Tribes Seek Restraining Order to Block Rosemont Mine Expansion in Santa Ritas

Paul Ingram

Rosemont Copper’s decision to expand operations in the Santa Rita Mountains south of Tucson faces a new challenge after three Native American tribes petitioned a federal court to stop the company from grading slopes and dumping fill materials in dry washes.

In a 19 page application For a temporary restraining order filed by environmental law firm EarthJustice, the Tohono O’odham Nation, Pascua Yaqui and Hopi Tribes have asked a federal judge to stop Rosemont from ripping up thousands of acres, s’ spanning nearly four miles, along the western reach of the Santa Rita Mountains, where the company is trying to reinvigorate plans for an open-pit copper mine about 30 miles southeast of Tucson.

Hudbay, the Toronto-based company that owns Rosemont Copper, has been stalled in its efforts along the east side of the Santa Ritas, but last month the company told Pima County officials it was stepping up grading and land clearing on a 3,500 acre site to the southeast. of Sahuarita, on private land known as the Helvetia Mining District. Rosemont told Pima County Regional Flood Control District officials they would begin “clearing, grading, stockpiling and other earthmoving activities” as part of the project, which would be used “in connection” with future mining and metallurgical operations.

Aerial photos from April 14 showed efforts underway, prompting the tribes to ask U.S. District Judge John A. Soto to stop Rosemont from proceeding because the business is operating without a permit – known as a l 404 – under the Clean Water Act.

In a statement, EarthJustice said “this is the second time Rosemont has attempted to expedite construction of its proposed mines” even as 9th Circuit Court of Appeals judges review the company’s permit in in the context of a trial.

“Rosemont is once again attempting to advance its destructive scheme, causing permanent damage to sacred sites and waterways,” said Tohono O’odham Nation President Ned Norris, Jr. “Their continued disregard for the tribal consultation, mitigation, and other obligations under Federal law further demonstrates why this latest damaging action must be stopped immediately. The nation will continue to work with the other tribes to protect our cultural and natural resources from reckless destruction. by a foreign mining company,” he said.

For the past 15 years, the Rosemont mine has been stymied by fierce backlash from environmental groups, who argue that the mine – which may eventually include a mile-wide, half-mile-deep pit by 2 500 acres – would seriously harm the Santa Rita Mountains and destroy prime habitat for jaguars and other endangered species.

The open pit mine would directly affect more than 950 acres of land, and the company originally planned to dump about 1.9 billion tons of waste rock on nearly 2,500 acres of land in the Coronado National Forest, part of of southern Arizona’s “Sky Islands,” and part of the range of the endangered southern jaguar and ocelot, as well as nearly a dozen other endangered plants and animals Overall, approximately 3,653 acres of the Coronado National Forest will be affected by mining operations.

Prelude to the lawsuit

This is the second challenge filed against Rosemont for its efforts on the Helvetia site in less than a week.

On Thursday, the Tucson-based Center for Biological Diversity filed a notice of intent — a prelude to a lawsuit — because Rosemont Copper violated federal law by dumping debris in dry creeks along the western slope of the Santa Ritas.

Allison Melton, senior counsel for the Center for Biological Diversity and Roger Flynn, director and general counsel for the Western Mining Action Project, wrote that Rosemont’s parent company, Toronto-based Hudbay Minerals, Inc., violated the Clean Water Act. in “filling, leveling and destroying” a network of ephemeral streams – dry rivers that will overflow during monsoon rains – at its Copper World expansion site, and had done so without the federal permit.

Tribes wrote that Rosemont’s effort “is dependent on the company’s ability to obtain the necessary permit under the Clean Water Act,” however, following a 2019 court order, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers suspended Rosemont’s permit pending further review by the agency. Additionally, “neither Rosemont nor the Corps informed the tribes prior to the start of ground disturbance activities.”

“In 2019, a judge ruled in favor of the tribes’ challenge to the Forest Service’s approval of plans to raze ancestral lands for a mile-wide open-pit copper mine on the east side of the mountains,” EarthJustice wrote. “This historic decision is currently on appeal and awaits a ruling from the 9th Circuit.”

“A temporary restraining order is necessary to prevent further irreparable harm to cultural and environmental resources in the area,” said Stu Gillespie, senior counsel in Earthjustice’s Rocky Mountain office, which filed the petition. “The Army Corps of Engineers had an obligation to thoroughly assess the expansion of the mine and consult with the tribes before the start of any clearing activity so that significant sites could be identified and protected. Corps didn’t, breaking the law.”

