At Copper World mine hearing, questions about water quality clashed with hope for economic opportunities

For nearly two hours Tuesday evening, supporters and detractors of the proposed Copper World mine laid out their arguments as state regulators consider whether to approve a groundwater permit for the open-pit mine, to be built largely on private land about 30 miles southeast of Tucson in the Santa Rita Mountains.

In January, the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality sought public comment on a Aquifer Protection
Permit for Copper World—one of the last regulatory
hurdles for the construction and operation of the copper mine.

Environmental groups have
repeatedly challenged the project, arguing it would
seriously affect the Santa Ritas and the Santa Cruz River.

Owned by the Toronto-based Hudbay Inc., Copper World would include a $1.7 billion investment for the first phase of the project over the next 20 years, with an expansion onto federal lands in the future. The company said it will generate nearly $250 million in property taxes, and create more than 400 direct jobs and up to 3,000 indirect jobs in Arizona.

ADEQ set the deadline for public comments for late February,
but the agency then extended the comment period. The agency
also held two public hearings, including the final one this week.

Comments can be submitted to ADEQ’s website until April 10.

Under the Biden administration, the federal government is pushing to
develop new domestic mining for metals like copper, lithium and
manganese considered critical to develop “green infrastructure”
including solar panels, electric cars, and wind turbines. This has often continued even as questions about water usage, as well as the relationship
of Native American tribes to the land, are raised about mining plans.

Comments from 45 speakers on Tuesday night balanced between questions of water safety and the
company’s credibility against opportunity, including hundreds of jobs,
increased tax revenue, and the future of “green energy” because of the
ore hidden beneath the mountains.

A few speakers asked ADEQ Director Karen Peters to “stay true to her pledge” and the agency’s mandate to public health, while others argued the reactions against the mine was driven by “fear of the unknown.” Some urged the company to seek copper from tailing piles left over from previous mines instead.

At the back of the room, a contingent of audience members wore green
“Mining Matters” hats, given to them in the parking lot before the
meeting by a coalition of pro-mining groups, including the Arizona Mining Association, the Arizona Rock Products
Association, and the Southern Arizona Business Coalition. Last week, SABC asked people to
attend the meeting to show their support for the Copper World project and sign up to speak in favor of the open pit mine.

In
the
front, a platoon of men and women came to the support the mine as
members of the local carpenters union. Across the aisle, a group
representing environmental groups like Save the Scenic Santa
Ritas argued against the copper mine. Some wore “No Way, Hudbay”
sweatshirts and they occasionally jeered at speakers, while supporters
of the mine occasionally barked out “time” when someone ran against a
three-minute limit.

‘We have not had due process’

Rhoda Schulman argued the permit process appeared to be a “fait accompli” because state
regulators said the company already met its requirements under state
law.

Schulman lives in Ocotillo Preserve, a small cluster of
houses tucked at the base of the Santa Ritas roughly a mile from Copper
World. 

“We said this sounds like this is a fait accompli and they said
‘yes made except for maybe some minor updates’,” she said, quoting ADEQ
officials. “‘This permit will be issued because Hudbay it’s met the
requirements.'”

“You can’t say a decision has been made to
issue a permit until you have all the public comments,” Schulman argued,
adding she expected a court challenge. “I guarantee you it will be a
legal problem. We have not had due process.”

Peggy Ollerhead, a
member of the Great Old Broads for Wilderness, said she was “shocked and
saddened” during the last meeting because of the lack of studies on
groundwater during the first two years of construction by Hudbay. 

“We
know that Hudbay has already started construction,” she said. Ollerhead
also criticized the monitoring of groundwater because those studies will
be done by the company, “not an independent entity.” 

“I know that a lot of what you’re doing is governed by regulation, and you aren’t the people that set the regulations, but
you are the people we entrust with the health and safety of our loved
ones,” Ollerhead said. “Please consider how important this is, not just
for now, but for future generations.”

Russ McSpadden, southwest conservation advocate with the Tucson-based
Center for Biological Diversity, submitted technical comments and
criticized Hudbay’s international record. The center has been part of a long-running legal fight over copper mining in the Santa Ritas, including the moribund Rosemont Mine.

McSpadden noted the company
faces a trio lawsuits in Canada because of the actions of security forces operating
under the aegis of a Hudbay subsidiary in Guatemala.

The
widow of an indigenous community leader filed suit against the company
after guards for the Fenix nickel mine allegedly hacked her husband with
machetes and then shot him. Another lawsuit accused Fenix guards of
gang rapes, while a third came because guards allegedly shot and
paralyzed an indigenous activist.

