What the Devil Won't Tell You
Rosemont Mine marches through slings and arrows just when Tucson's aquifer can afford it least
Back in the days of yore, a shallow inland sea receded, exposing the land that would come to be Arizona to the air.
About an hour later, a couple mosasaurs traveled to Washington, D.C. and opened their brief cases (which was a trick because these dinosaurs were long on teeth and flippers but short on opposable thumbs). They pulled out the paperwork their lawyers told them was necessary to secure approval of the Rosemont Mine in the Santa Rita Mountains.
But as so often happened in the Cretaceous Period, the Center for Biological Diversity slammed down a lawsuit just about the time the coast looked clear to start digging for copper.
I’m not saying this mine has been in the news for a while. I’m saying the news industry has sort of grown around it because it’s been around so long.
Trying to get caught up on the mine is like walking in halfway through Godfather Part III and asking “Who’s Al Pacino?”
Continually hobbled and shot through, the mine keeps marching on. First the mining company ASARCO tried to push it through the approval process. It failed and sold to a subsequent owner Augusta. Augusta pushed and prodded regulators, and eventually sold to Hudbay.
So now that the effort to dig up copper in our backyard is popping back into the news, hit with a couple more body blows, a crippling drought has the West fully in its grip. It’s not a bad time to review the bidding and the stakes.
The first 3 letters in 'news'
First the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service pust Bartram’s stonecrop, a pretty blue flower, on the Endangered Species List. It grows in the Santa Ritas where HudBay wants to dig up Rosemont.
Second, the U.S. Forest Service rejected a petition from Hudbay to remove the mine area from the specified range of the endangered jaguar.
Both these happened as the mine is appealing a U.S. district court judge’s ruling that the 1872 Mining Law does not supersede other environmental laws passed since then as the sole governing authority on whether a mine can go forward. The mine wanted to put its piles mining waste on Coronado National Forest land.
Hudbay is now making noises that if they can’t get their property approved on the east side of the Santa Ritas they will carve it out on the west side.
The east side option requires access to federal land for the operation to commence, hence the federal government has the project in its mitts.
The west side option would operate (if Hudbay gets its way) on private land alone and would then be governed by laws passed by the Arizona Legislature.
If there’s one thing every Arizonan can count on, it’s that the Arizona Legislature only has the best interests of the environment in mind.
So the mine just keeps bleeding in a hundred places with some spears sticking out of its ass. But it’s moving forward. That’s possible when Hudbay Minerals Inc. has $300 million in the bank.
The Toronto-based company is run by the North American-Ten-Fingered Mining Executive who is known to be skittish of the light provided by media types like me. Their public relations person was good and professional but Hudbay honchos didn’t get back to me (and there wasn’t even a Maple Leaf’s game on).
But sometimes I honestly think their best response is the truth: “Oh, c’mon, it’s freaking mining, people! We carve out chunks of mountains, take the parent rock and plunge it into a sulphuric acid solution to leach out the metal that makes us rich. And before you tweet, look inside your iPhone and laptop. Flip on a light switch. You’re welcome.”
I’m not unsympathetic to that argument (double negative intended).
As a guy whose first newspaper job was in Globe, I have to admit to having a bit of a soft spot for mines. The thing I have and would urge people to consider is whether it’s smart to offshore our need for copper.
As bad as Arizona’s environmental rules are, they are probably worse in Chile. And maybe proper planetary stewardship requires us to keep the mines where we can see them.
Hudbay predicts it will create 3,000 jobs over 20-year life of the mine and add $525 million into the local economy.
But coming from a mining town years ago, I’ve witnessed mines promise big and then bolt town.
Still, the Metropolitan Tucson Chamber of Commerce supports the mine, along with virtually every other chamber that would seem to have interest in the fight, and an entire Water Resource Management class at the University of Arizona wrote essays supporting it. So, read away.
Cone of Depression
So I get it. We need copper and there's no pretty way to get it out of the ground.
Where we should part ways is when that company wants to dig a mine that punches through a desert aquifer providing water for a million people. I get skeptical in a hurry. I get even more skeptical during the time of climate change and extreme drought.
They actually plan on digging down about 2,000 feet and that will cause a “cone of depression” in the water table leading to a “hydraulic sink.” That’s problematic for the water table serving the Tucson basin at a time when we need to protect every acre-foot of water Phoenix can’t steal.
