PATAGONIA – A Canadian company with ties to the company proposing the Rosemont Mine promises nearly 300 permanent, mostly high-paying jobs at a mine that would take silver and other metals from the hills southeast of Patagonia.
The Hardshell property in the Patagonia Mountains could bring Wildcat Silver Corp. $99 million annually in profits if it gets state and federal approvals and once it spends $337 million to build the project, company documents show.
But plans for a combined open-pit and underground mine, now in their early stages, are stirring fears among many residents that their tourist town’s way of life will disappear.
Barely three times as many people live in the town today as would work at the mine. Today, the town has a two-block business district, a hotel, a bar, five restaurants and five or six art galleries and antique shops.
Opponents are concerned about trucks, water use, blasting noise and land disturbance connected with the mine. More than 50 opponents turned out at a meeting at the town’s senior center Wednesday night.
“It will kill the town as we know it,” Gini Thatcher Hengen said at the meeting. Hengen and her husband have run a fine-arts gallery in Patagonia for six years.
“The water, the environment, the ecotourism that the state talks about, that will kill it,” she said. “I’ve already heard customers say that ‘we won’t come back here if we have to fight mining trucks.’ “
Chris Jones, Wildcat Silver’s president and CEO, said it’s understandable for people to be concerned about things they don’t know much about.
“Our first position is to make sure we educate folks as we develop our plans,” Jones said. “As we encounter areas that are sensitive we’ve asked residents who feel strongly to work with us to solve those issues jointly.”
Wildcat Silver is working on a feasibility study that will lead to submission of an operating plan for the mine to the U.S. Forest Service.
Each year for 18 years, the mine would take 4.1 million ounces of silver, about 256,000 tons of a manganese compound, about 22,200 tons of zinc and about 1,050 tons of copper.
The company would dig a 600-foot-deep open pit, and go at least 1,800 feet underground to mine what’s too deep to be gathered in the pit.
Wildcat Silver has been exploring since 2006. But It could be years before the Vancouver, B.C.-based company can begin mining on land it owns along a dirt road at elevations of up to 6,200 feet. The site lies six miles southeast of Patagonia and about 50 miles southeast of Tucson.
Jones said it could be two years before Wildcat Silver presents a formal plan to the Forest Service to mine 150 acres of private land and, “potentially,” put waste rock and tailings on up to 2,800 acres of surrounding national forest.
Yet it’s clear that this project poses similar issues to those being discussed for the proposed, billion-dollar Rosemont Mine in the Santa Rita Mountains closer to Tucson:
• Water. Hardshell would use 720,000 gallons of groundwater daily. That’s more than a third of what the entire town of Patagonia used last November and more than a fifth of what the town used last July. Much of the mine water would be recycled, but Jones said he doesn’t know now how much.
• Traffic. Four to eight heavy trucks, possibly weighing 40 tons, would be driving up and down the narrow, winding Harshaw Road each hour to get to and from the mine site. Harshaw is paved for 6.2 miles outside of Patagonia and is a dirt road for the remaining three miles to the mine site.
Jesus Valdez, Santa Cruz County’s interim public-works director, said that much truck traffic could require the mining company to upgrade the road.
Without knowing exactly how many trucks would use the site, it is hard to predict today what the traffic impacts would be, Jones said.
• Chemical use. The company would use a sodium cyanide compound to leach silver out of the ore, and a combination of sulfuric acid and sulfur dioxide gases to leach out the other metals. Jones said there is no danger of leaks because the leaching would take place inside tanks, but residents are concerned about the prospect of these materials’ being trucked to the site through the town and the forest.
At Wednesday night’s meeting, a leader of the opposition, Odell Borg, said he wouldn’t want to continue his High Spirits Flutes flute-making business off Harshaw Road if the mine is approved. But he said he doesn’t see this as a “gloom and doom” issue – “I think this thing is very positive. We can stop that mine,” he said.
Pulitzer Prize-winning author Philip Caputo, a part-time Pata-gonia resident, said in an interview after the meeting that the project involves “appalling exploitation” of a local resource by a foreign company.
“They exploit the resources and what do they put back in? Nothing,” said Caputo, adding, “If this kind of thing produced real, good-paying jobs for people living here, my opposition might be muted.”
Wildcat Silver’s Jones said the company’s goal is to hire locally when possible and it’s willing to train people. But hiring almost 300 people strictly from a town of 900 may not be very practical, said Jones, adding that officials plan on hiring mainly from surrounding cities such as Tucson, Sierra Vista and Nogales.
As for neighbors’ environmental concerns, Jones said the company will first estimate the impacts in its feasibility study, then work with the community to address their concerns when possible, and integrate their concerns into the project’s design.
Wildcat Silver’s board of directors contains four members associated with Augusta Resource Corp., the Vancouver, B.C.-owner of the Rosemont mine site. Among them are Augusta CEO Gil Clausen and Richard Warke, chairman of Augusta’s and Wildcat Silver’s boards. Rosemont Copper Co., which would build the Rosemont Mine in the Santa Rita Mountains southeast of Tucson, is Augusta’s Arizona subsidiary.