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New lawsuit challenges federal approval of Rosemont Mine

Four Arizona environmental groups filed a federal lawsuit in U.S. District Court on Monday, challenging a June decision by the U.S. Forest Service allowing the controversial Rosemont open-pit copper mine to move closer to development. 

The lawsuit was filed by Save the Scenic Santa Ritas, the Center for Biological Diversity, Arizona Mining Reform Coalition, and the Sierra Club's Grand Canyon Chapter, and challenges three separate decisions by federal officials that guide how the Rosemont mine would operate in the Santa Rita Mountains about 30 miles southeast of Tucson. 

In the 75-page filing, the environmental quartet argued that the U.S. Forest Service, and Coronado National Forest Supervisor Kerwin Dewberry, had failed to comply with laws guiding how the agency should approve the mine when he signed off on the Record of Decision, including a "failure to comply" with the National Environmental Policy Act and nearly a dozen other laws outlining how mining and mineral extraction can operate on public land. 

The lawsuit seeks an injunction to keep the mine from going forward, as well as costs and expenses, including attorneys’ fees.

In June, Dewberry issued the ROD, fixing his decision on the Barrel Trail Alternative, a plan that will place tailings and waste rock from the mine in the nearby upper Barrel, Trail, and Wasp Canyons, in an effort to "permanently avoid placing mine waste" in McCleary Canyon and reduce problems in Barrel Canyon, he said. 

This was one of six alternative plans that were considered and analyzed by the Forest Service, said Dewberry. 

The plan also includes a decision to amend the 1986 forest plan for the Coronado National Forest by creating a new "forest management area" that will be established in the northeast area of the Santa Rita Mountains and includes the Rosemont Copper Project area, wrote Dewberry. 

"We finally have our day in court before an impartial judge who will consider all the facts and render justice,” said Gayle Hartmann, president of Save the Scenic Santa Ritas. “We are confident that once all of the facts are presented in court, the Rosemont mine will be found to be illegal and not allowed to proceed.”

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Rosemont is owned by Hudbay, a Canadian mining company, which did not respond to a request for comment on the latest suit.

The proposed project includes more than 5,400 acres of combined private lands, National Forest System lands, and areas administered by the Arizona State Land Department. The site will include an open-pit mine, and the associated processing and disposal facilities for the production of copper, molybdenum and silver concentrates, said Dewberry in his June decision.

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.

Environmental groups have challenged the opening of the mine for years, arguing that for the next 30 years, the planned 955-acre open pit mine would disrupt the ecosystem of the surrounding mountains, affecting up to 6,990 acres, including an area enclosed by a security fence, carve outs for a utility line, new forest roads, and rerouted trails.

The Center for Biological Diversity also filed a federal lawsuit against the mine in September, arguing that U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service 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. 

That document led to Dewberry’s decision to sign off on one of two permits needed to begin operating the controversial open-pit copper mine, said the environmental group in September.

According to the plan, more than 661 million tons of ore would be mined from the pit, and more than 1.2 million tons of waste rock will be deposited on public lands near the mine. The pit and waste dumps would “remain as a permanent scar and environmental hazard on public land,” especially on land that’s “critical to the survival and recovery” of the northern jaguar, as well as ocelot, and seven other animals considered endangered, the group said.

"The Rosemont mine would permanently destroy endangered species habitat and pollute some of Arizona’s most important waterways," said Marc Fink, a senior attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity. "The Forest Service should be working to protect rivers, streams and wildlife in the Coronado National Forest, not green-lighting this destructive project." 

In the lawsuit, the groups argued that the mine will disrupt watersheds in the area, consuming up to 4.8 million gallons per day, mostly supplied by groundwater wells in the Santa Cruz valley. Moreover, as the mine actively pumped water, it would gradually disrupt the region’s water system, acting as a “hydraulic sink to the regional aquifer in perpetuity.”

The group estimated that the mine would ultimately use more than 30 billion gallons of water. For comparison, in 2000, the city of Tucson used about 41 billion gallons of water. 

The mine pit would become a “pit lake” that would gradually fill over the next 700 years, holding water that would normally go to the overall aquifer, and making the water “unavailable to supply” for perennial streams, and riparian areas, affecting areas including the Cienega Creek watershed, which the group said was “some of the highest quality stream and wetland ecosystems in Arizona” and both the Las Cienegas National Conservation Area, managed by the Bureau of Land Management, and Davidson Canyon.

The mine would also affect water quality, the group said, noting that the Record of Decision issued by Dewberry, the mine pit lake would also be contaminated with high-levels of heavy metals, including cadmium, mercury, and selenium, known to “bioaccumulate,” or build up in the blood of animals and people.

In the Final Environmental Impact Statement, Dewberry confirmed that the metals would be toxic, leading to contamination, the group called “toxic and lethal to wildlife.”

“Despite this, no mitigation is proposed to prevent these direct and indirect effects from the pit lake to wildlife, especially birds, bats, insects, and the related food chain,” the groups wrote in the lawsuit. This violates the National Environmental Protection Act and the Forest Service’s “duties to ‘minimize adverse environmental impacts on National Forest surface resources’ including water resources, fish and wildlife, and habitat.”

Hudbay Minerals did not respond to a request for comment n the new lawsuit, however, in a earnings report from November 1, the company said that it was “continuing to progress the Rosemont project.”

“Work continues with the U.S. Forest Service on the draft Mine Plan of Operations, which is progressing as planned. The remaining key federal permit outstanding is the Section 404 Water Permit from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers,” the company said. 

"On September 25, 2017, an opponent of the Rosemont project filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and U.S. Forest Service challenging, among other things, the issuance of the Final Record of Decision in respect of Rosemont. This lawsuit is one of many challenges against the Rosemont permitting process and Hudbay is confident the permits will be upheld."

"This mine proposal is the wrong mine, in the wrong place, at the wrong time," said Roger Featherstone, Director of the Arizona Mining Reform Coalition. "Since the Forest Service chooses to protect the mining company’s interests instead of our communities and the environment, we have no choice but to go to court."

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