Bookmark and Share

Clearing begins for big mine in Santa Rita Mtns.

TONY DAVIS

Arizona Daily Star

Hudbay Minerals has started grading and clearing land on the Santa Rita Mountains' west slope for its major Copper World Mine project.

For now, the company's work is aimed at building facilities to store and dispose of waste rock and tailings, to house what will eventually be up to 64 million tons of mine waste.

Ultimately, the company plans to build a major mining operation there, accommodating up to five open pits, a processing plant and a heap leach pad, along with settling and stormwater ponds.

The company told Pima County flood control officials on April 12 that it was going to start clearing and grading that day. It has confirmed to the Star it's working in that area now.

Environmental groups and three Arizona tribes have said this work violates the federal Clean Water Act and called on federal agencies to stop the

Hudbay Minerals has excavated land and has cleared vegetation on the west slope of the Santa Rita Mountains south of Tucson to build waste rock and tailings disposal areas for its new Copper World Mine project.

CENTER FOR BIOLOGICAL DIVERSITY

construction work. Hudbay said the federal government has no legal authority over the site. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and Environmental Protection Agency have declined to halt Hudbay's work.

The company's Copper World work is occurring on private, Hudbay-owned land, unlike the proposed, long-delayed Rosemont Mine the company wants to build on the Santa Ritas' east slope where waste rock and tailings sites would be on U.S. Forest Service land. That frees Copper World from many of the federal regulations that have put the brakes on Rosemont.

But because of the presence of numerous ephemeral washes on the Copper World site, legal challenges to Hudbay's work have arisen. Ephemeral streams and washes carry water only after heavy rains.

Attorneys representing four environmental groups and three tribes have in the past three weeks filed separate notices with federal agencies that they intend to sue to block this activity. They argue the company's activity in discharging dredge and fill material into various washes on the site southeast of Tucson violates the Clean Water Act.

But under federal law, the groups and tribes can't file lawsuits for 60 days after filing the notices.

In a statement, Hudbay told the Star that the federal government has never designated any of the washes on its Copper World site as 'Waters of the U.S.' That's the formal, legal threshold that the Army Corps of Engineers uses to determine if washes and other water courses are significant enough to merit federal regulation and other oversight.

'Hudbay has all approvals required for this initial site preparation work on Rosemont's private property. As always, Hudbay will take great care to ensure that we minimize disturbances to the environment and comply with all federal, state and local requirements,' H u dbay's statement said.

The tribes and environmentalists have noted some of this clearing work has occurred or will occur in and around washes for which the Corps approved a preliminary determination of its formal jurisdiction back in 2010. That preliminary jurisdiction covered a water and power line corridor that was to be used for the Rosemont project.

'The proposed mine site contains a dense network of ephemeral streams that qualify as jurisdictional waters of the United States protected by the Clean Water Act. Yet, the Rosemont Copper Company (Rosemont) has filled, dumped or otherwise caused rock, soil and other material to bury ephemeral streams or portions thereof on the west side of the Santa Rita Mountains and imminently plans to undertake operations that will clear and grade the site, including the discharge of dredge or fill material into waters of the United States without a Clean Water Act' permit, said the notice of intent to sue filed by the Center for Biological Diversity, Save the Scenic Santa Ritas, the Arizona Mining Reform Coalition and the Sierra Club's Grand Canyon chapter.

'We urge Rosemont to cease any construction activities, including discharges of dredge or fill material, remediate any dredge or fill activities, and apply for a section 404 permit, as the Clean Water Act requires,' said the notice, sent to Javier del Rio, vice president for Rosemont Copper, Hudbay's Arizona subsidiary.

Hudbay says it has never accepted the legal validity of the 2010 preliminary determination that the Corps had authority over the Rosemont site, including areas on the west slope. But in a letter to the Corps on April 11, the company said it was not grading any lands that were covered by the 2019 Clean Water Act permit, which is now suspended — only lands outside that area.

In a statement to the Star, Hudbay said it has procedures 'to identify and protect, to the extent possible, biological and cultural resources.

'Specifically, all areas have been surveyed for threatened and endangered species, historic artifacts, and prehistoric archeological sites. We have relocated all special status plants prior to clearing and have not impacted any prehistoric (i.e., Native American) archeological features. These measures are not legally required on our private property, but we view them as best practices for a modern mining project,' Hudbay said.

Hudbay disclosed its plans to start construction activity at Copper World in a March 10 letter to the Pima County Regional Flood Control District. Flood Control District Deputy Director Eric Shepp acknowledged that Hudbay does not need a formal permit from the county to build the waste rock and tailings facilities. But he said the company must submit detailed construction plans before starting to build 'improvements' on the site.

Hudbay did send some plans in, but the county replied that additional details were still required, 'particularly a drainage report to delineate regulatory floodplains.' On April 8, Shepp suggested to Hudbay 's Del Rio in an email that they meet to discuss the company's construction plans.

But on April 12, Del Rio replied that while he would be happy to meet with Shepp in early May, he could not delay the company's construction work any further, 'considering the amount of planning and commercial commitments involved with this work.'

In an email to the Star, Shepp said the county does not require companies like Hudbay to submit construction plans for site preparation work — only for improvements, such as equipment for a processing plant, buildings and storm drains.

On April 6, the Army Corps sent Hudbay a letter saying it is still covered by the Clean Water Act permit that the agency approved for the Rosemont site in March 2019 — which includes the west slope area intended for the utility corridor. The Corps relinquished its authority over the mine site in a March 2021 decision, based on new Trump administration regulations that removed federal authority over ephemeral streams.

But after a federal judge threw out the Trump-era rules last summer, the Corps later told Hudbay it can no longer depend on its March 2021 decision. Its April 6 letter reminded Hudbay the 2021 decision also 'did not revoke, reinstate or modify' the company's suspended 2019 Clean Water Act permit, and that Hudbay should not conduct any activities inconsistent with that permit.

In its April 11 letter to the Corps, Hudbay's Del Rio said the company 'has not impacted any washes covered by the permit since it was suspended in August 2019. As directed, we will not impact any washes covered by this permit until it is either revoked or reinstated.'

But tribal attorney Stu Gillespie said Hudbay needs to get a Clean Water Act permit for the entire west slope area before building anything on it.

'What they are doing is backward. They can't build the project without a permit. You can't put the cart before the horse,' said Gillespie, who represents the Tohono O'odham, Pascua Yaqui and Hopi tribes in this case.

Contact Tony Davis at 520-349-0350 or tdavis@tucson.com. Follow Davis on Twitter@tonydavis987.

A surveyor stakes sites in the Copper World Mine exploration area on the west slope of the Santa Rita Mountains.

COURTESY HUDBAY MINERALS INC.

Bookmark and Share