Locals Believe Copper Mine Will Damage Environment and Tribal Lands

A Canadian firm wants to dig a copper mine near Tucson. The Rosemont Mine would cost $1.9 billion, be a half-mile deep and a mile wide, and would leave a waste pile the height of skyscraper. Native American tribes and environmental groups have sued the company, Hudbay Minerals Inc., to stop them, saying the project would desecrate sacred lands. They also say it would dry up wells and waterways and ravage the habitat for endangered species. They’ve asked a federal judge to halt the project until a decision is made on the lawsuit.

“I pray to our Creator every morning that things will work out,” said Austin Nunez, chairman of the Tohono O’odham’s San Xavier District, a piece of tribal land just south of Tucson. “Our ancestors’ remains are there, along with archaeological sites, including a ball court. We cannot risk any further harm to our ancestral heritage.”

The Tucson and state chambers of commerce support the mine, saying it will create 500 jobs and add $16 billion into the local economy in the next 20 years. Fights like this one are happening all over the west.

In 2017, the Trump administration slashed 85% of Utah’s Bear Ears National Monument. It allowed companies to make mining claims. Tribal leaders in New Mexico have pressured U.S. officials to ban oil and gas exploration near the remnants of a Pueblo civilization at Chaco Culture National Historical Park.

In California, conservationists are fighting plans to reopen a gold mine in California’s Castle Mountains National Monument. The monument is home to ancient rock art and a Joshua tree forest.

“You could go to virtually every state and find a push by big corporations to grab resources before it’s too late,” said Richard White, a historian of the American West at Stanford University. “It’s a resurrection of these extractive industries that were so much a part of the Old West.”

Arizona produces two-thirds of U.S. copper. According to the Arizona Mining Association, copper generated $5.38 billion in 2017.

“Mining in Arizona represents 60,000 jobs,” said Amber Smith, the president and CEO of the Tucson Metro Chamber of Commerce. The Arizona Chamber of Commerce and Industry spokesman, Garrick Taylor, believes Rosemont would be one of the biggest construction projects in Arizona history.

“It’s impacts will be measured in the billions of dollars,” he said. Hudbay says any halt in the project would cause in “significant financial costs” and “we’re proposing in the short term to move forward on aspects that don’t fall under the litigation.”

Environmentalists believe the project would have negative impacts on the Santa Rita Mountains and its animals, including white-tailed deer, black bear, bobcats, and cougars. Randy Serraglio, who is conservationist with the Tucson-based Center for Biological Diversity, predicts that ore trucks would rumble down a scenic highway, causing negative impacts.

“It’s going to look like a nuclear bomb was set off,” he said. Winery owners also worry about the impacts of the mine. Todd Bostock, a winery owner, worries Rosemont could injure wine tourism, which relies on the region’s natural beauty.

“The mine will have a direct, negative and permanent impact on our business,” said Bostock, whose Dos Cabezas winery annually produces some 5,000 cases of dry red, rosé and white wine. “They are gambling with our investment and our livelihood.”

Along with tribal leaders, an environmental law firm, Earthjustice, filed request for an injunction to stop Hudbay. A U.S. District Court Judge, James A. Soto, hopes to rule on the first three lawsuits by the end of summer.