Hudbay ramps up excavation for Copper World Complex as local resistance continues and expands

Hudbay Minerals Inc. has begun preparations for a massive copper mining operation in the Santa Rita Mountains south of Tucson. Photo by David Abbott | Arizona Mirror

As bulldozers and heavy equipment accelerate the pace of destruction on properties owned by Toronto-based Hudbay Minerals Inc. in the Santa Rita Mountains 28 miles southeast of Tucson, environmental groups, local tribes and agricultural interests in the region continue the fight to halt mining operations there.

Hudbay is currently carving roads, drill pads and clearing ground for tailings piles on property it owns on the western slope of the Santa Ritas. The activity is filling ephemeral stream beds and disturbing habitat in anticipation of final approvals to move forward with the first phase of the Copper World Complex, a 44-year mining plan the company hopes to launch sometime within the next two years.

In recent months, Save the Scenic Santa Ritas (SSSR), a nonprofit founded in 1996 that has opposed prior versions of the project for more than a decade, is stepping up public outreach in the wake of legal victories that held off mining operations — at least for the time being — on the east side of the mountains.

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But those victories have come at a cost. In 2022, Hudbay increased the scope of the original Rosemont project and accelerated work on privately owned property, as it waits for the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality (ADEQ) to give the go-ahead to start digging pits.

“When Hudbay came in, it was focusing only on Rosemont at first, because the east side is the more desirable place to mine,” Steve Brown, interim president of SSSR, told the Arizona Mirror. “When they discovered that they couldn’t dump their tailings on Forest Service land, they said, ‘Well, we’re going to just go over to the other side.’”

A decision by ADEQ on whether to issue a new air quality permit and amend Hudbay’s Aquifer Protection Permit is expected sometime in mid-2023 with mining slated to begin sometime in 2024 should Hudbay get all of its approvals.

ADEQ has asserted jurisdiction over the Copper World Project over Pima County, given the county’s long history of resistance to mining in the Santa Ritas.

Pima County has little power, if any, in the process beyond registering resistance to the projects.

Local entities file appeal with State Mine Inspector

Together with Farmers Investment Co., SSSR is attempting to compel the Arizona State Mine Inspector’s Office to initiate a public comment period on Hudbay’s updated mining plan.

Farmers Investment was founded in 1937 and grows pecans throughout the Santa Cruz Valley. It is still run by descendants of founder Keith Walden.

In September, the Mine Inspector’s Office greenlit Hudbay’s amended Mined Land Reclamation Plan (MLRP) without public notice or a comment period. The following month, Farmers Investment and SSSR went to court to appeal the decision. An MLRP is required to ensure that once mining activities are completed, disturbed lands are returned to a usable condition — economic or environmental — when said activity disturbs more than five contiguous acres on private land.

The suit claims the Mine Inspector’s Office determined there had not been a “substantial change” to the original MLRP approved in October 2021, despite the project nearly tripling in size and increasing from two open-pit mines to six.

“When [Hudbay] saw the writing on the wall, that they weren’t going to be able to just run roughshod over the east side, they started — and now they’ve done — a tremendous amount of work on the west side,” Brown said. “What they needed to do was to revise their reclamation plan, because they weren’t only going to have to restore the east side, now they were going to have to restore the whole thing.”

The appeal alleges that the failure of the Mine Inspector’s Office to provide notice of the proposed amended MLRP for public review was “illegal, arbitrary, capricious, and an abuse of discretion,” and said a court must reverse the approval and require a comment period and a public hearing before approving the MLRP. It also requests an injunction to halt any mining-related activity currently taking place on the site.

The Mine Inspector’s Office would not comment on the appeal, citing the active status of litigation.

Mining project more than doubles timeline, enlarges scope

The Copper World Complex project encompasses what is formerly known as the Rosemont Mine on the east side and land on the west side, formerly known as Copper World. While the Canadian mining company has run into roadblocks in its attempts to mine on U.S. public lands, it is now primarily focused on property it owns, although there are still hurdles to overcome to start the project in earnest.

With a mine life of 16 years, Phase I of the Copper World Complex would be located on the west side of the mountains and would be the site of four open pits and three tailings dumps on approximately 4,500 acres of private land.

In order to begin digging the pits, Hudbay must first get an air quality permit from the state and amend its Aquifer Protection Permit, but now it must also wait for the courts to rule on the MLRP appeal.

