A proposed drilling project that seeks to identify hot mineral commodities in the mountains south of Patagonia is getting a frigid reception from local residents.
The Canadian mining company behind the so-called Sunnyside Exploration Drilling Project is hoping that the area contains significant copper deposits, like those found in other Sonoran Desert mines.
But Leslie Schupp, whose home is near the proposed drilling sites in the Coronado National Forest, said that she doesn’t want big vehicles driving up the windy dirt road where she and a handful of other Patagonians live.
And, she added, “I don’t want to hear 24/7 drilling from up in the mountains.”
Four years after a federal judge halted the Sunnyside project over concerns about wildlife impacts, drilling company Arizona Standard is starting the permit process again. But while the U.S. Forest Service previously tried to fast-track the project without allowing public input through a process called a “categorical exclusion,” this time, they are opening it to community for comment.
At a public hearing on the proposal held on Sept. 4 at Patagonia Union High School, around 60 community members showed up – and most were not happy about the plans.
The slogan printed on one man’s shirt captured the tenor of the room: “Don’t mess with my mountains.”
Attendees included local residents, members of the anti-mining activist group Patagonia Area Resource Alliance (PARA), and at least one dedicated off-roader from Tucson who said he had come down to see if the drilling would cause any changes to ATV trails in the area.
Drilling vs. mining
The underlying mining claims are owned by Vancouver-based mining firm Regal Resources. A report on the company’s website states that the Sunnyside property comprises 295 claims across 5,900 acres and estimates exploration costs at $2.5 million.
Arizona Standard’s proposal calls for a total of 30 drilling sites and 24/7 operations over the course of seven years, according to an operations plan. No more than two sites would be active at once.
Drilling vehicles would travel along Harshaw, Flux Canyon and Forest Service roads. The plan calls for “upgrading” about eight miles of roadway to accommodate the vehicles.
Daisy Kinsey, the U.S. Forest Service district ranger from Sierra Vista, and Rick Goshen, a geologist at the Coronado National Forest (CNF), spoke briefly about the proposed plans during the meeting at PUHS.
Then, in a question-and-answer period lasting 20 minutes, more than a dozen people made critical comments and questioned whether the project would be good for the local community.
Schupp lives on Flux Canyon Road and was one of those who spoke up.
Sounding exasperated, she said that the project “would inevitably screw up my life.”
Others complained about environmental degradation and harmful impacts on endangered species in the area.
“What is proposed is not going to be a positive to the nature of the planet. Our planet is already compromised, and this project is going to add to it,” one man said.
In 2015, the Sunnyside Exploration Drilling Project was stopped when a judge ruled that species including the yellow-billed cuckoo could see their habitat impacted by drilling rigs. PARA was among the plaintiffs in the case, arguing that the Forest Service should not have allowed the company to skip environmental impact assessments before beginning work.
Now, the project is set to undergo the Forest Service’s full environmental review process, but PARA is still opposed to the plans.
“This proposed exploratory drilling plan of operations in the Patagonia Mountains is the poster child for all that is wrong with the 1872 Mining Law,” PARA Coordinator Carolyn Schafer wrote in an emailed statement. “The Patagonia Mountains are part of the Madrean Pine Oak Woodlands, a global biodiversity hotspot, and identified by scientists as one of the top places in the world to be protected for species survival.”
Several people said that they just didn’t want to see any more mining in the region.
The Patagonia area is already home to the Hermosa silver-lead-zinc mining project, owned by Australian mining firm South32.
The Rosemont copper mine, another project located northwest of Sonoita and owned by Hudbay Minerals, was put on hold following a judge’s ruling in July.
Goshen, the CNF geologist, said that exploratory drilling wouldn’t necessarily lead to mining.
“It’s not appropriate at this time or at this stage of the project to comment, ‘Well, if this becomes a mine,’” he said in response to one comment at the Sept. 4 meeting. “We don’t know. Arizona Standard doesn’t know at this point.”
The audience groaned.
Standing in the back of the crowd, Mark Butler responded: “But what is the intended (purpose) of the drilling if it’s not to mine?”
Butler, who runs the San Antonio Ranch in Lochiel, told the NI that mining projects in the area already brought light pollution, traffic and noise.
“I’m not objecting to the economics,” he added, but he said he would like to see the region’s forests preserved for future generations, not mined for minerals.
Outside the building, Chris Werkhoven was one of several volunteers holding signs advertising a PARA comment-writing workshop.
He said that he doesn’t think local people will see the economic benefits of drilling or mining activity.
“There is no mining town in Arizona where the people who live there became millionaires,” he said. “Money goes into (mining companies’) pockets and they disappear.”
After the hearing, Arizona Standard project manager and Patagonia resident Caroline Whitehill said that the complaints voiced at the Sept. 4 event hadn’t come as a surprise.
“We were expecting the concerns that we heard, (and) we respect them,” she said.
Although the meeting took on a negative tone, not all attendees opposed the exploration plans.
Jim Pendleton, who owns an auto repair and towing business on Harshaw Road, sat quietly during the meeting, listening as Forest Service officials gave their presentation and other residents criticized the project.
But, speaking to the NI before the presentation started, Pendleton was unhesitating in his support, saying that he thought the project would bring money to the area.
“If the ore’s out there, we better go get it,” he said.
Patagonia resident Janie Trafton, who said that she was “completely opposed” to the drilling plans and to other local mining projects, added that she knew some people who supported mining in the area.
“It has really divided our town,” she said.