The Forest Service says it cannot stop an open-pit copper mine in the Santa Rita Mountains despite a laundry list of negative impacts, in a document posted on a newspaper Web site, but opponents remain hopeful of stopping the mine.
After four years of study and local opposition, the Coronado National Forest on Wednesday sent a preliminary Draft Environmental Impact Study (DEIS) to other government agencies for their comments. The document, marked "not for public distribution," was posted online by the Arizona Daily Star, which did not explain how it obtained the study.
While outlining many troublesome environmental and economic impacts of the proposed Rosemont Copper mine, the document says the Forest Service "may reasonably regulate mining...but cannot categorically prohibit ore processing or waste disposal...[or] reasonable and legal mineral operations under the mining laws."
Despite the wording of the study, Forest Service spokeswoman Heidi Schewel, said "We're not there yet. A proposed action is not a decision."
Mine critics say a lengthy battle lies ahead, including possible lawsuits, and say that if the Forest Service requires costly measures to mitigate the environmental problems, the mine investors may decide it is unprofitable.
Supporters say they are not surprised with the Forest Service support for mining and are pleased that the agency is moving the project forward.
The mine proposal, controversial through the region, has been a flash point in Green Valley. More than 300 people came to the offices of the Green Valley News & Sun in one week this spring to view competing three-dimensional models of the mine - one prepared by Rosemont, one by Pima County, which opposes the mine.
Many residents fear a mine would destroy the eastern view, bring noise and 24-hour light to the region, and aggravate the problem of a locally dropping water table. Supporters disagree, saying the mine would be on the east side of the mountain range, so it would not face Green Valley. Also, Rosemont has set up a system to reimburse Sahuarita Heights well owners for costs associated with a dropping water table and is seeking to recharge the local aquifer.
Rosemont has promised to spend at least $15 million on a pipeline that would carry Colorado River water to the Community Water Co. of Green Valley (CWC) for recharge. That action was contested by Dick and Nan Walden of the Farmers Investment Co., but CWC won a federal ruling that the pipeline and mine are separate issues.
Dr. Tom Purdon of Green Valley, an opponent, said "This is round one of a 15 round fight" and "we have teams of experts ready to dissect" any formal Forest Service approval for the mine. He also predicted a legal challenge after the DEIS is issued. That could occur as early as January.
Randy Graf, a Rosemont contractor who is not a formal spokesman for the mine, said he was pleased, because the mine would mean jobs, but said he is not surprised, as the mine plan conforms with federal regulations.
Opponent Gayle Hartmann of the Save the Scenic Santa Ritas said "I don't believe this project will ever really begin" if costly mitigation is required in the final EIS. Required archeological excavations could take at least a year and Hartmann thinks the mine's investors will pull out.
Hartmann said she is "pleased to see all the impacts - environmental, cultural, historical - that are listed" in the document.
Both Purdon and Hartmann acknowledged that under the federal Mining Act of 1872, which was intended to spur development in the West, the Forest Service has few legal grounds to stop the mine.
Jamie Sturgess, Senior Vice President of Rosemont's parent company, Augusta Resource, said "This is an appropriate time for the Cooperating Agencies to review the document and provide their comments and questions to the Forest Service, to produce the best document possible."
"After almost four years of study, data analysis, public input, and deliberation with more than a dozen agencies involved, everyone on the Rosemont team is pleased to see the NEPA [environmental] review process moving forward."
The Coronado National Forest is seeking written comments within 30 days, or by July 1, from 17 other government agencies, many of which are critical of the mine. In August, the agency hopes to issue a formal Draft Environmental Impact Study (DEIS) that takes into account the comments of cooperating agencies and some mine opponents are hopeful that the cooperating agency comments will substantially change the Forest's stance.
The public will have 90 days to comment on the DEIS before the Forest issues a Final DEIS, currently scheduled for January.
Schewel said "Analysis is undertaken to identify, in part, mitigations to issues, and to identify alternatives to the [mine-] proposed action that mitigate issues. The alternatives are described in the DEIS that is provided to the public for review and comment. After those comments are considered a decision is made."
Copper mining would mostly be conducted on private land, but Forest Service and other public land would be used for ore processing and the dumping of mine tailings, the dry residue of the mining process.
Critics argue that the mining jobs created over 20 or 25 years would not match the environmental and economic losses, including the water table impacts and the reduction in birding and other forms of tourism.
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