Gillespie said the Santa Rita Mountains “are home to sacred sites, ancestral villages, and burial grounds, and provide plants, animals, and mineral resources critical to sustaining tribal culture.”

“The tribes believe that these sites, as well as the seeps, springs and waters that flow through the mountains, are sacred, with deep spiritual significance,” the group said. Federal officials have “recognized that ephemeral watercourse infilling, which is actively occurring at the site, is causing ‘cascading and cumulative effects downstream’…resulting in significant and actual environmental damage.” Filling these streams cuts off the lifeblood of downstream waters, such as the Santa Cruz River, and “degrades the habitat” used by migrating songbirds. mentioned.

In the restraining order application, the tribes wrote that even though Rosemont’s Section 404 permit is suspended, the company has “significantly expanded the Rosemont mine project to encompass at least an additional 3,503 acres on the side west of the Santa Rita Mountains, which he marketed as Copper World Expansion.”

Rosemont notified Pima County of the plans

Last month, Hudbay Manager Javier Del Rio presented the company’s plans to officials at the Pima County Regional Flood Control District. In his letter, Del Rio told the district that the company had submitted the plans for “review and comment only,” citing an Arizona law, which prevents the district’s board of directors from limiting the construction of construction zones. waste disposal for mining operations.

Pima County Administrator Jan Lesher told the Pima County Board of Supervisors that hard rock mines “benefit from an exemption from most regulations and Pima County’s licensing authority is limit”.

“Although the Regional Flood Control Board has some permitting authority over portions of the mine, state law exempts tailings and waste rock storage from permitting, she said, “although plans should be submitted for review and comment.” Del Rio’s notice was an attempt The county “does not dispute that tailings or waste rock storage enjoy an exemption from floodplain management regulations” , however, she said the information provided to the district was “incomplete and insufficient to make a decision” on Rosemont’s plans.

Del Rio also told the district he would meet with Lesher and district members, but while he would review Rosemont’s stormwater management plans, “given the amount of planning and business commitments involved in this work, I am not in a position to delay it any further.”

“Our initial notice of this exempt work was sent to the [Flood Control District] March 10, 2022 and initial work in the designated floodplains begins today,” Del Rio said in an email Tuesday. “As emphasized in my previous letters, this work is entirely on private Rosemont property and will not involve no significant diversion of storm water that could impact adjacent landowners. »

Tribes ask for details, ignored

Gillespie told the court that the new efforts “overlap the same United States waters identified in the Section 404 permit” that was canceled by the Army Corps of Engineers.

“For example, Rosemont plans to construct a waste rock pile/heap leach pad, tailings facility, and processing facility above the ephemeral streams identified in the Section 404 permit,” it said. he writes. “The viability of Copper World’s expansion therefore depends on the Section 404 permit, which remains suspended.”

“Despite this clear reality, Rosemont has sent a letter to the Pima County Flood Control District outlining its impending plan,” Gillespie wrote. “Based on the numbers, the expanded mine would span the entire width of the Santa Rita Mountains from west to east and stretch almost four miles from north to south.”

Once the Tribes received a copy of Del Rio’s letter, they “immediately requested additional details from the company on April 1, 2022, including whether it had a valid Section 404 permit,” but “have not received any response”. The tribes also informed Army Corps of Engineers officials of Rosemont’s “imminent plans” to level the entire site, and as Gillespie wrote, the agency told Rosemont that the permit for the section 404 “remain suspended”.

“Faced with the Corps letter, Rosemont admits that it cannot ‘impact washes covered by this permit until it is revoked or reinstated,'” he wrote. “Nevertheless, Rosemont has preemptively begun cleanup and grading of its extensive mining project before the Corps conducts further review or reissues, modifies or revokes Section 404.”

Rosemont did not inform the tribes of this activity, however, the tribes received aerial photos on April 14 showing “bulldozers actively grading huge swathes of the site, including the ephemeral streams braided throughout the area”, said wrote Gillespie. “The tribes have warned the company to cease these unauthorized activities, which violate the Clean Water Act.”

“The company refused to do so, insisting on leveling the site before the Corps conducted a further review of its extensive mining project without authorization under a Section 404 permit,” a- he writes.

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