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Downing

Rosemont Copper: a terrible idea that will not die

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Q: Why do so many of us who live in Southern Arizona ignore local news? A: Because it's so infuriating.

Whether it's a state legislator proposing SaddleBrooke as the perfect spot for a national nuclear waste dump, or state schools superintendent John Huppenthal banning books, or Humberto Lopez asking us to pay to fix up his dilapidated hotel, or the new Rio Nuevo board squandering nearly a million dollars on lawyers, the news you're likely to hear when you take your fingers out of your ears is so often the psychic equivalent of stubbing a toe.

Not long ago, I reluctantly cracked open my local-news intake valve only to learn that the Rosemont Copper project had somehow lurched back to unholy life. (Insert swearing and hopping around here.) In spite of the fact that Pima County denied the project an air-quality permit in September, the Forest Service has been busy holding hearings—at one of which mine supporters tried to shout down Ron Barber, who was there to read a statement from Gabrielle Giffords' office. (So much for the new SoAZ civility.)

Honestly, what will it take to put a stake through this thing's heart? An open pit mine, about 30 miles southeast of Tucson, with no rail access, developed by a Canadian company with no track record, that wants to take, for free, 6,400 acres of scenic desert and use it as a tailings dump, with significant environmental impacts on at least another 100,000 surrounding acres. With, in the Forest Service's own words, effects on a fragile, overtaxed aquifer "expected to take many years, even centuries, to be fully realized." (The toxic pit lake will develop right away, though.) Oh, yeah, and 24-hour light, noise and air pollution, plus the right to pump all the water it needs. "Irretrievable and irreversible commitment of bio resources"—once again, this is the spineless Forest Service talking—with the upside being a few hundred dirty, dangerous jobs with a lifespan of 20 years.

(BTW, for anyone who wants work in the heavy-construction or extractive industries, I have two words for you: North Dakota.)

Have the people who support this ever visited Mammoth, or Winkelman, or Globe, or Superior? Take a ride, I dare you, out to the Superfund site that is Hayden, where, just last fall, the EPA found that Asarco still hasn't cleaned up the lead and arsenic that's poisoning the locals—and that the state of Arizona does not care.

And those fabulous mine jobs? I used to know a woman whose brother had worked for the mines in Morenci, driving giant ore trucks until he had to go on disability: The vibration had destroyed the connective tissue in his abdomen. A surgeon had to wrap his belly in artificial mesh to hold his guts in place. Talk about career opportunity.

Back when I was in high school in Phoenix, we were zealously fed the "three C's" legend of the state economy—"Copper, Cotton and Cattle"—but it was obvious even then that it was obsolete. A fourth C, Climate, has fueled Southern Arizona's growth for at least the last half-century. It's all about the weather, folks, and the pretty views.

Look, for example, at the website of a spectacular local success, Ventana Medical Systems. This high-tech medical diagnostics outfit, founded by a UA faculty member, was acquired by the giant Roche Group of Switzerland in 2008 for $3.4 billion. (Yes, with a "B.") It currently employs 1,300 people at a reported average salary of $88,000, and is hiring aggressively. If you go to the "careers" section on the company's website—which some people I know do quite often—you'll find a page titled "Tucson." There, you'll see a photo of saguaros and ocotillo in bloom, with hills and lavender mountains in the distance. No earthmovers; no sterile, slowly eroding tailings terraces; no deadly ponds. The accompanying text mentions Tucson's scientific community, the landscape and weather, Mount Lemmon, the recreation areas and the city's quirky charms. (Nothing about great school systems or sane public policy, though. That would be lying.)

This, in other words, is what Southern Arizona has to offer: Talented people. Sunny winters. Hiking trails. Singing birds. Clean air and water. In short, quality of life.

There's a story in the Old Testament about a fool who sells his birthright for a mess of pottage. Rosemont Copper is that kind of mess.

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