The Pima County Board of Supervisors put state environmental regulators and Hudbay Minerals on notice that they will be watching as the state, at the mining company's request, reviews the protected status of nearly two dozen important Arizona waters.
By a 3-2 vote, the board on July 11 approved a resolution stating the county will oppose any effort to delist the waters as "Outstanding Arizona Waters," a designation that has been given to 22 rare and ecologically significant waterways, and which offers the areas the highest level of protection available under the law.
The status of one such Outstanding Water is of particular concern to both the mining company and the Tucson area. Davidson Canyon is a desert stream within the Santa Cruz watershed southeast of Tucson that supports a host of rare plants and animals.
The protected stream has been a thorn in the side of Hudbay, the company behind Rosemont Mine. The Army Corps of Engineers has denied the company permits needed to open Rosemont based, in part, on the possibility that the mine will degrade the water quality at Davidson Canyon.
Pima County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry described the resolution as a message that the county is going to pay "very close attention" during the state's upcoming review of water regulations, and will push back against any attempt by Hudbay to try to water down protections for Davidson Canyon and other Arizona Outstanding Waters.
County officials say the review, which will be conducted amid a larger triennial review of broader water regulations, could endanger not just Davidson Canyon, which supplies roughly 20 percent of Tucson's water, but all 22 of Arizona's Outstanding Waters.
But Pima County Supervisor Steve Christy, who voted against the resolution, accused Huckleberry and the board's majority of stoking "anti-Hudbay" sentiments.
"It was merely an attempt by Mr. Huckleberry to prevent Hudbay from seeking any clarification on the (Outstanding Waters) regulations," he said of the resolution.
Huckelberry said his concerns are threefold. First, the next triennial review isn't due until 2019, and the department is starting the process early and with "little notice." More importantly, he said, it's fishy that he only learned from a public records request that Hudbay had emailed the Department of Environmental Quality requesting that a full review of all of Arizona's Outstanding Waters be included in the triennial review, and that the state had ceded to that request.
"We're very concerned that Hudbay, the mining company, has requested this action... It's a pretty unusual move. We haven't seen that before," he said.
Arizona Department of Environmental Quality spokesperson Caroline Oppleman said the triennial review is not starting early, and that just like any other stakeholder, Hudbay has a right to request a review of Arizona's Outstanding Waters designations.
But Huckelberry said his biggest concern is that Hudbay's request is clearly a self-serving attempt to weaken protections on a body of water that has stood in the way of opening the Rosemont Mine.
In an email to Arizona Department of Environmental Quality protesting the decision to review the status of the 22 protected waters, two of which are in Pima County, Huckelberry said state officials should recognize Hudbay's "thinly-veiled" request for what it really is: "a self-serving gesture to facilitate pollution of Arizona surface waters."
Kathy Arnold, director of environment for Hudbay, said in an email that the company asked for the review because it is concerned that its own tests, along with tests from the Department of Environmental Quality, show "exceedances of metals in the background in stormwater samples" that extend into Davidson Canyon.
She said the company is concerned that they would be held responsible for degradation to Davidson Canyon caused by the polluted stormwater.
"Because (Outstanding Waters) must have high water quality, we requested that ADEQ determine how they would treat the stormwater component. The only way to do that is to evaluate the listing and the underlying water quality," she wrote.
Christy, who, along with fellow Republican Supervisor Ally Miller voted against the resolution, said Hudbay has every right to petition regulators to review the status of protected waters that are a hurdle to the mine, but he doesn't think that's why the company requested the review.
"I read it as a preemptive measure by Hudbay to protect their flanks—to see what the pre-existing contaminants might or might not be in the Davidson Canyon creek," he said. "I don't read into it any nefarious dealing behind the scenes with ADEQ by Hudbay to try to get any kind of advantage."