But according to critics, this is incompetence by design. They suspect the stumbling review process is aimed at stifling opposition to the mine--a project they believe has already received high-level approval back in Washington, D.C.
Meanwhile, the process has become so acidic that Congressman Gabrielle Giffords--whose 8th District would include the proposed mine--has stepped in to urge Coronado officials to respect the quaint notion of full citizen participation.
Appropriately, this long-simmering dust-up involves the Canada-based Augusta Resource Corporation, a company replete with its own surplus of skullduggery, displayed in several backfiring attempts to lend the proposed mine a façade of public support. Although the company has never actually operated a mine anywhere on the planet, it hopes to dig a sprawling copper pit in the Santa Rita Mountains south of Tucson. A portion of that operation would spill onto federal forest land.
Augusta's plan faces nearly unanimous opposition from local government leaders, and from citizens concerned about environmental impacts on the popular hiking and bird-watching area.
Now the proposed mine faces analysis under the National Environmental Policy Act, which requires federal agencies to gauge the environmental effects of their proposed actions. That process starts with so-called "scoping" meetings--where the public is invited to help evaluate a project--and culminates in an environmental impact statement, which theoretically includes alternative approaches based on citizen input.
One problem with Rosemont, however, has been the style of that input. Rather than hosting hearings where folks can speak up about the project, the Coronado has opted for much tamer "open houses," which provide no opportunity for public give-and-take. (See the Guest Commentary on Page 8.)
Frustration with that approach exploded at an open house in Patagonia on March 20, when the Forest Service called in Santa Cruz County sheriff's deputies and the U.S. Border Patrol after a local senior citizen got out of hand.
Roger Featherstone is a Southwest representative for the conservation group Earthworks. He says that at the Patagonia fiasco, the crowd began calling for a chance to speak, "and then the Forest Service people just packed up all their toys and went home. It was bizarre. And you got the feeling that all the law-enforcement people considered it a joke."
Despite that anger, Coronado spokeswoman Heidi Schewel defends the open-house format, where folks stroll among various displays and chat up forest officials. She adds that formal hearings are not required by law.
The open-house approach was chosen over formal hearings "because it's worked well in the past," she says. "And I can say with 100 percent honesty that we are neutral on this project. But if people just want to cuss and discuss and so forth, they can do that without us, because we have limited time and availability to get experts here that they can talk to, and get the information they want."
But "cussing and discussing" is critically important with such controversial issues, says attorney Dinah Bear. She represents the Farmers Investment Co., or FICO, which oversees nearly 7,000 acres of pecan groves near the proposed mine. FICO has objected to Augusta's water-pumping plans in a formal filing with the Arizona Department of Water Resources.
Before hanging out her private-practice shingle, Bear spent nearly 30 years as general counsel with the U.S. Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ). Operating under the White House aegis, that coordinating body helped to originally shape the scoping process. Scoping guidelines were left intentionally loose, she explains, to let the process remain flexible. But it never was meant to exclude bona fide public debate. "Some of the most creative scoping meetings I've ever heard about were in coffee houses in Seattle," she says, "where there was real interaction and real discussion."
Nor was the Coronado a timid participant in public hearings several years ago, spearheaded by the U.S. Department of Energy, that examined a Tucson Electric Power proposal to string high-power lines through sensitive forest lands to reach Nogales.
Like Rosemont, the power-line proposal was quite contentious. But unlike with Rosemont, the Coronado all but stated its dismay with TEP's plans. And that may go a long way in illuminating differences between those earlier, quite spirited scoping meetings--which all but obliterated TEP's plans--and the current, stifled analysis of Augusta's project, for which key Coronado officials have privately voiced their support, according to sources.
Still, that hasn't spared forest officials from fierce criticism, nor from the embarrassment of direct intervention by Rep. Giffords. In response, the Coronado has penciled in a series of true public hearings, and promises to create a public committee to oversee the EIS process.
To Bear, this is a singular opportunity. "My sense from the open house I attended last week," she says, "was that you had a highly educated public with an amazing amount of expertise on the topic. Triggered by this mine proposal, they really did want a two-way dialogue. Even if it's not legally required, it is keeping with the spirit of scoping--the spirit of encouraging a really constructive dialogue."
That needs to happen sooner rather than later, she says. "I will tell you that, in my 25 years of experience with the CEQ, many of the NEPA success stories we saw began with a good scoping process. Because if you're an agency, you want to start off holding out the possibility that, instead of something becoming an all-out bloodbath, there can at least be a very civil dialogue in both verbal and written comments."
But Featherstone still smells a rat. And he still thinks the Rosemont decision may be a done deal--one decided far beyond the rugged confines of Southern Arizona.
"The Forest Service said this was going to be a fair and open process. But with meetings like the one in Patagonia, that's clearly not happening. The (open-house) format really stifled dialogue. I think it makes it painfully clear that this decision will be political, and it will be made back in Washington, D.C."