The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recently notified the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers that Toronto-based Hudbay Minerals’ environmental mitigation plan for the proposed $1.9 billion Rosemont Copper Mine fails to address its impacts to southern Arizona’s water resources and fails to meet regulatory requirements under the Clean Water Act.
Hudbay’s 859-page mitigation plan is its latest attempt to salvage efforts to obtain a Section 404 Clean Water Act permit from the Army Corps. The 404 permit is the last major permit needed before construction could begin on what would be the third largest open pit copper mine in the United States.
The EPA’s 77-page assessment puts significant pressure on the Army Corps to reject the permit, which is under review by Army Corps’ San Francisco regional office. The EPA has veto authority over Corps permitting for Section 404 Clean Water Act permits.
The Army Corps’ Los Angeles district office recommended against issuing the 404 permit in July 2016 because of shortfalls in a previous version of Hudbay’s mitigation plan. The district determined the project would “cause or contribute to” violations of Arizona water quality standards and trigger “significant degradation” of federally regulated washes, the Arizona Daily Star reported on Jan. 14, 2017. The Army Corps notified Hudbay of the shortfalls in a Dec. 28, 2016, letter.
Hudbay responded by issuing an updated mitigation plan in Sept. 2017. The EPA’s latest comments are based on Hudbay’s most recent proposal.
“Our review of the (Final Habitat Mitigation and Monitoring Plan) affirms our position that the mitigation does not comply with EPA’s 404(b)1 Guidelines and the requirements of the Mitigation Rule,” the EPA states in Nov. 30, 2017 comments submitted to the Army Corps. “The HMMP proposed by Rosemont fails to offset the proposed mine’s impacts to aquatic resources in the Cienega Creek Watershed.”
The EPA’s latest comment to the Army Corps continues its longstanding opposition to the Rosemont Mine because of the widespread environmental damage the project would inflict on desert washes and streams that provide crucial wildlife habitat and contribute a significant portion of Tucson’s groundwater drinking supplies replenished by the Cienega Creek watershed.
“By any measure, the Cienega Creek watershed supports some of the most exceptional and unimpaired aquatic ecosystems remaining in the American Southwest; as a result of the (mine) project, this watershed will experience significant, permanent, unmitigated impacts to its aquatic environment,” the EPA commented.
“The mine will irreparably undo decades of public efforts to protect drinking-water supplies, biological resources and sensitive aquatic ecosystems within the Cienega Creek watershed,” the EPA states. “A crucial factor in our determination that the mine will result in significant degradation of the aquatic ecosystem is the lack of meaningful mitigation being proposed within the Cienega Creek watershed.”
The EPA’s latest comments come after the agency has repeatedly criticized previous mitigation plans offer by Hudbay and the previous owner of the Rosemont project, Augusta Resource Corp. Hudbay acquired Augusta in July 2014. The EPA has sent comments to the Army Corps opposing the Rosemont project on Jan. 5, 2012, Jan. 25, 2013, March 12, 2013, Nov. 7, 2013, to the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality on April 7, 2014, and to the Coronado National Forest on Feb. 21, 2012.
The Clean Water Act requires entities that destroy federally protected waters to provide adequate compensation to mitigate the damage. The EPA sharply criticized the Hudbay’s latest mitigation plan by focussing on the company’s proposal to enhance a riparian corridor along Sonoita Creek about 12 miles south of the mine site to obtain mitigation credits.
“The most serious underlying flaw with the (Habitat Mitigation and Monitoring Plan) assessment of functions for the determination of mitigation credits is that it contains no qualitative functional assessment of waters at (Sonoita Creek Ranch), or the Rosemont Mine impact site,” EPA states.
Hudbay assert that its plan, centering on a ranch in Santa Cruz County, will not only meet federal requirements for mitigation of environmental impacts, it will showcase how to do restoration work on arid land waterways, according to a Jan. 8 article in the Arizona Daily Star.
The EPA’s assessment comes after Pima County, the Tohono O’odham Nation, an internationally recognized hydrology expert, and a conservation group have sharply criticized Hudbay’s mitigation plan.
G. Mathias Kondolf, a University of California Professor of Environmental Planning and an internationally-known expert on hydrology and river restoration, issued a December 2017 report concluding Hudbay’s mitigation plan is based on a misleading scientific analysis and fails to offset for the loss of desert aquatic resources that would be destroyed by the mine. Kondolf has served as a consultant for the EPA on the Rosemont project.
In December, SSSR asked the Army Corps to prepare a supplemental environmental impact statement (SEIS) for Hudbay’s latest mitigation plan. SSSR’s request was included in a Dec. 11 letter sent to Brig. General D. Peter Helmlinger, Commander of the South Pacific Division of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
The last time the public had an opportunity to review and comment on a Rosemont related mitigation plan was 2011, SSSR stated. At that time, the public reviewed a 6-page conceptual plan prepared by the mine’s owners.
In December, Pima County warned state and federal environmental regulators that Hudbay’s application for a Clean Water Act permit violates federal law because it fails to describe the actual mitigation the company is planning.
In letters to the U.S Army Corps of Engineers and the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality, Pima County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry states that Hudbay’s new plans to make major modifications to Sonoita Creek require public notice and an opportunity to comment.
“The Corps must issue a new public notice because the current (Clean Water Act) application does not properly describe the mitigation activities proposed,” Huckelberry writes.
In November, the Tohono O’odham Nation asked the Army Corps to engage in “government-to-government” consultations with the tribe before deciding whether to issue the 404 permit.
“The Corps must consult with the Nation regarding its ongoing review of the permit, including all the reasons articulated in the (Corps’) Los Angeles District’s decision recommending denial of the permit,” attorneys for Earthjustice, which is representing the Nation, stated in a detailed 42-page letter.
Hudbay wants to build the mile-wide, half-mile deep open pit mine on the northeast flank of the Santa Rita Mountains on the Coronado National Forest southeast of Tucson. The mine would dump waste rock and mine tailings on more than 2,500 acres of the national forest and destroy more than 40 acres of desert aquatic resources regulated by the Army Corps and indirectly impact an additional 20 acres. The Forest Service predicts that water quality standards would be violated and the project’s dewatering of the surrounding aquifer will severely degrade and even eliminate streams supporting increasingly rare desert riparian areas including those in the Las Cienega National Conservation Area.
The project will ultimately create a “pit lake” as water flows into the pit after pumping is stopped at the conclusion of mining operations. It is predicted that the water in the pit lake will violate water quality standards for mercury, cadmium and other toxic contaminants, and will result in perpetual evaporation and loss of billions of gallons of water.
The Rosemont Mine is projected to produce about 240 million pounds of copper annually during its approximate 20-year life. Hudbay has purportedly found additional copper resources nearby that lie to the north and west of the Rosemont site, although the Forest Service EIS refused to consider these prospects.