By John Washington | June 26, 2023
Austin Nunez, Chairman of the San Xavier district of the Tohono O’odham Nation, walks through the desert grass, nimbly weaving between ocotillo and barrel cactus, climbing up a pathless foothill of the Santa Rita Mountains just south of Tucson.
Wearing black Lowa hiking shoes, blue jeans, a light long-sleeve button down shirt, with a black bag over one shoulder and a Tohono O’odham baseball hat on his head, he takes a moment, leans down, and admires a rainbow hedgehog cactus.
Continuing to climb, after gaining enough elevation to gather in the full view, he turns around to look at the site of the proposed Copper World Complex mine, a vast area of once-pristine desert grassland rising into an imposing mountain range. Though actual digging for copper and other minerals may still be years or decades away — if it happens at all — the Canadian mining company Hudbay, has, over the past year, already clearcut huge tracts of scrub and cactus and carved a network of roads and berms out of this patch of desert.
Nunez takes in the scene before him, sighs heavily, and, then, under his breath, says “Whoa.”
He takes another deep breath: “I’ll be nice about it. They’re raping mother earth.”
The Santa Rita mountains, or Ce:wi duag in the Tohono O’odham language, are a favorite spot for Southern Arizonans to go hiking, camping, or birding. The Ciénega Creek, one of Arizona’s most intact riparian areas, and from which Tucson takes a significant amount of its annual water, flows between the Santa Ritas and Whetstone Mountains.
Nunez says of the proposed mine, “It’s very short-sighted. They’re going for temporary economic gain and aren’t concerned about the future, how the mine will affect the wildlife and the waterflow.”
In a June 5 emailed comment from Hudbay, a spokesperson wrote to Arizona Luminaria that the company’s plan is to “not only responsibly extract minerals, but also produce finished copper on-site.”
Addressing concerns about wildlife and water contamination, Hudbay noted that the Army Corps of Engineers, in March 2021, concluded “that there are no jurisdictional waters in the area,” meaning that the washes do not meet the threshold of prompting federal protection.
A new hydrology report published last November, commissioned by EarthJustice, the nonprofit law firm that represents the Tohono O’odham, Pascua Yaqui and Hopi tribes that are challenging Hudbay in court, shows how the giant mining operation would have enormous detrimental impact on local waterways, including the Santa Cruz River which flows north through the heart of Tucson.
The land these rivers and washes flow through shows signs of having been inhabited for as long as 10,000 years, and has long been a dwelling and gathering place, as well as a sacred site, for the Hohokam and Tohono O’odham people. Today, it is one of the last remaining habitats in the country for the jaguar, as well as multiple other endangered species. The famous Arizona Trail, on which hikers can walk from Mexico to Utah, passes directly through land that would become a half-mile deep scar into the earth.
“‘Ridgeline modification,’ they call it,” says Russ McSpadden, southwest conservation advocate for the Center for Biological Diversity, who is hiking with Nunez. “But it’s mountaintop removal. They’re completely changing the view.”
Even as the legal saga over whether or not Hudbay can start digging plays out in courts and among government regulators, Hudbay has been able to push forward on preliminary work. Though what they’ve done so far is only a negligible fraction of what multiple open pit mines will do to the landscape, critics note that the company has already affected the local waterways and scarred land that is both beloved and sacred.
Hudbay officials know they have a long path ahead of them before they may be able to actually extract copper. Their current goals, according to a 2023 management discussion posted on their website, include “the completion of pre-feasibility studies, state permitting activities, evaluating a bulk sampling program and a potential joint venture partnership.”
Mark Murphy, the geologist who wrote the hydrology report, is one of the leading experts in the Clean Water Act, which regulates how mining and other projects must address local impact on hydrology systems. Murphy estimated that the Santa Cruz River supports eighty-four species of mammals, fourteen fish species, and forty-one species of reptiles and amphibians, and provides habitat for millions of migrating and resident birds and waterfowl each year. In other words, blocking, draining, or polluting the tributaries that feed the Santa Cruz would affect an entire ecosystem.
In the report, Murphy concludes that “the physical, chemical, and biological integrity” of the Santa Cruz River depends on the upstream “ephemeral tributaries.” The very streams the digging of the mine would irrecoverably threaten.
McSpadden has seen first hand what Murphy has concluded in his report. “The whole thing drains right into the Santa Cruz,” McSpadden says. “I’ve come out here during the monsoons and you can see the flow. They’re already blocking these streams and they don’t have the permits to do that.”
Nunez and McSpadden pass binoculars back and forth as they survey the extent of the damage.
“I pray every day that it will be stopped in some way or another,” Nunez says.
