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Proposed Tucson Copper Mine Hits EPA Roadblock

Thu March 08, 2012 - West Edition
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TUCSON, Ariz. (AP) The Environmental Protection Agency isn’t ready to recommend approval of a federal permit for a planned copper mine southeast of Tucson because of water concerns and that could further delay the project.

The EPA said the proposed Rosemont Mine could “damage the water quality and ecosystem of two key streams, Cienega Creek and Davidson Canyon” and called them “aquatic resources of national importance.”

The federal agency also said Rosemont Copper hasn’t shown that the mine would meet all the federal guidelines needed to obtain the key permit.

EPA officials claim the mine could adversely affect seven threatened and endangered species — the Chiricahua leopard frog, Mexican spotted owl, Southwestern willow flycatcher, lesser long-nosed bat, ocelot, Gila topminnow and jaguar.

In the Jan. 5 letter to the Army Corps of Engineers, a top EPA official wrote that because of the mine’s size and potential impacts, its permit application is a candidate for review by EPA and Corps officials in Washington, D.C.

The Arizona Daily Star said that higher-level review is not normally done for most Clean Water Act permits the corps issues for new projects in the Tucson area such as subdivisions, shopping centers, roads and bridges.

Such a review could last six to 12 months before a decision and that’s past when the mining company has hoped to get all federal approvals so it can start construction.

“At this stage, there’s still a lot of questions to be answered — a lot of uncertainties,” said Jason Brush, manager of the EPA’s regional program for what are known as 404 permits. “With something this large and long-lived, I think that being concerned about those types of impacts is reasonable.”

Typically, the corps makes the final decision on these permits. The EPA has the legal right to veto a decision — a right it has exercised 13 times since 1972.

A Rosemont Copper vice president said she’s not surprised by the EPA letter, which was one of thousands of public comments on the proposed permit submitted by the comment deadline. The corps has received more than 5,500 emails and 100 printed letters opposed to the Rosemont permit, and eight emails and several hundred letters in support, the corps said Jan. 19.

“We’re looking forward to the comments that EPA has on all the issues,” said Kathy Arnold, Rosemont Copper’s vice president of environmental and regulatory affairs. “The whole thing is that our project is moving forward and we’ll be working with the corps and EPA on things like mitigation and resources, and all those pieces tie in. We’re trying to develop a package that gives the information they’re asking for.”

The proposed permit would cover dredging and filling of regulated watercourses with material from the mine property, in the Santa Rita Mountains.

Rosemont Copper needs the permit to build diversion structures to reroute water now running in washes around the mine’s open pit, tailings and waste-rock storage area — and to discharge fill into significant rivers, washes and adjacent wetlands.

Brush said the EPA is concerned Rosemont’s proposed facilities could detain enough stormwater to significantly reduce runoff into Barrel Canyon, which drains into Davidson, a tributary to Cienega Creek or the mine could damage downstream ecosystems by releasing stormwater in unnatural “spurts.”

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