The site of the Hermosa Project in the Patagonia Mountains.

South32 is asking state regulators to tweak a permit and allow the mining company to discharge several million gallons per day of treated water into Harshaw Creek, south of Patagonia.

The Patagonia Town Council says: Not so fast.

In a letter approved unanimously at their March 10 meeting, the town’s five-member council asked the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality to make Arizona Minerals, a subsidiary of South32, apply for a new permit rather than letting the company expand an existing permit that currently allows for less than 200,000 gallons of discharge per day in a different location.

South32, the Australian mining company behind the Hermosa Project, is seeking to develop a silver, lead, zinc and manganese mine several miles south of Patagonia.

“The (Harshaw Creek) discharge point, in our opinion, requires its own permit due to the higher quantity of discharge that affects the quality of the water,” the town council wrote in the letter. “Harshaw Creek merges with Sonoita Creek, which runs through our town, (and) may eventually affect the underground water quality that our town wells draw, in supplying water to our 874 citizens.”

“It was for something totally different from the first permit,” Patagonia Mayor Andrea Wood told the NI. “It needs to be a separate (permit) because it’s a different thing they’re asking for.”

In a presentation last summer to the Santa Cruz County Board of Supervisors, a South32 representative said the minerals the company wants to take out of the ground are currently stuck beneath groundwater. The modified water discharge permit, along with an Aquifer Protection Program permit, would effectively let them pump the water out of the way to get access to the mineral deposits.

The town council’s letter doesn’t go as far as opposing the discharge permit; it just asks ADEQ to make South32 go through another step in asking for permission. But the letter does highlight the town’s willingness to challenge the mining company’s plans, which contrasts with the Santa Cruz County Board of Supervisors, who have taken a less questioning stance.

The town’s letter is the latest twist in a battle over the discharge permit that’s seen the federal Environmental Protection Agency and U.S. Rep. Raul Grijalva, a Tucson Democrat whose district includes Santa Cruz County, jump into the fray.

But it apparently hasn’t caught the attention of County Supervisor Bruce Bracker, whose district includes Patagonia. Bracker insisted last week that he wasn’t aware of South32 seeking a permit modification related to Harshaw Creek, though he was present at the July 2020 meeting when a South32 representative talked about it in detail.

And Wood didn’t sound optimistic about the prospect of county elected officials taking an interest in the issue.

“I think they are establishing a relationship with the mine. I don’t know if they’re establishing, necessarily, the same kind of relationship with the Town of Patagonia,” she said.

In an emailed statement, South32 didn’t specifically respond to the town’s letter, but said it “wholeheartedly” supports public comments on the permit.

Carolyn Shafer, coordinator for the Patagonia Area Resource Alliance, a nonprofit watchdog group that monitors mining operations in the area, said she’s happy with the town’s move.

“It does point (to) one of the glaring problems with the permit,” she said. “It was incorrect to have this be an amendment of the existing permit because it is a discharge into an entirely different waterway and it should have been a new permit.”

“What happens in the Patagonia Mountains affects the entire Santa Cruz watershed,” Shafer added.

Comment period extended

The original discharge permit, issued by ADEQ as AZ0026387 under the Arizona Pollutant Discharge Elimination System, went into effect in January 2018 and allowed South32 to dump up to 172,000 gallons per day of “treated water consisting of mine drainages and tailings seepage” into Alum Gulch, about five miles south of Patagonia near Flux Canyon Road.

The modification would let the company release up to 6.48 million gallons per day of “treated mine drainage water, tailings seepage, groundwater, core cutting water, drilling water, and stormwater” into Harshaw Creek. That’s potentially more than a billion gallons per year and more than 37 times the maximum volume permitted in the original permit, though South32 has said that discharges would decrease as dewatering progresses.

ADEQ documents show that the Harshaw Creek discharge point would also be near Flux Canyon Road, about five miles south of town, but would be served by a separated water treatment plant. Both locations drain into the Santa Cruz River Basin.

For now, the modified permit is in an extended public comment period that will last until April 7.

ADEQ already held a public meeting on the modification in February and is planning another for April 1. The department said in an emailed statement that the comment period was extended in response to requests for additional time to look over related documents.

Shafer, who raised concerns about the permit as early as the July 2020 meeting, told the NI that PARA had asked for the extra time. She and Grijalva also wrote letters to the EPA asking the federal agency to intercede in ADEQ’s permitting process. A hydrologist hired by PARA raised concerns about the permit’s compliance with Clean Water Act Standards, Shafer wrote in her letter to the EPA.

The EPA responded, in letters PARA shared with the NI, saying that the agency had been in touch with ADEQ and “discussed potential options available to set permit conditions that address flow and water quality concerns” and that ADEQ had extended the comment period.

An ADEQ spokesperson said that the department’s Water Quality Division would make a final decision on the permit. They didn’t give a specific timeline for the decision, but said it “could” come within a month of the end of the public comment period.

The spokesperson added that ADEQ expects to publish a draft and begin taking comments on the Aquifer Protection Program permit in coming weeks.

Wood, the Patagonia mayor, said the town isn’t taking sides on whether South32 should be allowed to dump treated water into Harshaw Creek, they’re just asking ADEQ to consider the proposal as a separate permit request.

“I don’t think that we really have any authority to say that it (should or shouldn’t be granted),” she said. “We just voice our concerns.”

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