Plan to build country's third largest copper mine in Arizona sparks controversy

TUCSON, Ariz. -- The San Rita Mountains, nestled in the Coronado National Forest, is home to Juniper trees, a variety of birds and even wildcats like ocelots and jaguars.

But soon, it may also be the site of the third largest copper mine in the country.

The fully-permitted project will excavate a roughly 6,500-foot-wide and 2,900-foot-deep pit, in addition to an on-site facility. Officials at Hudbay, a Toronto-based mining company that plans to develop the mine, say the structure could “fundamentally change mining,” with its dry stack tailing technology to significantly reduce water usage.

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“We've participated in this project for the last 12 years and we've listened to the community and we've changed our designs,” Kathy Arnold, environment director for Hudbay, told Fox News. “We've modified the work that we're going to do and we've used the latest technologies to make sure that we can protect the environment.”

A view of the Santa Rita Mountains off of Highway 83 where the proposed Rosemont Mine site will be built.

A view of the Santa Rita Mountains off of Highway 83 where the proposed Rosemont Mine site will be built. (Ben Brown / Fox News)

But the proposed mine is facing lawsuits and a large wave of opposition.

For more than a decade, environmentalists and local tribes have been pushing back on the development of the mine, arguing it would destroy sacred lands, pollute the region's water supply and have adverse effects on wildlife.

“This is about the sacred nature of this whole ecosystem,” said Steve Brown, a member of the Save the Scenic Santa Ritas (SSSR), an organization suing Hudbay. “You're going to say, ‘well, not my backyard.’ But this is the backyard for the ocelot, for the jaguar, for the mountain lions, for the deer, for everything that holds us together.”

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The $1.9 billion Rosemont Mine project would generate an average of 500 new jobs and inject $16 billion into the local and regional economy, the company said. Copper is huge in Arizona -- the state produces about two-thirds of the country's supply for wiring and electronics, according to the Washington Post. 

"Its impacts,"  Arizona Chamber of Commerce and Industry spokesman Garrick Taylor told the Post, "will be measured in the billions of dollars.”

But Shinsky said the financial boon would come at a heavy cost.

“People come out here to do birdwatching for hiking or camping – all of that will be decimated once this mine goes in,” Shinsky said.

The Pima County Board of Supervisors resolution in late April noted that the proposed jobs at Rosemont are “important but may need to be put in the larger perspective of the region and what has been accomplished in job growth."

Mark Williams is fighting to prevent the mine coming to the Coronado National Forest.

Mark Williams is fighting to prevent the mine coming to the Coronado National Forest. (Ben Brown / Fox News)

Environmental groups point specifically to concerns about the watershed that flows out of the same region as the proposed mine.

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“They laugh at us, Rosemont does, when we say not only will water quantity be robbed but water quality is going to be ignored,” Shinsky said. “They say, ‘Well, that’s 10 miles away’ and we say, ‘yeah it is, but the water will be polluted at the connection of Davidson Canyon and Barrell Canyon and flow 10 miles underground and get here [Cienega Creek] – then it’s headed for the city of Tucson.”

Hudbay argues that given the roughly seven-mile distance from the mine site to Cienega Creek, “impacts that would be direct would be almost impossible.”

“The water is all maintained on site. There is no process water that leaves the system. It's all maintained in ponds tanks and in the process itself. So there is a very small amount of water that goes out to the tailings,” Arnold said. “It's about 15 percent water and that's like a consistency of damp sand. So, it's not running water like you would think. There will be some seepage and we did those calculations but none of the seepage is of a nature that would cause any concern to the groundwater.”

John Lacy, a mining law expert at the University of Arizona, said the pit will mainly be hidden by the mountains and the only thing obstructing the view might be some of the infrastructure.

He noted that one thing that always struck him about the “process itself at Rosemont, is that long before the mine itself was proposed, the property was up for sale and the [Pima] county was given the opportunity to buy the property,” adding “it seems, to me, a little disingenuous of the county to make such an overt objection to the mine.”

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service consulted on the Rosemont mine project in 2013 and in 2016, concluding that "the project may affect (adversely) 13 different threatened/endangered species," and told Fox News via email "the Forest Service through Hudbay committed to conservation efforts that minimize these effects to the point where they will not jeopardize the survival of these species."

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Environmentalists believe Cienega Creek will be contaimnated if the mine is built.

Environmentalists believe Cienega Creek will be contaimnated if the mine is built. (Ben Brown / Fox News)

SSSR and three local tribes filed separate injunctions last week. There are also a handful of other lawsuits in what may be their last hope to stop Hudbay from starting construction on the mine.

“Our next step is to keep on fighting. We have lawsuits, as you know, in progress. We have scientific evidence. We have political events. We've got the tribes talking about their sacred ancestral lands. Combine those three together that makes a pretty good case,” Brown said. “We aren't against mining we aren't against copper. We're against this mine in this place at this time.”

Work on the mine is expected to begin in about a month, and Lauzon hopes the two sides can find common ground moving forward.

“We don't believe it's a choice. We think modern mining is something that enables us to take into consideration from all the different people's viewpoints and, with those considerations, come up with ways that we can co-exist,” he said.