In response to questions submitted via email, Hudbay indicated it is prepared to cooperate should it lose the appeal, although the company said there was no reason for an additional public comment period because public comments were taken when the company initially applied for the project.

“Before, during and after mining is complete Hudbay takes into consideration the best way to operate in a sustainable manner, that protects the environment, while still providing the economic and employment benefits that are generated from our operations,” the company said.

As it waits, pre-construction work on the site continues.

Bulldozers prepare the site for Hudbay Minerals mining operations in the Santa Rita Mountains south of Tucson. Photo by David Abbott | Arizona Mirror

In addition to onsite facility infrastructure, current work includes preparation for a utility corridor to facilitate a water pipeline and 138-kilovolt electric transmission lines along Santa Rita Road. Hudbay has already received right-of-way approval from the city of Sahuarita for that portion of the work.

The proposed operation would include a 336-acre “heap leach” pad where Hudbay intends to produce copper ingots through a process that uses sulphuric acid to extract the copper onsite, rather than ship the raw materials for smelting.

“The safe use of sulphuric acid is a common practice in the mining industry to extract minerals from ore,” Hudbay told the Mirror. “There are layers of protection in the system, such as engineered liners to ensure that all fluids can be collected and recycled for future processing and that none of it leaks into the ground.”

The sulphuric acid would put additional trucks on local roads, and a portion of Santa Rita Road would have to be reconfigured around proposed tailing sites to allow access to the French-owned Imerys limestone quarry.

SSSR believes the additional traffic will increase the chances of a catastrophic spill that could affect the watershed and even neighborhoods around the mines. There is also the possibility of liners being damaged or torn by heavy equipment.

“The sulfur leaching process would produce in excess of 7.3 million tons of sulphuric acid, and that’s a lot,” Brown said. “They’ll transport it in tanker trucks, but all you need is to have one of those trucks roll over by Walden High School. Stuff like that happens.”

There are also concerns about the mine’s impact on the region’s water. Hudbay says its first phase will use up to 6,000 acre-feet of water per year from the local watershed, which has been permitted by the Arizona Department of Water Resources.

A single acre-foot of water equals 325,851 gallons, or the amount of water needed to cover an acre of land — roughly the size of a football field — a foot deep. That’s enough for roughly three houses per year.

The company leaves the final amount of water usage open, as it will be “determined by the size and technology of the final project as permitted,” and states that its goal is to become a “net neutral water user by recharging 100% of the water” used during production as a “voluntary measure.”

Part of that plan is to recharge the aquifer with Central Arizona Project water, although with a water shortage looming throughout, Arizona is staring down deep cuts to Colorado River water use, leaving Hudbay to depend on groundwater throughout the course of its mining.

“We own and have options to purchase existing surface water rights that are currently used for irrigation (e.g., watering golf courses, growing feed for cattle),” Hudbay told the Mirror in a statement. “We plan to transfer these water rights to conservation uses, which means leaving it in the channels to benefit aquatic plants and animals and to eventually recharge groundwater aquifers.”

SSSR disputes the amount of water that is going to be used, estimating the amount to more than 10,000 acre-feet annually, and Hudbay’s claim that the project will be “net neutral.”

During a presentation at the Green Valley Democrats offices on Nov. 12, SSSR board member John Kozma said total water consumption over the life of the Copper World Complex project would increase water usage by 400% over what was proposed from the previous Rosemont project. The actual amount, he predicted, would be more than 13,000 acre-feet per year for a total of 579,000 acre-feet over the 44-year lifespan of the mines. 

As a comparison, Kozma stated that the City of Tucson uses 13,150 acre-feet per year for about 102,570 individuals.

“There is a big difference between paper water and wet water,” he concluded.

Hudbay leaves door open for expanded operations

Once the processing plant is up and running, Hudbay also reported to its investors the possibility to process copper transferred via rail from its mines in Canada and Peru to “further enhance project economics.”

Hudbay has left open the possibility of expanding the scope of the projects “with additions to the company’s private land package for tailings and waste rock storage and the potential to accelerate Phase II if federal permits are received earlier than as outlined in the (preliminary economic assessment).” Phase I may also go beyond its proposed 16-year mine life.

Hudbay said it is also working to expand its private land ownership and has applied to the State Land Trust to purchase two additional parcels, one that is 40 acres and another of 160 acres, in order to create contiguous holdings on which to dump tailings. 

