As I reported here last month, the mine would occupy 4,750 acres of land in the Coronado National Forest, home to 10 endangered species in one the most biologically diverse areas in the country. Opponents of the mine include the mayor of Tucson and dozens of citizens’ groups.
The Environmental Protection Agency has also raised serious objections, saying the project “would eliminate and/or significantly degrade hundreds of acres of aquatic and riparian resources,” including federal waters and critical springs and wetlands. That Rosemont has made it this far has led critics to argue that the General Mining Law of 1872, which governs hard-rock mining, is woefully outdated and needs to be altered. The law gave anyone with a hard-rock mining claim “the right to mine” regardless of any alternative use of federal land.
Claimants pay a fee of $2.50 to $5 an acre and do not pay royalty taxes on the minerals mined. Randy Serragio of the Center for Biological Diversity, a conservation group, asserts that every attempt to enact significant changes of the law has failed because of campaign contributions to lawmakers from the mining companies. He said Rosemont might be described as “the poster child” for the law because “the potential impacts are so egregious.”
In this bone-dry region of southern Arizona, opponents worry most about the effect on water supplies. Stanley Hart, a geochemist and scientist emeritus at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution who opposes the mine, said he spent six months full time reviewing 3,000 pages of environmental studies on the project. Rosemont “did not come close to proving that it wouldn’t pollute groundwater,” he said. “If the aquifers get screwed up, there’s not enough money in the world to fix it.”
Mining officials say they have pioneered advanced technology to conserve water and to mitigate contamination. Conventional tailings, or the materials that are left over once ore is extracted from the rock, are mixed with water and stored in a slurry. Rosemont will use a “dry-stack” method to store tailings, squeezing out the water and recycling it, a company spokeswoman said. “Our footprint is less than one-third the size of a traditional mine, with one-half of the water use,” Letitia Cornacchia, vice president for investor relations and corporate communications at Augusta Resource, wrote in an e-mail. Dr. Hart counters that Rosemont will be dumping “exactly the same amount of waste rock and tailings as a traditional mine.”
In a legal appeal of one of the mine’s water permits, he testified that the tailings, to be stored at the mining site in perpetuity, are likely to be infiltrated by rainwater and leach toxic elements like arsenic, mercury and lead into the ground and eventually the aquifers. Ms. Cornacchia confirmed that the tailings would contain those substances, but at levels below the regulatory limits.
Rosemont Copper still has hurdles to clear. It needs final approval of its environmental impact statement, which received 25,000 public comments, from the Forest Service, and it faces current and probable court challenges to permits. The only remaining permit the company needs to obtain is the Clean Water Act Section 404 permit, issued by the Army Corps of Engineers. The E.P.A. has the ability to veto the corps decision, however. The proposed mining site, in hills east of the Santa Rita Mountains, was once the stomping ground of the Apache warrior Geronimo.
Jaguars once roamed the hills as well. In the late 1800s, the government made a concerted effort to tame the Wild West by promoting mining, ranching and other industries in the region, which mining officials point out still provide jobs and resources today. Michael Hill, a tribal attorney for the San Carlos Apache tribe, said that a massive copper mine would threaten sites important to several Indian nations and continue a “cycle of destruction” for a fragile ecosystem. “That land is held in trust by the U.S. government for every single American,” he said.