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Rosemont plan approved — but here's why it might not happen fast

Hudbay Minerals said Thursday that it has received the approved Mine Plan of Operations for the proposed Rosemont mine project, the final step in the permitting process.

"Rosemont is now a fully permitted, shovel-ready copper project and we look forward to developing this world-class asset," said Alan Hair, Hudbay's president and chief executive officer, in a press release.

Some call the announcement an opportunity, others insist the battle isn't over.

"We're going to fight this," U.S. Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick, D-Tucson, said hours after the announcement. "It's not that I'm opposed to mining, but I'm opposed to this mine."

Kirkpatrick, whose CD 2 includes the mine site, said she expects litigation "because water's a major problem in the area... (taking) water from the Green Valley aquifer will create irreversible water problems."

The MPO was received from the U.S. Forest Service about two weeks after the project received the Section 404 Water Permit, the final approval necessary to move forward.

Kirkpatrick said she expects the Pascua Yaqui Tribe, Tohono O'odham Nation and the Center for Biological Diversity to file suits to block the decision.

Kirkpatrick said she was disappointed but not surprised that the Mine Plan of Operations was approved.

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She and U.S. Rep. Raul Grijalva are concerned over the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers reversal this month of its earlier recommendation not to recommend a Clean Water Act permit for the mine.

"I'm concerned about why they did that," Kirkpatrick said Thursday, adding that she and Grijalva sent a letter and are awaiting answers. They are also considering calling for a hearing in Washington on the mine, she said.

"I'm concerned about why they did that," Kirkpatrick said Thursday, adding that she and Grijalva sent a letter and are awaiting answers. They are also considering calling for a hearing in Washington on the mine, she said.

Randy Serraglio of the Center for Biological Diversity in Tucson said three lawsuits filed in 2017 and 2018 should be enough to keep work from starting anytime soon on the mine.

The lawsuits have been consolidated into one. One had sought to overturn the U.S. Forest Service's approval; another challenged the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's conclusion that the mine wouldn't hurt endangered species; the third was filed by three tribes claiming the Forest Service violated several federal laws when it issued its Record of Decision.

Serraglio said the weight of that paperwork on a judge's desk could mean filing a formal injunction to delay mine operations isn't necessary, though that decision hasn't been made.

"That active lawsuit could be enough to hold this up," Serraglio said.

He said Hudbay filed court paperwork Thursday saying it would give all parties to the lawsuit 30 days notice before beginning work on the site.

Serraglio agreed with Kirkpatrick that there was "no justification" for the U.S. Army Corps to reverse its 2016 decision opposing the mine.

He said the Corps had looked at the case for five years "and very clearly decided that it was not in the public interest" because it affects water supplies, endangered species and would cause pollution, among other issues.

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"The only thing that's changed is that Donald Trump is president," Serraglio said. "It's pretty clear that this is politically motivated."

Sahuarita sees opportunity

Sahuarita Mayor Tom Murphy said he expects there to be plenty of litigation, but if it goes through, the mine will present economic opportunities for the town.

Murphy, a former longtime school board member, said about one-third of the mine property is in the Sahuarita Unified School District, which would boost land valuations and, ultimately, bonding capacity.

"I don't know how it will be valued, but it could be a benefit to SUSD in the future," Murphy said.

He said there are likely business opportunities for subcontractors in Sahuarita along with permanent jobs.

"From a quality-of-life perspective, I think we will fare well with the workers coming in," he said.

He said Rosemont's two owners have provided scholarships to the school district over the years and that he expects them to be "a good neighbor and partner in what we're trying to accomplish here."

Jobs, challenges

A spokeswoman for Hudbay said officials would have no comment beyond the press release.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers on March 8 signed the final permit needed to clear the way for construction on the proposed mine east of Green Valley and Sahuarita. Approval of the Mine Plan of Operations was the final step, though opponents of the mine, which has been in the works for 12 years, vow a court battle.

The 404 permit allows Hudbay, of Canada, to use Coronado National Forest land to place tailings on about 2,500 acres next to its mine site on the eastern side of the Santa Rita Mountains south of Tucson.

August Resource, the mine's original owner, filed a Mine Plan of Operation in 2007, two years after buying the land. The Coronado National Forest finished a 10-year Environmental Impact Statement in 2017, and produced a Record of Decision on the project.

The project has been contentious from the outset, with detractors concerned over water use, the effects on tourism and the environment, among many other issues. Proponents pointed to jobs and new mining methods that will dramatically cut down on water use. Augusta Resource sold the mine to Hudbay in 2014.

The company touted the economic benefits of what they call "one of the largest construction projects in the history of southern Arizona." According to a press release, the $1.9 billion project will employ up to 2,500 people during the construction phase, with 500 permanent jobs.

On Thursday, a press release from Hudbay called Rosemont "one of the world's best undeveloped copper projects," and is expected to produce about 127,000 metric tons (2,205 pounds per ton) of copper over the first 10 years of operations.

This report was first published by the Green Valley News.

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Green Valley News

An engineer gives a tour at the Rosemont Mine site in 2013.