A winding timeline
It’s not easy to track all the flip flops in the Copper World Complex mining saga. Even keeping track of what the project is called — for years it was known as the Rosemont Mine — and where exactly Hudbay is proposing to dig can be hard to follow. Some background helps put into perspective the whiplashing ping-pong of permits granted, permits denied, and permits revoked, and how Hudbay has still managed to conduct significant preliminary work despite the ongoing legal tug-of-war.
Though the northern reaches of the Santa Ritas have been mined at small scale — think pick and shovel, maybe a team of donkeys — for over 100 years, hopes for massive, industrial-scale mining began in the 1970s when Anaconda Copper started seeking to buy up land in the area. The corporation then merged with another, changed its name to Asarco, and then another corporation swooped in, and finally Hudbay took over speculative permitting and exploratory drilling in 2014.
Hudbay has been wrangling with Pima County, Tucson, Sahuarita, and a host of state and federal agencies to counter the concerns of environmentalists and obtain the stack of permits needed before it can start digging. But resistance to the large-scale mine has been fierce. While objections range widely, the most feared impact concerns how the proposed mine would pollute and disrupt local waterways.
Those concerns were fought over and litigated all the way up to the U.S. Supreme Court, as justices sought to tease out which bodies of water should be considered “waters of the United States,” thus putting them under the regulatory protection of the Environmental Protection Agency.
The Supreme Court heard arguments in a case last summer, and just issued a ruling on May 26 in a decision the White House said in a statement “will take our country backwards” in terms of protecting threatened waterways.
While the ruling narrows the definition of what is considered a waterway, and is a win for mining companies, not all the red tape is cleared for Hudbay. Federal bills on both sides of the issue are currently wending their way through the legislature.
This February, Arizona’s independent senator, Kyrsten Sinema, proposed designating copper a mineral vital for national security. She later reiterated her support for mining in the region.
Arizona Luminaria reached out to Sinema’s office on June 8 with a list of questions about her stance on the proposed mine in the Santa Ritas. As of June 26, her office has not responded.
In April, U.S. Sens. Catherine Cortez Masto (D-Nev.) and Jim Risch (R-Idaho) introduced the Mining Regulatory Clarity Act, co-sponsored by Sinema, which would allow mining companies to use federal land to dump their tailings. According to a Center for Biological Diversity press release, the move “could result in millions of acres of public lands becoming mining wastelands, putting that use above watershed protection, cultural resources and recreation.”
Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.), who opposes the Copper World Project, recently introduced the Clean Energy Minerals Reform Act, to protect the Santa Ritas, as well as other vulnerable sites, from mining.
“For more than a century and a half, the mining industry has operated under an outdated, free-for-all claims system that gives them carte blanche to pollute and destroy, while American taxpayers get stuck with the cleanup bill,” Grijalva wrote in a press release.
It’s not only the federal agencies that need to approve. The Arizona Department of Environmental Quality has pulled rank on Pima County to be able to issue Copper World’s air quality permit, calling the county’s previous denial of a permit “arbitrary and capricious.”
The county has long been in opposition to the proposed mine. The city of Tucson, too, has long opposed any company digging in the Santa Ritas. The existing air quality permit for the Rosemont mine expires this April 23, so it will be up to the department of environmental quality to issue an extension — or not.
On March 10, when Chairman Nunez and McSpadden climbed hills in the area to survey the damage, dirt-hauling trucks were bumping along the roads, and a Hudbay sign read “Road Work. Proceed with Caution.”
Water and mining
In addition to building up infrastructure in preparation for digging, Hudbay’s current work includes preparation for a utility corridor to facilitate a water pipeline and high-voltage electric transmission lines along Santa Rita Road, on the east side of the range, north of the town of Sonoita.
That preparatory work highlights how deeply impacting the mine could be on the local environment: not only will it block and contaminate surrounding washes, critics say it will suck up huge amounts of water just to run the mine.
Hudbay documents show they will initially use up to 6,000 acre-feet of water per year from the local watershed. The company is authorized to pump 6,000 acre-feet per year at their Sahuarita wellfield for 20 years. Hudbay’s Preliminary Economic Assessment issued in June of 2022 indicates that the first phase of operations will require 9,400 acre-feet per year, rising to 14,000 acre-feet per year in Phase 2.
A single acre-foot of water is 325,851 gallons, or the amount of water needed to cover an acre of land a foot deep — a lot of water for the desert. The company also says that its total water usage is unclear, as it will be “determined by the size and technology of the final project as permitted,” and states that its goal is to become a “net neutral water user by recharging 100% of the water” used during production as a “voluntary measure.”
