Dreams and Duds

Dapper miners with their eyes on Rosemont Valley get thumped by Pima County

Young and hungry, the mining temps clamored into the Jan. 16 Pima County Board of Supervisors meeting. They came chasing paychecks, and their matching sweatshirts shouted that desire in a crisp, cotton-poly blend: "I Want One of the 350 Jobs at the Mine," the lean logo read. There were also the identical round stickers, worn by each. "Rosemont Mine Works," the stickers said.

But brown-nosing for full-time gigs can prove a risky proposition, particularly when it involves an 800-acre open pit to be gouged from Rosemont Valley, in the beloved Santa Rita Mountains south of town.

Indeed, before that meeting was done, the board had given Augusta Resource Corporation, the Canadian company behind this scheme, a thorough thumping, and unleashed an anti-mine freight train that might chug right on back to Washington, D.C.

Although supervisors unanimously opposed Augusta's plans for a Rosemont Valley copper mine, theirs was largely a protest vote; the county has little ability to outright stop the mine, which would span private and U.S. Forest Service land.

Nonetheless, two days after that tally, County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry was dispatching a letter to Arizona's congressional delegation, urging them to support withdrawing the entire Santa Rita range from mining exploration.

That may have been more than the temps or Augusta's top guns had bargained for. But so was the raucous board meeting itself where, after months of official stasis, mine opponents suddenly had the wind at their backs, and a solid champion in District 4 Supervisor Ray Carroll.

And thus, despite attempts to pack the room, Augusta and its potential hirelings faced a long, grim slog. Company CEO Gil Clausen was first to address the wall-to-wall crowd, heavy with fuming mine opponents. He described his staff as "people who are on the ground and working, and have a tremendous amount of experience when it comes to designing, permitting and building mines."

They boast a "track record, collectively," he said, "that I think is second to none in the industry ... in terms of putting together plans that are sustainable, balanced plans."

This drew a snort from Carroll, who questioned whether Augusta itself--a relatively new company--was actually acquainted with the business.

"No, the experience I was referring to was people who make up the company," Clausen replied, "the experience we have collectively as individuals in our company. In terms of Augusta, the company itself does not. "

District 1 Supervisor Ann Day then asked whether the company had enough cash to fulfill its promises. Those pledges include starting to restore Rosemont Valley almost from the moment ground is broken.

Clausen tossed out a few estimates of that cost--from $50 million to $150 million, he reckoned--before Day shut him down. "You don't have that answer, obviously," she said, noting that the final sum might just exceed "the total market value of Augusta Resource."

From there, the discussion turned to the whereabouts of Augusta's home turf. Clausen said company stock was traded both in the United States and Canada. Day noted that mine permits were tougher to get up north, given that Canada doesn't have an equivalent to America's archaic 1872 mining law. This frontier-era law affords mining companies stunning latitude to extract minerals from public lands. And those companies fight bitterly to keep it in place.

"You could not build a mine in any pristine area in Canada," Day said. "If you tried to mine an area as pristine as what you're looking at (in Rosemont Valley), I don't think you'd have much luck."

But Canada did have similar mining laws, Clausen shot back. "And in terms of (America's) 1872 mining act, on balance, it has served the public interest well for many, many years."

That drew howls from the crowd, and a prickly retort from Carroll. "The 1872 mining act was successful," he said. "It was meant to populate the West, and I think that's been achieved."

The audience roared. Clausen was followed by a string of speakers who alternately attacked the mine or praised it. The former included Gayle Hartmann, a longtime local conservationist and former member of the Pima County Planning and Zoning Commission.

Speaking for the anti-mine group Save the Scenic Santa Ritas, Hartmann recalled another attempt to dig up Rosemont Valley back in 1997 (also fought by her group), and how mineral company Asarco finally dropped that notion in the face of bitter opposition. "History has an odd way of repeating itself," she said. "... It seems to me that a mine at this location was a bad idea in 1997, and it's a worse idea today."

Retired miner Robert Metz soon rose to support Augusta, and to add an obscure recreational nugget. Mines have a few hidden advantages, he said, and in particular, "miners know that the best place to hunt is right behind those waste dumps."

That drew more jeers from the crowd. And as the meeting trundled on, the board's leanings against Augusta became increasingly apparent. Each member took a jab at the company, with the exception of District 2 Supervisor Ramon Valadez. Actually, Valadez uttered nary a peep until the discussion was nearly over. And then he simply chastised the county for not buying Rosemont for conservation in 2004. The county had balked at a $11.5 million price tag, and the land was sold to Augusta a few months later for $20.8 million.

"I stand here remorseful that we had to have this hearing to today, this discussion, considering that we could have purchased that property a number of years ago and been done with it," he said. "I think it shows a lack of foresight." But foresight can be fickle: Later that afternoon, Valadez voted against the purchase of four small parcels for protection on Tucson's northwest side.

As the debate ground to a halt, Pima County voted to give Augusta the boot--or at least a well-placed toe. But the question lingers: Where does the fight to protect Rosemont Valley go from here?

District 3 Supervisor Sharon Bronson laid out those steps quite nicely, by inserting several points in the final resolution against Augusta. They include making the county's natural preserves off-limits for mining, urging that the entire Santa Rita range be similarly protected and that the Coronado National Forest purchase threatened inholdings similar to the Rosemont Valley.

By moving in this direction, supervisors appear to have lassoed strong support from Southern Arizona Reps. Raul Grijalva and Gabrielle Giffords. And that may spell a final conclusion to the endless controversies over Rosemont Valley. But it probably won't address the disappointment of those nattily clad mining temps, eager for career opportunities that suddenly fell further from reach.

Standing on a windswept patio outside the meeting, Augusta Vice President Jamie Sturgess tried to buck-up his troops. The next step was a getting a federal permit, he said. "And in two years, you'll see a mine."

Maybe. But probably not. Either way, those young mining wannabes can at least keep the shirts on their backs.