Steve Christiansen. But, he adds, "this doesn't mean (the project) is forever dead. It's quite likely that another proposal will come through the door."

The scattered ASARCO properties offered to the Forest Service in the land swap represented part of an agency "wish list," says Aimee Boulanger of the Mineral Policy Center, and included acreage in popular recreation areas like Madera Canyon and the Chiracahua Mountains. Although the properties have little to no mineral value, she says, the company may sell the parcels for development or use them as leverage in another land swap.

Randy Serraglio of the Sonoita, Ariz.-based conservation group Save the Scenic Santa Ritas says vocal community opposition contributed to the company's pullout. "We've proved to ASARCO that it would be a difficult and costly process (to develop this mine)," he says. "This area has a big scarlet letter on it now."

*Michelle Nijhuis

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