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Saturday, June 22, 2024 | Back issues
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Water Is Key to Arizona Mining Lawsuit

TUCSON (CN) - A mineral exploration project in a southern Arizona mountain range will destroy the creekside haunts of jaguars and ocelots and suck up the water supply of the small town of Patagonia, watchdog groups claim in Federal Court.

Defenders of Wildlife and the Patagonia Area Resource Alliance sued the U.S. Forest Service and Fish and Wildlife on Wednesday. They claim the agencies ignored federal environmental laws in approving Vancouver-based Regal Resources' "Sunnyside Project" in September.

They claim the project will use about 12,500 gallons of water per day: nearly 10 percent of Patagonia's entire daily water use.

The historic mining and ranching region around the tiny town of Patagonia, about 60 miles southeast of Tucson, has seen a flurry of interest recently from foreign companies seeking to exploit the minerals, mostly copper and silver, believed to be hidden in the nearby mountain ranges.

Snuggled in a green riparian valley between the Santa Rita Mountains to the north and the Patagonia Mountains to the south, the town of 900 residents sits about 20 miles north of the border and about 7 miles from the project site.

The plaintiffs say the agencies approved the highly invasive exploration project in a canyon of the Patagonia Mountains without completing detailed studies of how it will affect the area's unique habitat and wildlife.

"The Sunnyside Project involves drilling multiple exploratory bore holes up to 6,500 feet deep and will run continuously 24 hours a day, seven days a week," the lawsuit states. "The round the clock drilling and associated heavy equipment operation and truck traffic will produce significant noise and require artificial lighting at night. Because of the narrow canyon topography of the project area, noise created by the project may be magnified."

The Patagonia Mountains, like many ranges in southern Arizona, are biologically diverse "sky islands" that serve as habitat for subtropical species, such as the jaguar and the ocelot, which are not generally found on the surrounding deserts. The Patagonia Mountains are also home to the headwaters of Harshaw Creek and Alum Gulch, which flow into the Sonoita Creek watershed, where many of the town's residents have their wells.

The mountains also host other endangered species, such as the lesser long-nosed bat, Mexican spotted owl and yellowbilled cuckoo, according to the complaint.

"The jaguar, ocelot, lesser long-nosed bat, Mexican spotted owl and yellowbilled cuckoo are adversely affected by nocturnal lighting and noise," the lawsuit states. "Agaves, a principle food source of the lesser long-nosed bat, exist in the project area, and may be destroyed by the project."

The plaintiffs want the project stopped until the agencies comply with federal environmental laws.

"The Sunnyside Project could have tremendous adverse impacts on local wildlife and local residents, affecting the floodplains and the municipal watershed of the town of Patagonia," Wendy Russell of the Patagonia Area Resource Alliance said in a statement. "This project threatens not only endangered wildlife, but our community's water, health and safety."

The plaintiffs are represented by McCrystie Adams and James Tutchton of Defenders of Wildlife in Denver.

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