Well owners east of Sahuarita who have had their maintenance and repair bills picked up by Rosemont copper mine for the past decade will have to go it alone, at least for now.
Mine owner HudBay Minerals said in a letter dated Nov. 26 it is suspending its agreement as of Dec. 31, because “we no longer have the Forest Service approvals required to begin mining activities on the federal lands.”
The Rosemont Residential Water Well Protection Plan went into effect Dec. 1, 2009, between Rosemont Copper Co. and 313 families on 144 residential wells in Sahuarita Heights. The agreement remained intact when HudBay bought the mine site in 2014.
The agreement gave the well owners — called the United Sahuarita Well Owners Association — pump insurance; a basic well survey, analysis and preventive maintenance program; and a well repair, deepening and replacement program, all paid for by Rosemont. In turn, well owners couldn’t sue the company if the water table dropped after the proposed mine in the Santa Rita Mountains went into operation.
Hudbay’s vice president of the Arizona Business Unit, Andre Lauzon, said $2.5 million to $3 million has been spent on the well program over the past decade. He said the insurance cost $20,000 per month.
Thomas Perry, who founded the well owners group in 2009, confirmed many residents have had pumps and other equipment replaced under the agreement, which transfers if the property is sold. He said Augusta and HudBay have followed through on the agreement with no issues.
Perry sees the agreement as two-pronged. He said HudBay has the right to suspend the insurance because the company didn’t get the mine permits “in a timely manner.” But he said well protection is a lifetime agreement and the insurance must be reinstated if the permits are ever issued.
“Any mining operation that is going to pursue water is stuck with that agreement,” Perry said. “They can cancel the insurance on the individual wells… but they can’t cancel the master agreement.”
In the letter, Lauzon said the program would be reinstated “if we receive federal authorization in the future.”
Lauzon said the status of 10 monitoring well sites in Sahuarita Heights is unchanged. Perry said residents hosting the sites, which monitor water quality and levels, are paid a modest annual stipend.
The area covered by the well agreement is roughly between Santa Rita Road on the west, Swan Road on the east, Sahuarita Road on the north, and south of Dawson Road. Rosemont has sunk two large wells in that area but they never were put into production.
At the time it was struck in 2009, the resident group’s lawyer, Hugh Holub, called the agreement precedent-setting. He said under Arizona law, existing well owners have no right to a certain depth of groundwater, Rosemont’s well permit did not require a hydrologic impact study, and the company wasn’t required to replenish any water it would withdraw.
Over the past year, the mining company has not taken any water from the area other than when it tested two production wells that have never been put into operation. The mine plan is permitted for three wells.
A senior HudBay official told investment analysts last month that construction could be delayed until 2023 after a July federal court ruling halted work. Lauzon confirmed that projection Tuesday. He also said they have ceased work on a power line to the property.
Lauzon laid out in the letter what he called “an eventful year for the Rosemont Copper Project,” including the July 31 court ruling “that put a stop to all construction activity.” That decision “also vacated the Forest Service’s 2017 Record of Decision and the Final Environmental Impact Statement issued in 2013,” he said.