Hardrock Mining Showdown

  • The Santa Rita Mountains near Tucson, site of the proposed Rosemont mine

    Lanie Levick
  • The pit of the Morenci open-pit copper mine in southeastern Arizona, one of the largest in the world

    Bruce Fulton
  • Reclamation test plots on the proposed Rosemont Mine site, where the University of Arizona is experimenting to see how best to bring back the desert landscape.

    Chris Hinkle
  • Jeff Cornoyer, a mine geologist, shows a group of journalists and citizens the site for the proposed Rosemont Copper Mine in the Santa Rita Mountains southeast of Tucson.

    Chris Hinkle
  • Artist's rendering of the Rosemont Copper Mine in the Santa Rita Mountains southeast of Tucson.

    Tetra tech rendering from Cooper Aerial Surveys image
  • Protesters outside the U.S. Forest Service headquarters in Tucson last February.


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But those Clinton stands were difficult to maintain. When the Bush administration took over, it quickly reversed both and issued new regulations saying that if undue environmental degradation is necessary for a new mine, that's OK. Environmentalists responded with a lawsuit, and things grew even more complicated when U.S. District Judge Henry Kennedy -- a Clinton appointee based in D.C. -- came down on both sides of the issue. Kennedy ruled that Leshy's interpretation of FLPMA was correct, but upheld the Bush regulations on the grounds that the government can prevent undue degradation on a case-by-case basis without having a formal veto power over mining.

The Glamis mine was finally killed indirectly by California's government, which passed a state law and regulations in 2003 requiring that all open-pit mines be backfilled once the minerals are gone. Glamis said that made the mine uneconomical. Still, in another indication of the industry's determination, Glamis filed a claim under the North American Free Trade Agreement, charging that the United States had expropriated its property rights. Last year, a three-person NAFTA Tribunal ruled against Glamis, saying that it found no evidence that state and federal officials had shown a lack of due process.

Today, BLM officials say they can reject a mine proposal that causes "unnecessary or undue degradation." But when companies become worried that will happen, they modify their plans so they're acceptable to the agency. Many environmentalists think that effectively allows a destructive industry far too much leeway. As for the Forest Service's authority -- or lack of authority -- Leshy says, "It is all very murky now."

And so mining opponents have had to modify their own strategy, battling mines from many angles. Nowadays, for instance, they're challenging other Bush regulations that authorized a longstanding practice: Companies often file claims on federal land where they have no plans to mine; they just need a place to dispose of waste rock and tailings. Typically, the feds don't check whether those claims are actually going to be mined; they just see the land as part of the broader mining operation.

Numerous environmental groups, including the local Save the Scenic Santa Ritas and national Earthworks in Washington, D.C., are pushing a lawsuit that would force the Forest Service to conduct validity exams on Rosemont and other proposed mines in Colorado and Nevada. "It's pretty obvious to us that Rosemont doesn't have valid claims on federal land (where it plans to dump tailings)," says Roger Flynn, an attorney with the Western Mining Action Project in Lyons, Colo., which represents environmentalists in the case. "How can they be valuable claims if they are dumping waste on them?"

There are other ways the Rosemont Mine might be stalled or stopped: The company needs an Army Corps of Engineers permit to modify a stream channel, and county and state agencies have to approve various aspects. But all that skirts the fundamental question: Can the feds say no, period?

Rosemont Copper's Cornoyer, 37, is a native Arizonan who has a geological sciences degree from Arizona State University. He begins the tour of the company's properties in the red-brick headquarters of the sprawling Rosemont Ranch -- 30,000 acres, 90 percent of which is leased public grazing land. The company, which bought more than a dozen parcels to assemble the ranch five years ago, says it's another commitment to environmental values: Open space is preserved and cattle are raised without artificial hormones and antibiotics. And some of the grazing rights are around the mine site, so the purchase reduces the chance that local ranchers would oppose mining.
Cornoyer pitches Rosemont's five-point platform, which indicates how far some mining companies will go to win approval these days.

First, he says, Rosemont Copper is a transparent corporate citizen, posting all its reports on its website and creating a $25 million endowment fund to funnel $50,000 annually to community groups, such as the local food bank.

Second, Rosemont will use modern technology to limit the mine's water use. While it would pump up and use as much as 6,000 acre-feet of groundwater a year, it would recharge the groundwater by building a 36-mile-long pipeline to tap the Colorado River water in the Central Arizona Project canal. And it has already bought nearly a decade's supply of river water.

Third, Rosemont plans to start reclaiming the landscape as soon as it starts unearthing copper, molybdenum and silver. A key part of that strategy is the cattle, whose hooves will press grass and shrub seeds into the soil cap on the tailings, increasing the chances of plant growth. Their trampling will also keep down invasive weeds, while the manure will make the soil more fertile.

Fourth, the company will build huge "screening berms" on the mine's eastern edge to hide the pit, the tailings and the "oxide ore heap" from drivers on a nearby scenic highway. As Cornoyer puts it, "We are the first hard-rock mine that used a landscape architect firm."

And fifth, Cornoyer says, Rosemont is a "southern Arizona project designed by your neighbors," with local companies doing the engineering work, the groundwater consulting and the reclamation plan.

On the tour, he adds that the plan also includes a dry stack tailings system, which would not only use less water than a normal tailings pile, but also limit seepage of pollutants into the aquifer. He points to large bare spots on hillsides that have been cleared for test plantings of grass and shrub seedlings for the reclamation, part of a University of Arizona-sponsored project. "We all want this to be a native ecosystem," he says. "It's one thing to have us say, ‘Trust us.' It's another thing to have a UA researcher on the job."

When Cornoyer is asked about opposition to the mine, he responds that the U.S. has the strictest environmental laws in the world, and Arizona has 65 percent of this country's copper. He believes Rosemont's mine would be better for the planet than mining in Chile or the Congo.

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