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2 Tours, 2 Perspectives on Rosemont Mine

August 24, 2008

By TONY DAVIS

When mining engineer Dennis Fischer drives visitors to the site of the proposed Rosemont mine in the Santa Rita Mountains, he talks of jobs and tax benefits.

Pointing to the grassy, juniper-topped ridgeline overlooking the site for the 1.2-square-mile open pit, he also talks of how the pit will be shielded so well that outsiders eventually won’t see much of it.

He describes how the Rosemont Copper Co. has drilled 30 monitoring wells, seven directly under the pit, to keep tabs on groundwater quality.

The company is also talking with nurseries about salvaging the site’s oak, juniper and mesquite trees so they get a new life in a new place.

But when Rosemont opponents Lainie Levick, Fred Tahse and Mike Carson drive there, they foresee thousands of acres of a breathtaking valley buried under mine waste rock.

They envision today’s verdant, 4,400-acre collection of ridges, knolls and grasslands stripped of vegetation so, they complain, the United States can export more copper to China and so Canadian investors can earn more money.

They worry that rainfall would leach toxic materials through waste rock and mine tailings into groundwater.

Carson, 47, of Vail, called a trip to Rosemont a journey to the “heart of darkness.”

In few places are the parallel universes of extraction and environmentalism more clearly drawn than at Rosemont.

Here, on its own land, Augusta Resource Corp.’s Rosemont subsidiary hopes to start digging an open pit, with an average depth of 2,000 feet, by 2011, and to remove 220 million pounds of copper a year. Other parts of the project would be on Coronado National Forest land.

Here, opponents hope to draw a line in the sand against not just a mining company, but against the federal 1872 Mining Law that they believe favors the mining industry.

On Aug. 6, Rosemont’s Fischer, a veteran of five mining operations, took six visitors on a site tour, winding through rocky and hilly dirt roads west from Arizona 83 – the Sonoita highway – well over three miles to the pit area. It was one of three weekly company tours that have drawn 1,000 people since 2007.

He started the tour from the Singing Valley Ranch, one of three ranching operations purchased by the company as buffer lands.

“We want to be our own neighbor,” said Fischer, 60. “We’re better off surrounded by ranchlands rather than too many homes. And part of our reclamation is that we want ranching afterward,” to fertilize ground for plants, he said.

For every job at the mine, at least two would be generated in Tucson in trucking, supplies and other support businesses, he said. Each year, the mine would pour $256 million into the Tucson economy, $16 million into local tax coffers, $488 million into the state economy, $31 million into state tax coffers and $94.7 million into the federal treasury, he added.

Augusta Resource, based in Vancouver, B.C., has Canadian and U.S. investors, said Jan Howard, a Rosemont spokeswoman, who could not provide percentages. With limited availability of U.S. smelters, she said, there is a possibility some copper concentrate would be sold to China for smelting.

“We’re not just a small, mom-and-pop operation,” Fischer said.

But the Santa Ritas aren’t mom-and-pop mountains, either, opponents pointed out three days later. They drove through a valley blanketed by bright-green grasslands, juniper, mesquite and willow trees and rolling hills that could be confused with the Maryland countryside if the grasslands didn’t collide with an undulating ridgeline, 6,200 feet high.

“This area is heavily used. This is special. There isn’t anything to replace it as a place for people to drive to,” said mine opponent Levick, 54, a board member and former president of the environmental group Save the Scenic Santa Ritas. “They can go to Redington Pass, but it’s not the same. This is a little bit higher than Tucson, and it’s slightly cooler.”

As activists stood near the pit site, they conceded it’s not easy to put dollar values on trees and grass. But they brought up an analysis by the environmentalist Sonoran Institute that concluded that tourism and outdoor recreation in Pima and Santa Cruz counties generate $2.95 billion annually.

If the mine reduced those revenues even slightly, that would outweigh Rosemont’s local benefits, said the study, which credited the mine with fewer benefits than the company does.

The mine pit would edge to an average of 200 feet in elevation below the site’s westernmost ridgeline. For the first five years, it would be visible from Arizona 83, Fischer said. Opponents have scrawled “Scenic View Open Pit Mine” at a guardrail.

But over time, the company would surround the pit with buttresses and berms of waste rock and tailings, covered by dirt and planted with native grasses, Rosemont officials say. They’re supposed to shield all but 111 acres in 10 years and all but 10 acres in 19 years.

