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Enviro suit: Rosemont Mine would destroy jaguar habitat

The Tucson-based Center for Biological Diversity filed suit against the Trump administration on Monday, charging that officials violated federal rules when considering the environmental effects of an open-pit copper mine in the Santa Rita Mountains about 30 miles southeast of Tucson. 

In a 32-page filing in U.S. District Court, the Center for Biological Diversity sued the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, arguing that the federal agency failed to comply with both the Endangered Species Act and the Administrative Procedure Act when officials issued a "Biological Opinion," outlining the potential effects the 955-acre open pit mine would have on more than a dozen species, including the elusive northern jaguar. 

This document led to a decision in June by the U.S. Forest Service to sign off on one of two permits needed to begin operating the controversial open-pit copper mine, said the environmental group. 

In June, Coronado National Forest Supervisor Kerwin Dewberry announced he had agreed to a plan to place tailings and waste rock from the mine in three nearby canyons, in an effort to avoid placing mine waste in two other canyons. 

Owned by Hudbay, a Canadian mining company, 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, wrote Dewberry. 

This could represent approximately 11 percent of U.S. copper production and less than 1 percent of world copper production, based on 2011 statistics, he wrote. 

Hudbay officials have yet to respond to requests for comment regarding the lawsuit. 

However, environmentalists have long challenged the project, arguing that the mine and its surrounding infrastructure would harm nearby species, and that the mine would consume millions of gallons of fresh water and pollute nearby watersheds. 

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The center also said that officials at the Forest Service unlawfully relied on the "Biological Opinion" issued by FWS because the agency redefined regulations outlining the destructive of habit and unlawfully revised the designation of critical habitat for the jaguar. 

In August, environmental groups, including the Center for Biological Diversity, Save the Scenic Santa Ritas, Arizona Mining Reform Coalition, and the Grand Canyon Chapter of the Sierra Club sent a letter to federal officials that they intended to challenge the Forest Service’s approval of the proposed Rosemont Mine.

The Rosemont Mine would "significantly impact a number of endangered species and their remaining habitat, including one of the three known wild jaguars in the United States," said the center. 

The mine's footprint lies "squarely in jaguar critical habitat" important for the survival and recovery of jaguars in the United States, the Center said, cutting through the home territory of "El Jefe," one of three jaguars spotted in Arizona's mountain, the center said.

Earlier this month, the center released video showing "Sombra," another jaguar in the Chiricahua Mountains, the third big cat spotted in the state since 2012. 

In the lawsuit, the center said that the mine would affect 5,431 acres of land in the Coronado National Forest, including hundreds of acres used as a "dumping site" for more than a billion tons of waste rock and tailings facilities. Approved by the Forest Service, the Rosemont Mine would also include hundreds of acres of fencing that would present a "permanent barrier to wildlife movement." 

"The Rosemont Mine would turn thousands of acres of the Coronado National Forest into a wasteland," wrote Marc Fink, an attorney for the group. "Even though the agencies found it would permanently damage endangered species and precious groundwater resources, they’re letting the mine proceed," he said. 

"Wildlife officials should be focused on jaguar recovery, not green-lighting a massive mine that will destroy the animals’ habitat and suck the Santa Ritas dry," Fink said. 

The mine would not only harm the jaguar, but also the endangered ocelot, and "severely downgrade" habit for more than a dozen endangered species, including the Gila chub and Chiricahua leopard frog, the group said. 

In the lawsuit, the Center said that the Rosemont Mine would consume up to 4.8 million gallons of fresh water per day, much of it supplied by wells in the Santa Cruz Valley, affecting the water supplies of Sahuarita and Green Valley, the center said. 

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Additionally, the open-pit mine would become a 3,000-foot deep "sink," that would capture rainwater. This could dry out wetlands and Cienega Creek, a watershed that provides up to 20 percent of the annual natural recharge for Tucson's groundwater basin, a "vital resource that could be polluted and significantly diminished by the mine," said the center. 

"The mine is so destructive it would permanently reverse the natural direction of groundwater flow," Fink said. "It would degrade sensitive habitat in areas that should be set aside for the protection of endangered species, including the Las Cienegas National Conservation Area and the Cienega Creek Natural Preserve." 

The Tucson group called the creek's watershed some of the "highest-quality stream and wetland ecosystems in Southern Arizona" and said that the mine's construction would "destroy approximately 18 miles of streams and cause the permanent drawdown of groundwater that sustains hundreds of acres of springs, seeps, streams and wetlands." 

The lawsuit asks a federal judge to declare that FWS and USFS violated both federal laws, and seeks an injunction halting the proposed mine until it comes into compliance with the Endangered Species Act and the Administrative Procedures Act. The lawsuit also asks the court to cover the center's expenses and fees under the Endangered Species Act. 

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Center for Biological Diversity

A still frame from the jaguar video released Thursday.