Recharging groundwater is pumping it back into the aquifer. According to the United States Geological Survey, that can be done by redirecting water via canals or “injection wells” which pump water into underground reservoirs.
Furthermore, Hudbay contends that whatever washes or arroyos it may alter are not proper waterways, which is one of the marquee fights over the proposed mine.
Mark Murphy, the writer of the hydrology report, spoke to Arizona Luminaria before the recent Supreme Court ruling about whether or not the washes were proper waterways. While he said that it depends on who you ask and under what administration you ask it, in the end, “there is a connection between ephemeral streams and downstream waters,” Murphy says.
“If water that supports ecological integrity is denied, or made less healthy, there will be an impact on downstream, and it won’t be good,” Murphy says.
HudBay has addressed some of these hydrological concerns on its website, explaining, “To be a good neighbor – and an innovative project – Rosemont has committed to replacing all of the water used in its operations.”
In a June 5 emailed comment from Hudbay, a spokesperson wrote to Arizona Luminaria that the company has “studied the ability of the dry washes on the west side to transport contaminants downstream by analyzing stormwater, sediment, and plant samples. The analysis is clear that contaminants from the historic mining activities in Helvetia do not reach the Santa Cruz River, and certainly do not reach the Colorado River, which is the nearest downstream water that is actually navigable.”
“Inherently incredibly destructive”
Dr. Julia Neilson is the director of the University of Arizona’s Center for Environmentally Sustainable Mining. “Hardrock mining of copper is inherently incredibly destructive,” Neilson said.
“The fact is, unfortunately, copper doesn’t always exist in convenient places to mine it,” she says.
Nunez and others, meanwhile, suggest a lifestyle change may be necessary.
“It’s heartrending to see this land destroyed because of the need to have tools and devices that we didn’t need before,” Nunez said. “We need to think twice about taking care of mother earth, if we don’t take care of her, we don’t take care of ourselves.”
To make matters more complicated, Neilson added that in the desert it takes an especially long time for ecosystems to recover once giant holes are dug into them.
The pit Hudbay proposes to dig, Neilson said, will be “a permanent problem.”
In response, the Hudbay spokesperson said, “Before, during, and after mining is complete Hudbay is taking into consideration the best way to operate in a sustainable manner and that protects the environment.” They added, noting their reclamation efforts, “Modern mining begins with the end in mind.”
Steve Brown, in his mid-70s, grew up on Santa Rita ranch, in the northern foothills of the mountain range. Steve, as well as his grandfather and grandchildren, have all learned the ins and outs of the foothills and ranges: where to spot deer and coatamundi, where to find seeps and springs.
“How does it enhance the safety and public health to allow a foreign company to dump toxic waste into the environment?” Brown asks. Hudbay has been pushing the state land trust to sell them land to use to deposit mining waste on, according to memos on April 17 and June 6 to the Pima County Board of Supervisors.
The company is also buying and offering to buy residential property in a Vail neighborhood that butts up against that state land trust-owned property, according to documents submitted to the Pima County Board of Supervisors.
The spokesperson for Hudbay said that “Phase I of Copper World will require Hudbay to obtain state and local permits to begin operations. The state’s permitting process includes the opportunity for members of the public to review the data and information, ask questions, and provide comments to regulators prior to the issuance of the permits.” They added that there will be public hearings for people to air their concerns.
That promise doesn’t pacify Brown.
“We will fight this for as long as it takes,” Brown says. “It really upsets me when someone from Hudbay comes and says ‘There’s nothing here,’ which is basically what they’re saying. I was raised in those mountains. They have been considered sacred for thousands of years. They’re not called Santa Ritas by accident.”
“Heartrending to see the demolition”
Nunez and McSpadden turn from the cut-up western foothills to admire Huerfano Butte, a lone peak, or inselberg, that is the site of pictographs and potsherds, long a sacred site for pilgrimage and ceremony for the Tohono O’odham. Nunez explains that O’odham people from the Tucson area would visit the site before they continued into the mountains to collect material for baskets, medicines, and acorns.
“This is where we come to pray and recreate,” he says, looking out again at the road-scarred foothills in front of him.
Nunez has been chairman of the San Xavier district for 36 years. “I never imagined I would be serving my community this long. I started because I wanted to help my children, so they could have the same or better than I had.”
His youngest grandchild, seven years old, is named Alaya. “I’m concerned about the availability of water for her, about the way the climate has changed. I’m concerned for her children and grandchildren.”
The Water Desk’s mission is to increase the volume, depth and power of journalism connected to Western water issues. We’re an initiative of the Center for Environmental Journalism at the University of Colorado Boulder.