Since purchasing the Rosemont project from Augusta Resource Corp. in 2014, Hudbay has purchased 1,200 additional acres of land on the west side, including what is known as the “F” property, which will be the main site for tailings should the project move forward.

In years 17 to 44, Phase II — now referred to as the “East pit” — would expand production on to federal lands, dumping nearly 2 billion tons of mine waste on more than 2,500 acres of the Coronado National Forest in full view of State Highway 83.

Should the entire project be approved, a 1.5-mile stretch of ridgeline would be torn down in order to join the two sites, altering the horizon and affecting residents and wildlife at the northern end of the Santa Ritas forever.

But that will only be possible if Hudbay is permitted to operate on public land. As the 16-year mining plan on the west side moves forward, Hudbay said it will continue to work toward getting the OK from the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management to expand operations to the east.

Benefits versus losses

The entire project would “create more than 500 direct jobs and up to 3,000 indirect jobs in Arizona,” according to Hudbay.

The company claims it will contribute more than $3.3 billion in U.S. taxes, as well as $660 million in state taxes and $590 million in property taxes that “directly benefit local communities.”

In 2021, natural resources and mining represented 2% of gross domestic product in Tucson, according to the University of Arizona’s Eller College of Management, while leisure and hospitality weighed in at 4%.

But mining opponents say there is no way to put a dollar value on what stands to be lost should Hudbay get its way and the projects operate to completion. In addition to the destruction of wildlife habitat and potential damage to the aquifer, the long-term economic benefits of recreation and its attendant industries would be lost.

Local agriculture, from growing pecans to raising beef to the production of locally sourced honey, would be negatively impacted.

And the additional lighting for the mines would have a negative effect on nearby Kitt Peak National Observatory and the Fred Lawrence Whipple Observatory near Mount Wrightson. There are also dozens of historic, archeological and sacred Indigenous sites in danger of being lost forever.

Current operations have already cut off traditional access to public lands residents have enjoyed for decades, according to Brown.

And SSSR says it is likely mining operations would pierce the aquifer, necessitating constant pumping to keep the mine dry enough to work. Once mining operations end, the pumps would be shut down and the pits would fill with water. As time passes, the resulting pit lake would increase mosquito activity, but also fill with heavy metals and other toxins leaving an environmental mess for communities to clean up, according to SSSR.

“If they start mining there and the toxins come out, it will ruin it for the apiaries,” Brown said. “There’ll be some thought about how good it is for grazing with the wind coming off of those tailings, depositing arsenic and lead in the soil, which in turn gets into the grass, which in turn gets into the meat. It’ll just change everything.”

The fight continues

The Santa Ritas are near and dear to Brown’s heart, as he grew up in the mountains and has a special connection to the land.

“I grew up in the Santa Ritas: Yes, they’re beautiful. Yes, I love them for their hiking trails, and for the springs and for the trees. But there’s a deeper connection that goes beyond simply an emotional thing,” he told the Mirror. “It’s a physical kind of connectivity to the land. Those of us who have been on the land for a few generations understand it and experience it. Our goal is that this simply should be respected: That there are places that should not be mined.”

In the coming year, SSSR will continue to fight for the Santa Ritas and will step up public outreach and education. Brown will step down in 2023 to make room for a permanent president, and he said there are several board members joining the organization that are younger and experts in many fields such as geology, chemistry, archaeology, anthropology and history.

“It’s a real challenge, and we’re committed to keeping up our efforts for as long as it takes to stop them,” he said. “Do we really think we can do it? The answer is, absolutely. We are not ‘radical environmentalists,’ we are concerned citizens — well-informed, well-organized, and committed to the long haul.”

Presentations in Green Valley in October and November were well-attended and the groups hope to ride the success of past litigation and influence public opinion in order to do what it can to stop mining altogether in the Santa Ritas.

SSSR encouraged those in attendance, or anyone interested in making their voices heard, to reach out to their legislators and contact the Mine Inspector’s Office regarding the revised mining plan.

“This is not a sprint, this is a marathon, and we will continue to fight it,” Brown concluded. “Hudbay is essentially ravishing the west side: They’re putting in roads, they are filling in drainage channels, they are developing drilling pads. They are doing everything on the assumption that they are going to start mining there, and they intend to start mining there as soon as they can. 

“It’s so important for this project to be discussed in a public forum, so it isn’t all done behind closed doors and in smoke-filled rooms.”

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