Stating it had no legal choice, the Coronado National Forest signed a technical document Wednesday approving Toronto-based Hudbay Minerals’ proposed Rosemont open-pit copper mine in the Santa Rita Mountains southeast of Tucson.
The document called a “Record of Decision“, does not clear the way for construction of the $1.9 billion project that would become the third largest open pit copper mine in the United States.
The ROD specifically states that Hudbay must still obtain a federal Clean Water Act permit from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers as well as obtaining final approval from the Forest Service of its Mine Plan of Operations and post a reclamation bond.
The Army Corps has given no timetable on when it expects to issue a decision on the permit that is required under Section 404 of the Clean Water Act. Last July, the Corps’ Los Angeles district office recommended that the permit not be issued because of the mine’s serious negative impact on desert water resources.
CNF Supervisor Kerwin Dewberry signed the ROD and stated that he had no legal choice under the General Mining Act of 1872 and other federal laws requiring him to approve a mining plan that had the least negative impact on the environment. The Forest Service, he states, had no legal right to select a “no action alternative”.
“I cannot select the no action alternative for implementation because Federal law provides the right for a proponent to develop the mineral resources it owns and to use the surface of its unpatented mining claims for mining and processing operations and reasonably incidental uses,” Dewberry’s decision states.
Hudbay Minerals issued a brief statement supporting the Forest Service’s decision and acknowledging it still needed to obtain the Section 404 CWA permit.
“This decision brings us another step closer to being able to build a modern mine that will fulfill the requirements of its permits, create jobs and strengthen the local economy,” said Patrick Merrin, vice president of Hudbay’s Arizona business unit.
Hudbay investors cheered the release of the ROD sending the stock soaring in trading on the New York Stock Exchange on Thursday. The stock rose 12% to close up 57 points at $5.48 a share. A year ago, Hudbay’s shares closed at $4.99.
Mining opponents sharply criticized Dewberry for issuing the ROD prior to the Army Corps’ final decision on the 404 permit.
“The Forest Service’s premature signing of the Rosemont decision document is a waste of taxpayers’ money and is nothing more than a public relations victory for a foreign mining company and its investors,” said Gayle Hartmann, President of Save the Scenic Santa Ritas
“This mine is far from reality – Save the Scenic Santa Ritas (SSSR) will continue to fight it in every relevant arena,” she stated. “The stakes are too high to do otherwise.”
U.S. Rep. Raul Grijalva said in a statement that Forest Service should have waited to sign the ROD until after the Army Corps completed its analysis.
“Instead it pushed out a premature decision that ignores widely understood science on Rosemont’s potential damage to habitats, waterways and land quality,” Grijalva stated. “This was not necessary, it is not helpful, and it will not be the final word on whether this unpopular mine is built.”
“The Forest Service’s announcement is premature to the point of being meaningless,” said Randy Serraglio, conservation advocate with the Center for Biological Diversity. “This fake decision is motivated by politics and corruption. It’s a hollow paperwork maneuver that will certainly be challenged. This huge mine is just too dangerous to get a free pass.”
The proposed mine would blast a mile-wide, 3,000-foot deep pit in the Santa Rita Mountains and bury more than 3,000 acres of public land in more than a billion tons of mine tailings and waste rock. The mine would process about 224 million pounds of copper a year over its approximately 20-year life.
Hudbay has stated that there is additional ore immediately adjacent to the proposed pit that may be economically viable to mine after it completes mining out the pit. Possible expansion of the mine in the future, which could include mining on the west side of the Santa Ritas, was not included in the Forest Service’s Record of Decision.
The Rosemont mine is expected to produce an estimated 5.88 billion pounds of copper, 194 million pounds of molybdenum, and 80 million ounces of silver. This represents approximately 11 percent of U.S. copper production and less than 1 percent of world copper production, based on 2011 statistics, Dewberry wrote in his decision.
The Center for Biological Diversity signaled its intention to sue the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service’s favorable biological opinion on the mine’s impacts to a dozen endangered species claiming the opinion fails to meet legal requirements. Pima County is suing the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality’s certification that the mine will meet state water quality standards.
The Daily Star also reported that although the Forest Service has said it doesn’t believe that groundwater drawn to the mine’s open pit will dry up nearby Davidson Canyon and Cienega Creek, University of Arizona Associate Prof. Jennifer McIntosh wrote the service just last week that a new study found that the Cienega Basin’s groundwater resources “are vulnerable to over-extraction from unregulated groundwater use with resulting depletion of connected surface water resources.”