As visitor Ronda Markworth contemplated the thought of a pit that high on the slopes, she said she doesn’t like the fact that it could sit there for years “and do nothing,” once the mining finishes.

The company is evaluating the possibility of making a recreational lake out of the pit once it’s mined out. But so far the only study of that area by Pima County has found that the hole would not fill with water afterward – unlike many mining pits. The company will do its own study.

Still, “it’s an area far away from a lot of people. It almost appears to be a natural location for the pit. It’s kind of in a valley, you could say. They’re going about it the right way,” said Markworth, 42.

Tahse, 76, of Green Valley, a retired mineral and petroleum geologist, is concerned about the pit’s effects on the ridge’s beauty and stability. He’s most concerned that when rocks are pulled from the upper hillside, that could remove enough support to trigger landslides.

Fischer, however, said the company has commissioned extensive studies that found no landslide issues. “They design a pit to be stable,” he said.

Opponents also have hammered at company plans to install a “dry stack” of tailings from which water is stripped, unlike conventional tailings that mix water with the remains of processed copper ore. The tailings design hails from mines in the Chilean deserts, and Save the Scenic Santa Ritas members say the Rosemont area’s much heavier rains would wash the metals out of the rock and into groundwater.

But Rosemont studies have found no evidence that any minerals are leached out of its waste rock or tailings by water, said company officials.

A deer ran past as Fischer drove through the future pit area. He said he expects deer to be driven from the site at first by construction, but that they would return once grass is planted for reclamation and because they’ll know they can’t be hunted there.

Passing a series of mesquites, he said the company has transplanted 49 agaves from the exploratory drilling spots, at the Forest Service’s orders, because agaves sport century plants that carry nectar for the endangered lesser long-nosed bat. Another 17, unsafe to move, were replaced by nursery-grown agaves.

“Arizona produces 65 percent of the nation’s copper on less than one-half of 1 percent of the state’s land. In the Santa Rita Mountains, the Coronado National Forest has 218 square miles, and we are affecting about 3 percent,” Fischer said.

He admonished the visitors not to let anyone say that this area is pristine. It has been mined off and on since the 1880s, a 10- foot-high, black slag heap remains and many dirt roads were graded for mining, he said.

Tahse said he doesn’t see this area as devastated. The slag heap is of historic value, and “my friends collect this stuff and put it in their front yard,” he said.

When a visitor asked Fischer if there is a chance the mine won’t happen, he replied that Augusta is confident it is addressing all the issues and will get a federal permit despite an expected barrage of lawsuits.

“We’re covering all of our bases, crossing the t’s and dotting the i’s,” he said.

However, if opponents can push the federal government into a thorough review, and that takes so much time and money that the mine is no longer economical, that’s fine “if that’s what it takes to protect the area,” Levick said as she walked on the slag heap.

“It makes you cry, almost,” at the thought of waste rock on the land, activist Carson said at one point.

No, it doesn’t, replied Levick: “They’re not going to do it, and maybe that makes the investors cry.”

DID YOU KNOW

The Santa Ritas have a rich mining history, including:

* Pure Santa Ritas silver, 400 ounces of it, went into an inkstand made by Tiffany Co. and presented to President Abraham Lincoln in 1865 by an Arizona mine owner.

* An 1874 discovery of placer gold produced a rush in the Greaterville area. The nearby Kentucky Mine yielded substantial qualities of gold until it played out in 1886.

* The Salero silver mine dates from sometime after the 1690s arrival of Spanish Jesuits. In the 1850s, Salero became a steady producer, until 1865.

* Helvetia’s copper mining heyday, on the northwest end of the Santa Ritas, ran from 1881 to 1911.

Sources: Star archives; “Arizona Ghost Towns and Mining Camps;”"Ghost Towns of Arizona.”

Did you also know

Mining companies have been intrigued for decades by the copper, molybdenum and silver deposits on the Rosemont site southeast of Tucson.

Among those investing in the site, Banner Mining Co. acquired most claims by the late 1950s. Anaconda Mining Co. bought them in 1963. Asarco bought the land in 1988, then sold to real estate interests in 2004. Augusta Resource Corp., Rosemont Copper Co.’s parent company, bought it in 2005.

Source: Star archives

* Contact reporter Tony Davis at 806-7746 or tdavis@azstarnet.com.

Originally published by TONY DAVIS, ARIZONA DAILY STAR.

(c) 2008 Arizona Daily Star. Provided by ProQuest LLC. All rights Reserved.