Lake Mead is nearly a dead pool, with water levels so low it can't reach the sluices to turn the turbines that provide power to places like Southern California and Las Vegas. Rationing may be in our immediate future, with a Lord-of-the-Flies type water war not seen in these parts since before Wyatt Earp.
Tucson can’t afford to screw around with hydrogen elements double-teaming oxygen.
Then there’s Cienega Creek. The Cienega watershed is what serves the La Cienega National Conservation Area, one of the cornerstones of Pima County’s Sonoran Desert Conservation Plan.
Hudbay does have a plan to remediate (lots, actually), which involves putting water into Avra Valley. That’s all good and well but for two things: 1) Don’t talk to me about “future plans” involving CAP water during this drought, when we're on the verge of rationing; and 2) Recharging Avra Valley doesn’t do a whole hell of a lot to recharge anything anywhere near the Santa Ritas. The mine is upstream from Avra Valley, which is almost 50 miles to the north.
That’s like saying a mine will divert Mississippi River water away from Davenport, Iowa, but no worries, they’ll put it back south of St. Louis.
So when I talked to Randy Serraglio of the Center for Biological Diversity and he told me “We can’t just keep digging for copper because it’s there,” I blanched. You don’t dig for copper because it’s there. You dig for copper because it’s there and there’s a need for it.
When he said: “This is the absolute worst place for a mine.” I said I kind of see the point.
Habitat for more then humanity
What’s often lost in talk about the Endangered Species Act is how it actually has little to do with endangered species. That’s how environmentalists have long gotten into trouble. Fights often become about nomenclature.
Would people support halting a mine that will create 2,500 jobs and pump $100 million into the economy to save the bald eagle from extinction? Sure. Would they do it to save the grizzly bear? Probably. The Bartram's stonecrop or the lesser long-nosed bat? Fudgecicle no.
It’s not about the critter. It’s about saving their habitat. I mean, to a degree, it’s about the critter. Each population of flora and fauna builds on one another and something of a collapsing Jenga game ensues when human activity starts making them disappear.
The habitat though, is the key. So we protect the cactus ferruginous pygmy owl and the Pima pineapple cactus to protect rugged but limited desert areas. In the desert, we have basically two kinds of habitat: upland and riparian. One goes high. One goes low.
We are living in the middle of “basin-range” geology of mountains and drainage basins. It’s important that they be kept healthy and don’t get isolated.
Lowering the water table a few hundred feet from under a major riparian wildlife thoroughfare is a good way to disrupt the whole ecosystem. Imagine for a sec that there were no gas stations between Tucson and anywhere else. Now shut the airport down. We’re kind of screwed.
And this is why people move to Tucson. They want this desert. We don’t want the Gobi Desert, Atacama Desert, the Great Victorian Desert, the Mohave Desert or for God's sake the Sahara. We’re not drawn to a spot where a creosote flats are considered an oasis.
But of course, I’m preaching to a choir of like-minded souls. We all live here. We know. And that’s why proposing a mine in the Tucson area is just asking for it.
A funny thing about the mining industry. Typically they find copper in parts of the world where mines already exist. I mean, not always, but we tend to know where precious metals are and are not.
So historically, they’ve been trying to permit mines in parts of the world where the locals have depended on the industry for jobs and … what’s the word …? Oh, “despise” environmentalists trying to stop them.
I can tell you that fighting mines in a place like Globe was akin to the religious right trying to sue to shut down the University of Arizona. It was a non-starter with the people.
While I was there, Congress was debating long overdue reform of the 1872 mining law. It's a relic of a bygone era when when settlement out West required encouragement. It was a sweet deal for the mines, which can take over public land for just $5 per acre without paying royalties to the federal government on what they dig out.
Stop mining reform, the mines said, and the industry would employee generations of Arizonans to come.
So, Congress halted any changes in the mining law. Five years later, the mines were gone. Copper prices fell to $0.64 per pound and the companies that profit from mining pulled up and left for easier ore bodies.
How's about reopening San Manuel and putting those folks back to work now that prices have quadrupled?
The mines are the lifeblood of places like Globe, Miami and San Manuel. The blood's gone cold.
In Tucson? Tucson has Raytheon, the university, call centers and Mattress Firms on every other corner.
We’re good, thanks.
Blake Morlock is an award-winning columnist who worked in daily journalism for nearly 20 years and is the former communications director for the Pima County Democratic Party. Now he’s telling you things that the Devil won’t.