Arizona Copper Mine Project Blocked by Judge After Decade of Collecting Permits

August 1, 2019 Updated: August 2, 2019

After a decade of collecting government permits, a massive copper mine project in Arizona finally got the green light, only to be blocked by a federal judge.

On July 31, U.S. District Judge James Soto threw out a permit the U.S. Forest Service gave in June 2017 to the Rosemont mining project. He argued the agency “abdicated its duty to protect the Coronado National Forest,” a mountainous area that would be affected by the planned mining operations about 30 miles southeast of Tucson.

The $1.9 billion project has been making its way through the approval process for more than 13 years, engaging 18 government agencies, from federal to local, and garnering more than 1,000 studies and 36,000 public comments.

Hudbay Minerals Inc., a Canadian mining company that acquired the project in 2014, spent more than $100 million on new methods of impact measurement, environmental mitigation, and other measures, all in anticipation of extracting 5.3 billion tons of copper, 142 million tons of molybdenum, and 79 million ounces of silver over the mine’s estimated lifespan of 20 to 25 years. It would provide an estimated 10 percent of the nation’s domestic copper supply.

The project would directly create 500 jobs and pump $16 billion into the local economy over 20 years, the Tucson and Arizona chambers of commerce have said.

But it would also leave behind a pit 3,000 feet deep and 6,000 feet across, displacing about 1.9 billion tons of waste rock and tailings. The waste would be spread on land that includes nearly 2,450 acres of the Coronado National Forest, which is what Soto took issue with.

The Mining Law of 1872 allows people to claim for themselves any federal land where they discover mineral deposits, plus five acres per each lodge or vein claimed as a base for processing and other operations.

The project has claimed for itself land for its facilities and the dumping ground for the waste, too, but Soto said the Forest Service was remiss to accept the claim as valid, referring to documents that indicate no mineral deposits under this land, or at least not in economically viable quantities.

The defendants argued that the Multiple Use Act of 1955 permits not only mining, but also “reasonably incidental mining activities,” the ruling acknowledged. But the judge said that the Mining Law takes precedence and gives the company no right to use federal land as dumping ground.

Thus, the Forest Service was wrong to say that it couldn’t ban the mining, Soto said.

He further argued the agency used a wrong “regulatory framework” to claim it couldn’t ban the project, and thus “misinformed the public” and failed to take “the requisite hard look” at alternative plans.

Hudbay said in an Aug. 1 statement it believes “the Court has misinterpreted federal mining laws and Forest Service regulations as they apply to Rosemont” and that it plans to appeal to the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.

“We are extremely disappointed with the Court’s decision. We strongly believe that the project conforms to federal laws and regulations that have been in place for decades,” said Peter Kukielski, Hudbay’s interim president and chief executive.

Conservation and tribal groups praised the ruling, saying it recognizes that the Forest Service failed to protect public land and resources in mountains that are home to endangered jaguars and cougars, black bears, and deer.

“The judge’s ruling protects important springs and streams from being destroyed,” said Randy Serraglio, a conservation advocate at the Tucson-based Center for Biological Diversity, a plaintiff in one of five lawsuits aggregated into the one before Soto. “We’ll move forward with everything we’ve got to keep protecting this southern Arizona jewel from this toxic mine.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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