McSpadden asked for officials to share the lawsuits with ADEQ Director Peters and Arizona Gov. Katie Hobbs.

Steve Brown said he grew up in the Santa Ritas and retired after working a Spanish teacher and public health researcher. Brown quoted ADEQ’s mission statement, including its promise to “protect and enhance public health” and said ADEQ should “remember the public who you work for.”

To drive home his point, Brown noted that public health research originated in part during a cholera epidemic in London. By mapping the epidemic, Dr. John Snow traced the outbreak to a single water pump’s handle.

“You—the representatives of the ADEQ—are heirs Dr. Snow’s scientific knowledge and wisdom,” he said, adding like Snow, members of ADEQ will face resistance from “today’s big corporate polluters.”

“You have the power, derived from us, the Arizona public to protect our public health. That’s one of the core functions of government: to protect the powerless from the powerful,” Brown said. 

“In Southern Arizona, you can have copper or you can have water, but you cannot have both,” said Stan Hart, a member of Save the Scenic Santa Ritas.

‘We need copper, there’s no way around it’

Randy
Graf, president of the Green Valley and Sahuarita Chamber of
Commerce and former Republican lawmaker, argued for the mine, telling the crowd it would generate
direct jobs and help small businesses in the region. 

“Think about the
impacts of this type of project will have locally in this community,” he
said.

“I’ve seen firsthand how the mines nights are very
conscious of safety and global footprint,” said Dale Wilson. “You can’t
step foot on mine unless you know safety, and it is without a doubt put
into all their minds, they’re supposed to be environmental, and they
contribute to the community they work and live in.”

“ADEQ,
they know what they’re doing,” he said. “Copper World is no different
from any of the other mines that I’ve been on,” he added, telling the
crowd the company has sustainably practices, including environmental
stewardship and community engagement efforts in “compliance with
environmental standards.”

“I’ve met quite a few
representatives from Hudbay and I’m impressed with their vision and
their consciousness of the environment and the people around it,” Wilson
said.

“We need copper, there’s no way around it,” said Mark
Davis. “Copper is so central to the lives that we are building for our
children and grandchildren. There is no substitute.”

“Hudbay
recognizes the importance of public engagement in the permitting
process. We value constructive feedback and input from all stakeholders,
including local communities, environmental groups, and regulatory
authorities,” said a spokesperson with Hudbay. 

‘A small portion’

In August 2022, ADEQ took over the air quality review from Pima
County, citing a Board of Supervisors’ resolution opposing the Copper
World project. ADEQ is responsible for reviewing how water will
discharge from the facility, including how much water will seep from
mineral tailings. The agency said a “small portion” of water could seep
through the mine’s systems and “infiltrate into the underlying soil or
rock.”

Hudbay originally sought to build the Rosemont Mine, planning a
half-mile deep pit across nearly 2,500 acres in the Santa Rita
Mountains. However that effort faced fierce opposition from
environmental groups who argued the mine and its tailings in the
Coronado National Forest would bury thousands of acres within the range
of the endangered northern jaguar and the ocelot, as well as nearly a
dozen other endangered and critical plants and animals. 

Overall, around 3,653 acres of the Coronado National Forest would have been impacted by the Rosemont operation.

With
that project jammed up over legal challenges, Hudbay shifted its efforts
to the western slopes of the Santa Rita Mountains on a chunk of private
land once known as the Helvetia Mining District.

Last year, Hudbay began
carving roads, drill pads and clearing ground for tailings piles on the
property. This included filling ephemeral stream beds and disturbing
habitat in anticipation of final approvals for the Copper World complex.

As part of
Copper World, the company plans to establish six open pits over the
next 15 years, removing and processing up to 277.4 million tons of
sulfide ore. 

After production, the agency will back-fill three
pits, including the Broadtop Butte Pitt, which straddles
the ridgeline, while the Heavy Weight and Copper World pit are tucked
along the west side of the Santa Ritas.

“Water that infiltrates into the underlying soil or rock
has the potential to affect groundwater,” ADEQ said. “The rate at which
water percolates into the ground from a tailings facility depends on the
facility’s configuration and the site’s hydrogeologic characteristics.
As designed, the effectiveness of the seepage collection system is
around 98 percent.”

Hudbay will use millions of gallons of
water, largely drawn from well fields near Sahuarita and “potentially
from pit de-watering wells or other onsite wells.”

The permit will
cover the new facility, which is expected to be under construction and
“pre-production” for two years, followed by 15 years of operations. Once
the mine is exhausted, the company will spend up to two years
shuttering the facility, though monitoring will continue for three more
decades. 

As part of the permit, Copper World will be required to monitor groundwater at 10 wells, ADEQ said