TUCSON, Ariz.— Four conservation groups filed suit in federal court today to overturn the U.S. Forest Service’s approval of a controversial open-pit copper mine in southern Arizona’s Santa Rita Mountains. The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court, says the massive Rosemont Mine would violate nearly a dozen state and federal laws, threaten critical water resources and destroy Coronado National Forest land. The lawsuit was filed by Save the Scenic Santa Ritas, the Center for Biological Diversity, the Arizona Mining Reform Coalition, and the Sierra Club’s Grand Canyon Chapter.
“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.”
Hudbay Minerals, Rosemont’s Canadian owner, wants to blast a mile-wide, half-mile-deep pit in the Santa Rita Mountains and pile potentially toxic mine tailings and waste rock hundreds of feet high in the Cienega Creek watershed, which replenishes Tucson’s groundwater basin. More than 5,000 acres would be harmed by the mine, including nearly 4,000 acres of public land that would be covered by the mine’s waste dumps, open pit, processing plant, and infrastructure. The pit and waste dumps would remain as a permanent scar and environmental hazard on public land. The mine also would destroy prime jaguar habitat, land that’s critical to the survival and recovery of jaguars in the United States.
Earlier this year the Forest Service approved the “record of decision” for the Rosemont Mine, declaring that the project complies with environmental laws and regulations and should proceed. The decision authorizes Rosemont to build and operate the mine for its projected life of 30 years.
“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 greenlighting this destructive project.”
Today’s lawsuit urges the court to overturn the Forest Service’s approval of the Rosemont Mine and prevent the project from proceeding.
“This mine is being proposed in the heart of important wildlife habitat and an important watershed that feeds several Arizona waters, including Davidson Canyon, an ‘outstanding Arizona water,’ ” said Sandy Bahr, chapter director for Sierra Club’s Grand Canyon (Arizona) Chapter. “Arizona’s waters and wildlife are too precious to risk for the short-term profits of a foreign mining company, especially as the consequences will last for centuries. Once these waters are degraded and the streams eliminated, the damage is done and irreparable. We need to stop this mine, now.”
“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.”
The suit spells out the devastating illegal impacts that will be caused by the proposed Rosemont Mine, including:
- The mine pit would be pumped or dewatered during the active mining phase and then would act as a hydraulic sink to the regional aquifer in perpetuity. The mine would reverse the natural direction of groundwater flow toward and into the mine pit, forming a lake in the pit more than 1,200 feet deep, permanently altering the hydrology of the Santa Rita Mountains. The mine’s dewatering is predicted to severely reduce or eliminate streams within the Cienega Creek Natural Preserve, the Las Cienegas National Conservation Area, Davidson Canyon, and other springs and seeps including designated Outstanding Arizona Waters, as well as local residential wells.
- The mine would use more than 30 billion gallons of precious southern Arizona water (4.8 million gallons per day). After active mining ends, up to 230 gallons per minute would be lost due to evaporation from the pit lake.
- The Forest Service approval of the Rosemont Mine would allow for the creation of the mine pit lake after active mining ends. This pit lake is predicted to be extremely hazardous to wildlife due to the toxicity of pit lake water resulting from chemical pollution and the physical disturbance of naturally occurring substances. According to the environmental impact statement, “the mine pit lake water quality could exceed standards for cadmium, lead, copper, mercury, selenium, and zinc,” among other pollutants. The Arizona Game and Fish Department formally objected to the Forest Service’s approval, stating that the contaminated pit lake would violate federal and state wildlife protection laws. The Forest Service failed to require any mitigation for harm to wildlife from contact with the toxic pit lake water.
- Despite not knowing where the smelting or processing of the concentrated copper ore would occur, the Forest Service authorized Hudbay to transport the ore for decades via more than 50 trucks trips per day, seven days a week. Tucson, Douglas, Naco and Nogales are all potential targets for this heavy truck traffic.
Rosemont is awaiting a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ decision on its Clean Water Act Sec. 404 permit for the project. The district engineer for the Army Corps of Engineers Los Angeles District recommended denial of the permit, which is now under consideration by the division commander.
The mine also faces another lawsuit filed in September by the Center for Biological Diversity that challenges the “biological opinion” prepared by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which led to the approval of the Rosemont Mine by the Forest Service in June.
Save the Scenic Santa Ritas is a nonprofit organization working to protect the Santa Rita and Patagonia Mountains from environmental degradation caused by mining and mineral exploration activities.
The Center for Biological Diversity is a national, nonprofit conservation organization with more than 1.5 million members and online activists dedicated to the protection of endangered species and wild places.
Founded in 1892, the Sierra Club is a national nonprofit environmental organization with approximately 2.7 million members and supporters, including more than 60,000 in Arizona. Sierra Club’s mission is “to explore, enjoy, and protect the wild places of the earth; to practice and promote the responsible use of the earth’s ecosystems and resources; and to educate and enlist humanity to protect and restore the quality of the natural and human environment.
The Arizona Mining Reform Coalition represents 16 local, regional, and national organizations working in Arizona to improve state and federal laws, rules, and regulations governing hard rock mining to protect communities and the environment. We work to hold mining operations to the highest environmental and social standards to provide for the long term environmental, cultural, and economic health of Arizona.
The groups are represented by the Western Mining Action Project, a public interest law firm specializing in litigation on mining issues in the Western states.
[Editor’s Note: Today’s filing can be downloaded here.]