Federal Judge Rejects Arizona Copper Mine Approved by Federal Agencies

Published April 14, 2020

A federal judge has overturned the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s (FWS) approval of a permit for Hudbay Minerals’ proposed Rosemont copper mine in Arizona’s Coronado National Forest.

Federal Judge James Soto, appointed to the United States District Court for the District of Arizona by President Barack Obama in 2014, ruled on February 10 in favor of environmental groups who had sued to halt the project. Soto ruled FWS improperly estimated the potential groundwater drawdown from the mine’s operations and how that might impact several endangered species in the Santa Rita Mountains.

This is the second time in less than a year Soto has rejected a federal permit for the mine.

Minimal Environmental Impact

The planned open-pit mine would comprise 955 acres, with waste tailings or unused rock and soil covering an additional 2,447 acres of national forest land, amounting to less than 0.2 percent of the 1,780,000-acre Coronado National Forest.

To minimize the impact on the relatively small amount of the national forest Rosemont would affect, Hudbay proposed a dry stack method of storing tailings from the operation of the mine. By eliminating storage ponds, the mine would use between 50 percent and 60 percent less water than similarly sized mines, and 85 percent of the water it did use would be recycled for reuse on-site.

Rosemont has committed to replacing all the water used at the operation and, before the court’s intervention, with the federal approvals in hand, had already purchased and stored approximately 45,000 acre-feet of water, equivalent to the amount of water Rosemont would use in its first eight years of operations.

In addition, as part of Hudbay’s efforts to mitigate any environmental impact, the company pledged to create a $25 million fund dedicated to conservation, cultural, and recreational projects consisting of $500,000 given annually for 25 years to support conservation and environmental projects, and a total of $12.5 million given to support cultural projects, education, job training, social services, and organizations that support military personnel and veterans.

‘Arbitrary and Capricious’

In July 2019, in a case challenging an environmental permit the U.S. Forest Service granted to Hudbay, Soto ruled the agency’s approval of the Rosemont mine was “arbitrary and capricious,” and he overturned the permit.

At the time of that first ruling, Hudbay issued a press release saying the court had erred in its application of longstanding environmental law.

“Hudbay believes that the Court has misinterpreted federal mining laws and Forest Service regulations as they apply to Rosemont,” stated Peter Kukielski, interim president, in Hudbay’s press release. “We strongly believe that the project conforms to federal laws and regulations that have been in place for decades.”

Joined by the U.S. Department of Justice, Hudbay has appealed Soto’s decision in the USFS case to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals and is considering appealing Soto’s rejection of the FWS permit.

‘Impacts … Would Be Insignificant’

Hudbay’s environmental review was extensive, and contrary to the judge’s decision, further reviews are unnecessary, Hudbay said in a statement to Environment & Climate News.

“The ruling on the endangered species cases does not come as a surprise in light of the court’s previous decisions on the Rosemont project,” said Hudbay’s statement. “While we respect the court’s authority to remand the analysis and findings back to the agencies for further review, Hudbay believes this is unnecessary and remains committed to advancing the project which will benefit the region as a critical economic and employment driver.

“The Forest Service approved the Rosemont project after more than 11 years of careful review and study by 17 cooperating agencies,” Hudbay’s statement said. “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.”

If Hudbay receives all government approvals for the project and brings it online, the Rosemont Copper Mine is projected to earn $6.9 billion in after-tax income over its 21-year lifespan, operating as the third-largest copper mine in the United States, with proven and probable reserves of 5.9 billion pounds of copper and 194 million pounds of molybdenum, respectably.

Kevin Stone ([email protected]) writes from Dallas, Texas.