Judge Dismantles Bulk of Feds’ Approval of Arizona Copper Mine

TUCSON, Ariz. (CN) – For the second time in less than a year, a federal judge has thrown up a major roadblock to a new copper mine near the Arizona-Mexico border, ruling that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and U.S. Forest Service didn’t adequately assess the environmental impact of the planned Rosemont Mine.

U.S. District Judge James A. Soto ruled late Monday that the government improperly estimated potential groundwater drawdown an inadequately measured impact on several endangered species in the Santa Rita Mountains, including what some scientists believe is the last jaguar living on U.S. soil.

The Santa Rita Mountains of Arizona. ($1LENCE D00600D via English Wikipedia)

Soto ordered the government to take another crack at the biological opinion regarding the open-pit mine.

Marc Fink, a lead attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity, the plaintiff in the 2017 lawsuit, praised Soto for keeping the focus on science for the mine, which would cover more than 3,400 acres of Coronado National Forest.

“This is a wonderful win for the Santa Rita’s rare and beautiful animals, including the endangered jaguar,” Fink said in a statement. “The jaguars and endangered frogs, snakes and fish that call this place home are too important and vulnerable to be sacrificed for mining company profits.”

The rocky scrub desert where the mine is planned includes designated or proposed habitat for jaguars, yellow-billed cuckoos, Southwester willow flycatchers, and Chiricahua leopard frogs, and other species, Soto’s ruling notes.

Hudbay Minerals, a Canadian company, is planning a mile-wide, 955-acre pit. The 1.9 billion tons of waste, including ore-deficient rock removed to get to the rich copper ore and tailings left over after copper is removed, would cover an additional 2,447 acres of Forest land.

Aspects of the case that Soto remanded to the agencies for reconsideration include a determination that the mine was unlikely to impact jaguar habitat; an assessment of the tipping point at which the mine would affect northern Mexican garter snakes; the level of allowable “take” of seven endangered species and failure to note at what point the level would become unacceptable; and a faulty estimate of how much groundwater would be drawn down by the mine.

Soto also granted summary judgment for the environmentalists in rejecting Fish and Wildlife’s claims that mitigation measures for the Gila topminnow and Gila chub were unworkable.

“The conservation measures at issue are binding on Rosemont,” Soto wrote. “These are not mere suggestions or promises; they are binding plans with deadlines and repercussions.”

But Soto found the agency had adequately assessed the mine’s impact on neighboring wells as well as the effects of toxic heavy metals from the mine site on ground and surface water. He also rejected the environmentalists’ claim that Fish and Wildlife did not use a proper definition of “destruction or adverse modification” under the Endangered Species Act.

In July, Soto halted work at the mine, ruling in a separate case that the Forest Service misapplied regulations underpinning its approval of a mine permit and miscalculated the extent to which it can regulate use of land where the mine’s waste rock would sit. Hudbay said then that it would appeal that ruling.

Hudbay plans to keep fighting for the mine, which according to its attorneys has already cost the company $700 million.

“The Forest Service approved the Rosemont project after more than 11 years of careful review and study by 17 cooperating agencies,” Hudbay said in a statement via a Tucson public relations firm. “The research and studies all concluded that the potential impacts to endangered species would be insignificant and would comply with the regulations set by these expert agencies.”

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