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Rosemont Revision

In this pretty valley, mining's impacts have long been known

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Sweeping across the northern Santa Rita Mountains, Rosemont Valley is an opulent stewpot of life. Unfortunately, it's also rich with copper and other ores, a geologic curse that has, over time, drawn successive mining companies armed with heavy equipment and gilded dreams. As such, Rosemont Valley has been poked, prodded, analyzed and re-analyzed by successive research teams.

Today, Rosemont Valley has a new suitor in the form of Canada's Augusta Resource Corp. That's prompted Pima County officials toward yet another look at this precious valley, and County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry into issuing five environmental points Augusta must address to avoid outright county opposition.

Those objectives range from wildlife habitat set-asides required by the Sonoran Desert Conservation Plan, and identifying renewable water sources, to establishing a beefy endowment for restoring the land after it's been gutted.

In truth, the county can do little to actually halt Augusta's plans, since the mine would be on private land, and in the Coronado National Forest. But a failure to address Huckelberry's concerns still could have legal impact, if the issue ever lands in court.

So has the mining company complied? "Well, conceptually, they agree (with the points)," Huckelberry says. "But the devil is in the details."

He's requested that the company fill in those details by Jan. 6, giving the Pima County Board of Supervisors review time before the Jan. 16 board meeting.

It's unclear whether Augusta will meet Huckelberry's deadline. Company Vice President Jamie Sturgess didn't return several calls from the Tucson Weekly.

Even if Huckelberry's conditions are met, however, opposition to the mine is sure to remain fierce. Still, with the exception of Pima County Supervisor Ray Carroll, opposition on the Board of Supervisors has been flaccid. Supervisor Ramon Valadez didn't return phone calls seeking comment, and his remaining colleagues say they are awaiting more information before taking a stand.

Four times, the board has postponed a vote, proposed by Carroll, to oppose Augusta's plans. According to one observer, who asked not to be named, the supervisors are stalling by strategy. "They see environmentalists showing up to opposed the mine, so they just postpone until next time," says the observer. "They think they can just wear down the opposition."

But Augusta's opponents have both history and science on their side. Consider the late 1970s and early 1980s, when researchers conducted detailed inventories of valley's ecology, archaeology and water. Those scientists also projected impacts from mining, and this was hardly an abstract exercise; the Anamax company--later to become Asarco--was then busily conjuring its own copper operation for the Rosemont.

Results of that early research now compose an incisive cautionary tale. Among other things, it showed that mining would wreak havoc on the surrounding watershed, that "runoff from the waste dump slopes will probably increase the sediment loads during flow events," and that "a potential for degradation of the chemical quality of both surface and ground waters exists in almost all mining situations."

But it gets worse. According to the report, "... all of the vegetation occurring on the pit area, plant site, waste dumps, road sites, and other areas of direct impact will eventually be eliminated as the mine develops. ... In terms of a decreased diversity among the remaining communities, the impact on the riparian community types within the exchange site will be severe ...

"Mining operations will certainly reduce species diversity in the Rosemont Area dramatically, with increasing impact as more area is affected," says the report, adding that approximately 200,000 individual reptiles at the site "will eventually be eliminated."

That last part makes Cecil Schwalbe cringe. A herpetologist with the U.S. Geological Survey and the UA, he participated in studies at the Rosemont in the early '80s. "Overall, we probably found 40 species of herpes in that survey," says Schwalbe, who calls the Santa Ritas "one of the most diverse ranges, and one of the few that has all three of the montane (mountain) rattlesnakes--the banded rock, twin spot and the Arizona ridgenose. All three are protected in Arizona."

In July, Augusta submitted a mining plan to the U.S. Forest Service--necessary since the proposed operation would spill onto federal property. But that plan was called incomplete and returned by federal officials. Pima County also reviewed the document, and in October, Huckelberry dispatched a memo to the Board of Supervisors detailing many questions it left unanswered.

A county review faulted the company for not addressing how mine-related dams and tailings will devastate nearby creeks and canyons. "This would negatively impact county preserves, plants and animals that rely on this water for survival, including human uses of water from the Cienega Basin," said Huckelberry's report.

County environmental planner Julia Fonseca also described how the mine "will excavate ore and dump waste rock upon limestone outcrops, oak woodland, grassland, mesquite forests, springs and other features identified for conservation in the Sonoran Desert Conservation Plan.

"The mine and its utilities will fragment the biological core of the Sonoran Desert Conservation Plan reserve system within the Santa Rita Mountains," Fonseca continues. It will "destroy important riparian areas along Barrel and Scholefield canyons by filling their valleys with tailings and by flooding the remnants."

She concludes that "the proposed mine would degrade the biological and water resource values of the existing and proposed reserves located downstream: Cienega Creek Natural Preserve, Bar V Ranch and the adjoining state lands which the county has targeted for acquisition under the 2004 (open space) bond program."

A similar assessment came from Loy Neff, program coordinator for the county's cultural resources office. Citing the area's significance, he writes that the Augusta's plan "provides woefully inadequate information about the distribution, nature and potential significance of the known archaeological and historic sites within the mining project area."

In light of these apprehensions, mine detractors have criticized the Board of Supervisors for its apparent paralysis over Rosemont Valley. But Carroll remains equally intransigent in his lonely battle.

"My opposition is steadfast," says the maverick supervisor. "I won't back down, because there's too much at stake--if that mine happens, it's going to entirely reshape the Santa Rita Mountains."

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