Mine inspector OKs reclamation plan for Rosemont Mine
By Tony Davis
Arizona Daily Star
Tucson, Arizona | Published: 08.18.2009
The Arizona State Mine Inspector's Office has approved a plan by the owners of the Rosemont Mine for reclaiming the land once the mine is finished, stirring charges from opponents that the state rushed to judgment.
In approving the $23 million reclamation plan last month, Mine Inspector Joe Hart turned down requests from about 25 neighbors of the proposed mine in the Santa Rita Mountains to have a hearing for people to air their concerns about the plan. He and other officials said the plan was approved because it met all the legal standards in the state's law governing mine-reclamation plans.
But opponent Morris Farr of Save the Scenic Santa Ritas said the approval was pointless because all facts have not been assembled on the reclamation issue and that the plan will change many times before a decision is made. "It was an attempt by Augusta Resources to get PR," said Farr, the group's vice president, speaking of the Canadian company that owns the Rosemont Mine through a subsidiary, Rosemont Copper. "This approval is meaningless in the long run and meaningful only in the way that they can wave it at potential investors."
In a press release, Augusta Resource Corp. President and CEO Gil Clausen said the approval is an important milestone for the proposed mine, which would cover 4,415 acres of private, state and federal land. This plan covers only 875 acres of private land that will be disturbed for mining, not the rest, which is mostly federal land, with less than 100 acres of state land at stake.
"We can now look forward to providing all of the financial information to assure the department and the community that reclamation at Rosemont will be done in the most environmentally responsible way possible," Clausen said. "This approval takes us one step closer into advancing the Rosemont project into development."
The state-approved plan is less crucial than the federal plan would be because the federal plan covers more ground and must be dealt with as part of approval of the entire mine. But the state's action drew plenty of heat from Rosemont opponents because of procedural issues and because, to some critics, it underscored weaknesses in the state's mine-reclamation law. In a memo this month, Nicole Fyffe of the Pima County Administrator's Office laid out eight changes that could be made in state laws to address the county's concerns about the state's approval.
In a letter to county officials, Hart wrote that a public hearing wasn't needed in part because 99 percent of the comments appeared to be directed not against the plan, but against use of private lands owned by Rosemont Copper for the mine. Some of the comments dealt mainly with issues affecting the federal land to be used by the mine — also out of the state's control, officials said.
"We cannot address that issue," said Garrett Fleming, a reclamation specialist at the inspector's office. He cited state law limiting his office's say over the mine to the reclamation plan and whether it meets state standards.
Issues such as whether the mine should be there "is really up to the mine and the landowners, including the U.S. Forest Service. A public hearing would have exacerbated the many issues surrounding the mine and made the federal environmental review and decision of the plan more complex, Hart wrote.
Mine opponents, however, said the state's action was premature because of the Forest Service review. A draft environmental statement is due in November, and a final Forest Service decision is slated for mid- to late 2010. "We do not understand the rush to give approval now when it may be months or years before a Draft Environmental Impact Statement is issued by the United States Forest Service," said Farr, vice president of Save the Scenic Santa Ritas. "The Pima County Board of Supervisors has raised significant concerns about watershed impacts, dust control and revegetation."
The vast majority of residents who wrote the office about the reclamation issue complained not about the plan or the mine, but about what they felt was a totally inadequate period to comment on the plan: 15 days after the state published legal notices in newspapers that the plan is available for public review, as allowed by state law.
The plan is about 2 inches thick, containing about 50 pages of text and numerous, highly detailed charts, maps and tables outlining the details.
Elizabeth Webb, a Rosemont opponent and longtime activist in the Vail area, wrote the inspector's office a few days after it approved the plan, asking how she and other residents could have been expected to make intelligent comments in 15 days. She said she had not seen any public notices about the plan in her neighborhood and was aggravated to learn about the approval only through a press release written by Augusta Resource.
Webb said she was "floored" by the state's refusal to hold a hearing.
"We didn't have an opportunity to express our concerns, and we asked for a hearing to have a place to express our concerns. To deny us a public hearing is a continuation of the contempt shown for our area in this Rosemont process," Webb said.
In an e-mail to the Star, Fleming said his office reviewed Rosemont's plan in accordance with the rules, and can't bend factors such as time frames without receiving legitimate grounds for objections to the reclamation plan.
Since Rosemont submitted its plan in May 2008 and the state never responded to all of the issues in the plan until this year, under the law, the approval could have been automatically granted 120 days after the plan was submitted, Fleming said.