Opponents of the proposed Rosemont Mine will have more time to file formal objections under a new Forest Service timetable, but they say more action could occur in state or federal court or within the Army Corps of Engineers.
The Forest Service in all likelihood won’t issue a Record of Decision until March after announcing recently that it won’t release its Final Environmental Impact Statement until November.
The new timetable will allow opponents who already have filed comments to file objections, within narrow limits, within 45 days. The agency will have 45 days to respond formally, which is more than opponents would have gotten under an earlier process, and the process could be extended another 30 days, bringing the latest deadline to March. The objection process replaces another form of administrative appeal.
Rosemont lobbied hard to get the Forest Service to issue the statement before Sept. 27, which would have required the agency to operate under old federal regulations barring further public comment on the project. Those regulations changed on that date.
Nevertheless, Rosemont’s parent company, Augusta Resource, issued a statement of support, but acknowledged that the Forest Service process may have to be defended in court.
“We are pleased to see the USFS move the FEIS and ROD (Record of Decision) documents towards completion and provide a certain process with dates for finalization,” said Gil Clausen, Augusta’s president and CEO. “The new regulations provide a more defensible process and remove the (old) administrative appeal process, while following a similar time frame.”
Gayle Hartmann of Save the Scenic Santa Ritas, which opposes the mine, hailed the decision as a victory for opponents, saying it will give the Forest Service more time to resolve outstanding issues raised by federal agencies, plus air and water quality objections that private agencies have raised.
The proposal is for an open-pit copper mine about a mile across on the eastern slope of the northern Santa Rita Mountains east of Sahuarita.
Clausen acknowledged that the Army Corps of Engineers won’t act on Rosemont’s request for a Clean Water Act 404 Permit until after the Forest Service issues the FEIS, but said he expects the Corps will issue the permit.
However, Hartmann said the Army Corps already has raised serious water quality issues and could block the project outright, though the Corps has not blocked projects frequently in the past.
Hartmann said opponents could file a federal lawsuit before the Corps gets involved or after it makes its decision on the 404 permit. Meanwhile, SSSR also has filed a suit that is pending in state court on air quality issues.
Coronado National Forest Supervisor Jim Upchurch said the new process “will give the public the opportunity to more fully engage in the eventual outcome of this decision during the objection period.”
He told the Green Valley News last month that the Sept. 27 deadline wouldn’t work because the Forest Service is still working with the Fish & Wildlife Service to finalize mitigation measures and the biological opinion and is still meeting with cooperating agencies to resolve outstanding issues. He said it will take three weeks to just to print the 1,000-page report.
“It just technically and physically wasn’t going to work,” Upchurch said of the Sept. 27 deadline.
Upchurch emphasized that the new rules don’t allow for a new comment period for the public at large, but would allow those who are eligible to file objections that have to be very specific and “pertinent to the proposal.”
Objections will be reviewed by the Reviewing Officer, Cal Joyner, Southwestern Regional Forester, who will give formal responses.
There will be no opportunity for additional administrative review or appeal of the final decision.
Augusta’s Clausen said of the new timetable, “This allows us to commence construction at Rosemont according to our planned project schedule when project debt financing is in place...”
Hartmann said the new timetable may hurt Rosemont’s support in the financial community.