Choke Hold: AZ Grants Air Permit for a Noxious Mine Project

The Canadian investment company Augusta Resource Inc. announced today that it has received an air quality permit from the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality for a strip mine in the Santa Rita Mountains south of Tucson.

That represents a bureaucratic victory over Pima County, which in September 2011 denied Augusta the air quality permit necessary for its proposed mine in the Rosemont Valley. At the time, Ursula Kramer, director of the county’s Department of Environmental Quality, said Augusta didn’t offer a compelling argument that federal air quality standards could be met by its plan.

Augusta responded by threatening a lawsuit against county, and floating plans to ask that oversight of the permit be handed to the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality.

Eventually, the floundering ADEQ agreed to make the determination.

“Rosemont has now received seven major permits required to commence construction,” wrote Augusta CEO Gil Clausen on the company’s web site. “Only one major permit is remaining, the Clean Water Act Section 404 Permit from the US Army Corp of Engineers, which the Company expects to receive upon the issuance of the Record of Decision…on the Plan of Operations from the U.S. Forest Service.”

But that is by no means a done deal. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has raised major red flags with the Corps over the effects that a mine in the Rosemont Valley could have on the area’s waterways.

If the EPA balks, Augusta’s whole foreign adventure could be down the tubes.

In addition, wildlife surveys have found the Rosemont Valley to contain at least 10 threatened plants, and serve as a crucial wildlife corridor. Recently, the sighting of an endangered jaguar near the proposed mine site has thrown yet another wrench in the works.

For mine opponents with the group Save the Scenic Santa Ritas, this is but a skirmish in the big fight. “Once again, Rosemont's PR spin has gotten ahead of the facts,” said SSR President Gayle Hartmann in a press release. “According to their previous press releases, they should have already been mining and destroying the Santa Ritas years ago.

“ADEQ's approval of this permit is not surprising,” Hartmann continued. “This agency has been decimated by budget cuts, and is beholden to the regulated entities that pay the permitting fees to keep it afloat.

“We will closely examine this permit and determine our next steps including an appeal. This mine is far from a certainty. The Forest Service has indefinitely postponed completion of the environmental analysis of the Rosemont project and a decision on it.

“The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is proposing to include the mine site as critical habit for the endangered jaguar. There is indisputable photographic evidence that only known jaguar remaining in North America spends time near the proposed Rosemont project.

“In addition, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has seriously questioned the federal Clean Water Act permit that Rosemont needs to obtain from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. EPA has veto power over any Clean Water Act permit issued by the Corps.

“The bottom line,” Hartmann concluded, “is that this mine threatens our air, our mountains, along with the lives and livelihoods of those who live and work here. Rosemont thinks they can wear us down, but they underestimate our resilience.”