Digging Delays

A frustrated mining company takes on the county, while its open-pit plans are slowed

As if late summer weren't already hot enough, there's scorching vitriol between a Canadian company hoping to mine the Santa Rita Mountains, and top county brass angling to squash their plan.

Early in August, Pima County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry announced that the mine's air-quality permit—to be issued by the Pima Department of Environmental Quality—might be a tad slow in coming.

A few weeks later, attorneys for Canadian-based Augusta Resource Corporation not only hand-delivered a snarky letter to Huckelberry outlining what he could and could not do, but then went mano-a-mano with the County Board of Supervisors during a regular public meeting.

It wasn't supposed to be this way. Back in 2006, when Augusta first announced plans to dig a massive open-pit copper mine in the Santa Rita Mountains south of town, company officials predicted a seamless permitting process, and smooth sailing with Pima County.

'We don't really need the county's approval, but I've always been a believer in cooperative effort," Augusta vice president Jamie Sturgess told the Arizona Daily Star. "We certainly don't want their opposition."

But they certainly got it: In a January 2007 vote, the board gave Augusta's mine a unanimous thumbs-down.

Relations have been on the skids ever since—and things have turned particularly sour in recent weeks, after county officials were barraged with pro-mining e-mails and phone calls. The campaign was purportedly organized by Augusta.

Sturgess didn't return a call from the Tucson Weekly. But according to County Supervisor Ray Carroll, whose District 4 includes the proposed mine site in Rosemont Valley, Augusta officials have become increasingly cranky as their plans bogged down amid regulatory questions, trenchant opposition and pressure from their international investors.

"They're lashing out because they've got a lot of money on the line, and they've got a lot of foreign companies on the line," Carroll says. "I don't know how they play it up in Canada, but some of these investment companies are probably saying, 'Look, start producing.'"

In the meantime, he says, county officials have become convenient scapegoats for Augusta's frustrations. "No. 1, we're great whipping boys," says Carroll. "But (Sturgess) should look past us and know that the decision is really in federal hands."

Therein lies the real key: Augusta's project faces a slew of challenges, and many of them exist far beyond Pima County headquarters. They range from congressional legislation—sponsored Southern Arizona Reps. Raúl Grijalva and Gabrielle Giffords—that would forbid future mining on the Coronado National Forest in Pima and Santa Cruz counties, to waste-discharge permits required by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers under the Clean Water Act.

But they all ultimately hinge on analyses by the Coronado National Forest, to be summarized in an environmental impact statement, or EIS. The statements typically include a handful of "alternatives," or directives on how a public-lands project might proceed.

But in this case, the Forest Service has repeatedly pushed back its timeline for issuing a draft of the EIS, and federal officials have offered contradictory statements about whether it could possibly include an alternative that outright rejects the mine.

That's considered a thorny proposition under the Mining Act of 1872, which was originally meant to encourage mines on public lands, and now makes it nearly impossible to stop them, unless they can be shown as potential violators of environmental laws.

Still, some people wonder why the Coronado has lagged on issuing the draft, which is now slated for release by year's end. Among them is Dick Kamp, an environmental analyst for Wick Communications, which owns this paper. According to Kamp, those Forest Service delays have subsequently slowed reviews by other permitting agencies, such as the Army Corps.

Without a draft EIS from the Forest Service, the Army Corps of Engineers "can't issue any permit," he says. "They can't provide a demonstration that Rosemont will comply with the law.

"Apparently, the Forest Service has not yet even developed that chapter of the draft EIS that describes the alternatives," Kamp says. "And it's getting a little late in the game. They're heading into October, and they don't even have that."

Acting Coronado Supervisor Reta Laford didn't return a phone call seeking comment.

Kamp also points to Grijalva's bill as a potential game-changer. While the measure wouldn't necessarily target existing claims—such as those held by Augusta—it would require the "validation" of each claim. Essentially, a claim would be valid only if it's shown to have sufficient economic mineral value.

Further questions are being raised in a lawsuit, filed by Augusta opponents, questioning whether the federal government can legally allow a mining company to deposit waste on public-lands claims. While Augusta's proposed mine would stretch across roughly 900 acres of private property, it would require more than 3,000 acres of adjacent Forest Service land to use for processing. The mine would also need up to three water-related permits from the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality.

Finally, there's the wildlife. In June, the Center for Biological Diversity filed a listing petition under the Endangered Species Act for two snail species that could be wiped out by the mine. In July, the organization filed two more petitions concerning a pair of rare Arizona plant species. And in early September, the center sought protection for Coleman's coral root, a rare orchid that exists in the mine's path.

As for warm relations between county officials and Augusta, those already seem extinct. Even Augusta's latest strategy of playing up the jobs issue—the company suggests that some 400 locals could be employed by the mine—leaves officials like Ray Carroll cold.

He says the e-mail and telephone campaigns targeting Huckelberry and the Board of Supervisors seem contrived by Augusta. "Usually, public opinion is something that comes from the grassroots up. But they have spent quite a bit of money on tours and economic forums and free lunches and things like that. And they're developing a mailing list, so I guess they decided to use that mailing list.

"They even did a radio ad to try to stir things up," Carroll says. "But they haven't convinced me to change my opinion."