Despite two years of regular meetings and discussions between Rosemont Copper Company and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Rosemont has yet to submit a mitigation plan that meets federal requirements, the Corps stated in a Feb. 28 letter to the company.
As a result, Rosemont is facing an April 1 deadline to submit a suitable mitigation plan to the Corps that is necessary before the Corps can issue a Section 404 Clean Water Act permit the company needs to construct the proposed Rosemont open-pit copper mine.
The Corps stated that Rosemont has failed to provide a plan that focuses on restoration and enhancement of watersheds to compensate for the destruction of about 70 acres of wetlands that will occur by the proposed massive open pit mine that will destroy more than 3,000 acres of Coronado National Forest (CNF).
Rosemont President & CEO Rod Pace said the company disagrees with the Corps statements about the lack of restoration lands in its proposal, according to an Arizona Daily Star March 22 story. The company declined to provide specifics in response to a question from the Star.
“To the extent that it may be based on a misunderstanding of the proposals, we will continue working closely with…corps staff to provide the necessary clarification,” Pace wrote in a letter to the Army Corps that was obtained by the Daily Star. “In addition, we want to assure you that we are fully aware of the need to provide adequate “restoration/enhancement” in the mitigation plan.
Rosemont must receive the Section 404 Clean Water Act permit from the Army Corps to construct the mine planned for the northeastern slope of the Santa Rita Mountains on the CNF southeast of Tucson. Rosemont is a subsidiary of Vancouver, B.C.-based Augusta Resource Corporation.
The lack of apparent progress in Rosemont’s mitigation plan comes at the same time the U.S. Supreme Court denied the coal mining industry’s request to hear a case against the Environmental Protection Agency for vetoing part of a Section 404 permit for one of the largest and most harmful mountaintop removal coal mines in West Virginia’s history, the Spruce No. 1 mine.
By declining to take the case, the Supreme Court left in place the lower court’s ruling that EPA has full authority to protect clean water whenever necessary to prevent unacceptable environmental harm.
The EPA has repeatedly expressed its serious concern over the Rosemont copper project and urged the Corps in a Nov. 7 letter to reject Rosemont’s 404 permit application.
Pima County is also strongly opposing the Rosemont’s plan to mitigate damage to more than 100 miles of streams, washes and springs within the Cienega Creek watershed caused by the proposed Rosemont open-pit copper mine that will directly impact 5,431 acres of land.
The watershed includes the Las Cienegas National Conservation Area’s rare, shallow Sonoran Desert aquifer bisected by Cienega Creek that is under the control of the U.S. Bureau of Land Management. The conservation area is directly east of the proposed mine site.
Corps District Engineer Col. Kimberly Colloton emphasized in the Feb. 28 letter to Rosemont “the urgency and importance of Rosemont developing” a mitigation plan that meets federal requirements.
“It is imperative Rosemont focus restoration/enhancement of WUS (Waters of the United States) to offset the direct loss of 40 acres of WUS,” Colloton wrote.
But so far, Colloton stated, “Rosemont has continued to present mitigation plans which provide more acres of upland and riparian preservation, with some enhancement, than acres of actual restoration/enhancement of WUS.”
Colloton requested that Rosemont “submit a detailed compensatory mitigation plan” by April 1. Colloton said the information will be used to determine whether “adequate compensatory mitigation exists to offset the unavoidable impacts to WUS.”
Colloton stated the Corps plans to notify the CNF of its assessment by April 16. The CNF is in the final stages of determining whether to issue a Final Record of Decision approving construction of the mine.
The Corps’ April 1 deadline and its pending decision on mitigation comes as Augusta is repeatedly issuing written statements claiming the Corps will issue the crucial permit by the end of June. Augusta is attempting to fend off a hostile takeover bid from HudBay Mineral Resources. HudBay has stated that Augusta is unlikely to obtain all the permits needed to begin construction as quickly as Augusta is claiming.
“With the conclusion of the permitting process, which is on track for the second quarter this year, we are on the verge of a significant value-creating milestone,” Augusta President and CEO Gil Clausen stated in a March 28 press release.
Augusta’s repeated assurance to investors that the Corps permit is imminent comes despite the Corps concerns and the fact that the primary component of Rosemont’s proposed mitigation plan is no longer under consideration.
The centerpiece of Rosemont’s mitigation plan was to buy more than 1,122 acre-feet of water rights to Cienega Creek from the owners of a golf course. The water connected to the water rights is now diverted to the golf course but could stay in Cienega Creek if the rights were turned over to Pima County.
The county, however, determined that Rosemont’s proposal to acquire the water rights to improve the riparian ecosystem in Cienega Creek downstream from Pantano Dam “is not as advertised.” Instead, the county estimates the actual amount of water available to Rosemont under its proposal is “no more than 360 acre feet per year and declining.”
“This element of the Rosemont mitigation proposal fails because it cannot be relied upon to produce the necessary mitigation credits due to an unpredictable and insufficient long-term water supply,” Pima County Manager Chuck Huckelberry stated in a Dec. 30 letter to Colloton.
Two additional mitigation measures offered by Rosemont also fail to meet the Corps mitigation standards, Huckelberry stated. Rosemont has proposed purchasing the Sonoita Creek Ranch south of the Santa Rita Mountains and properties within Davidson Canyon.
The Sonoita Creek Ranch proposal fails to adequately compensate for damage to waters of the United States, Huckelberry states, because it lies outside the Cienega Creek basin that will be directly impacted by the mine. “Therefore, the Sonoita Creek Ranch should be completely discounted in providing mitigation for the Rosemont impacts,” Huckelberry wrote.
The Davidson Canyon preservation element of Rosemont’s mitigation plan, the county states, consists of acquiring small, isolated parcels within the Cienega Basin watershed, that “will provide little overall mitigation,” Huckelberry stated. Davidson Canyon, Huckelberry noted, provides “high-quality water” to Cienega Creek and “ultimately Tucson, via springs and groundwater underflows.”
“In summary, all three mitigation strategies are less than adequate compensation,” Huckelberry stated.
Pima County, Huckelberry wrote, shares “many of the same concerns over the mitigation proposal” expressed by EPA in a Nov. 7 letter to the Army Corps.
“Among the many concerns raised by EPA was the fact that Rosemont must demonstrate clear compliance with the Clean Water Act, and neither the EIS (Draft Environmental Impact Statement) nor the scant mitigation proposal contained in the Final Environmental Impact Statement demonstrate such compliance.
“They failed to quantify certain upstream and downstream impacts and underestimated impacts to groundwater-supported ephemeral and intermittent streams and springs,” Huckleberry stated.
The mine would cause “long-term and continuing adverse and indirect impacts” due to the loss of surface water flows and the “interception of groundwater subflows by the mine pit,” Huckelberry wrote.