Four conservation groups filed suit in U.S. District Court Monday in Tucson seeking to overturn the U.S. Forest Service’s approval of Toronto-based Hudbay Minerals Inc.’s proposed Rosemont copper mine in the Santa Rita Mountains on the Coronado National Forest 30 miles south of Tucson.
The suit comes two months after the Center for Biological Diversity filed a lawsuit in federal court challenging the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s issuance of a biological report that concluded the mine would not have a significant impact on endangered species including the jaguar.
The report, known as a “biological opinion”, cleared the way for the Coronado National Forest Service to approve the mine earlier this year when it issued a final “record of decision” declaring that mile-wide, half-mile deep open pit mine complied with environmental laws and regulations and should proceed. The newest lawsuit alleges the Forest Service violated numerous state and federal laws when it issue the record of decision.
The $1.9 billion mine is expected to produce about 240 million pounds of copper a year and would employ about 400 permanent workers. The mine would rely on groundwater pumped from wells near the Santa Cruz River west of the Santa Rita Mountains. The entire project is expected to span 30 years.
The mine would dump huge amounts of rock and mine tailings on about 2,500 acres of Coronado National Forest. Another 1,500 acres would be impacted by mine infrastructure and the open pit, which would be dug primarily on private land. More than 5,000 acres would be permanently closed to the public.
The 75-page lawsuit was prepared by attorneys from the Colorado based Western Mining Action Project. The lawsuit alleges the mine would violate nearly a dozen state and federal laws, threaten critical water resources and destroy Coronado National Forest land.
“We finally have our day in court before an impartial judge who will consider all the facts and render justice,” said Gayle Hartmann, president of Save the Scenic Santa Ritas said in joint press release from the coalition. “We are confident that once all of the facts are presented in court, the Rosemont Mine will be found to be illegal and not allowed to proceed.”
The proposed mine site in the Santa Rita Mountains is home to a dozen threatened and endangered species including the jaguar and ocelot.
“The Rosemont Mine would permanently destroy endangered species habitat and pollute some of Arizona’s most important waterways,” said Marc Fink, a senior attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity. “The Forest Service should be working to protect rivers, streams and wildlife in the Coronado National Forest, not greenlighting this destructive project.”
The mountain range is a crucial watershed for southern Arizona and provides significant recharge for the region’s groundwater drinking wells through desert streams that feed into Cienega Creek. The northerly flowing creek is the backbone of the federally-protected Las Cienegas National Conservation Area.
“This mine is being proposed in the heart of important wildlife habitat and an important watershed that feeds several Arizona waters, including Davidson Canyon, an ‘outstanding Arizona water,’ ” said Sandy Bahr, chapter director for Sierra Club’s Grand Canyon (Arizona) Chapter. “Once these waters are degraded and the streams eliminated, the damage is done and irreparable. We need to stop this mine, now.”
The Forest Service declined to comment on the lawsuit. Hudbay has not yet issued a statement it said would be forthcoming. Hudbay’s CEO Alan Hair told stock analysts during a conference call earlier this month that the company expected the lawsuit and is confident the Forest Service’s mining authorization will withstand the legal challenge.
The suit also says the Forest Service is legally wrong in saying that it can’t stop the mine due to a host of laws dating back to the 1872 Mining Act, the Arizona Daily Star reports. The service says those laws essentially provide a right for people and companies to mine resources from federal lands as long as they meet environmental laws and rules.
But the lawsuit says these laws only apply when a mining company shows it has filed valid mining claims to the federal land, the Star reported. Such claims are only valid if the company has shown publicly that it can mine the area’s copper at a profit, which the suit says it hasn’t done.
The lawsuit alleges the mine would violate nearly a dozen federal laws and would have a devastating impact on the environment including:
- Water will infiltrate the open pit as it digs deeper into the northeast face of the Santa Rita Mountains. The pit lake would be pumped or dewatered during the active mining phase and then would act as a hydraulic sink to the regional aquifer in perpetuity.
- The pit lake would reverse the natural direction of groundwater flow toward and into the mine pit eventually becoming 1,200 feet deep. The pit lake would permanently altering the hydrology of the Santa Rita Mountains.
- Dewatering the lake during active mining and evaporation once the lake begins to fill when mining is completed is predicted to severely reduce or eliminate streams within the Cienega Creek Natural Preserve, the Las Cienegas National Conservation Area, Davidson Canyon, and other springs and seeps including designated Outstanding Arizona Waters, as well as local residential wells.
- The mine would use more than 30 billion gallons of southern Arizona water (4.8 million gallons per day). After active mining ends, up to 230 gallons per minute would be lost due to evaporation from the pit lake.
- The pit lake is predicted to be extremely hazardous to wildlife due to the water’s toxicity from chemical pollution and could exceed standards for cadmium, lead, copper, mercury, selenium, and zinc.
- The Arizona Game and Fish Department formally objected to the Forest Service’s approval, stating a contaminated pit lake would violate federal and state wildlife protection laws. The Forest Service failed to require any mitigation for harm to wildlife from contact with the toxic pit lake water including migratory birds.
- Despite not knowing where the smelting or processing of the concentrated copper ore would occur, the Forest Service authorized Hudbay to transport the ore for decades via more than 50 trucks trips per day, seven days a week. Tucson, Douglas, Naco and Nogales are all potential targets for this heavy truck traffic. None of the communities had the opportunity to comment on the proposed traffic nor was a baseline environmental assessment conducted.
Hudbay is awaiting a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ decision on its Clean Water Act Sec. 404 permit for the Rosemont project. The district engineer for the Army Corps of Engineers Los Angeles District recommended denial of the permit in July 2016, which is now under consideration by the division commander in San Francisco.