Judge Overturns Wildlife Agency’s Approval of Rosemont Copper Mine in Arizona

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TUCSON, Ariz.— A federal judge today overturned the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s approval of a controversial open-pit copper mine in southern Arizona’s Santa Rita Mountains because of threats to jaguars and other endangered species.

U.S. District Judge James Soto determined that the agency violated the Endangered Species Act in approving the destruction of thousands of acres of recently occupied jaguar habitat at the Rosemont Mine site. This land is officially designated as critical habitat essential to the survival and recovery of jaguars in the United States. The judge also denied Rosemont’s challenge to the designation of jaguar critical habitat at the mine site.

“This is a wonderful win for the Santa Rita’s rare and beautiful animals, including the endangered jaguar,” said Marc Fink, a senior attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity. “The judge put the focus right where it belongs, on the protections demanded by the Endangered Species Act, and on sound scientific analysis of what these imperiled species need to survive and recover. The jaguars and endangered frogs, snakes and fish that call this place home are too important and vulnerable to be sacrificed for mining company profits.”

The ruling deals another major blow to Toronto-based Hudbay Minerals’ proposed $1.9 billion mine in the Coronado National Forest, 30 miles southeast of Tucson. The mine’s imminent construction was halted by the same judge in July 2019.

In September 2017 the Center sued to challenge the Fish and Wildlife Service’s opinion that determined the mine would not jeopardize threatened and endangered species in the area.

In today’s ruling Soto determined that the biological opinion the agency relied on to approve the mine failed to ensure protections for endangered species in the area, including jaguars, northern Mexican gartersnakes, Chiricahua leopard frogs, fish and birds. He threw out the opinion and ordered the agency to start over.

For the endangered jaguar, Soto ruled that the Fish and Wildlife Service violated the law’s requirement of “institutionalized caution” by using an improper heightened standard to determine whether the mine would destroy the animal’s critical habitat.

“[T]he heightened standard impermissibly constrains the effectiveness of the ESA’s protections, which comes at a high, and potentially detrimental, cost to listed species and their habitat,” he wrote.

The agency also failed to identify the “tipping point” for the endangered northern Mexican gartersnake before determining whether the severe impact caused by the proposed mine would jeopardize the species’ survival or recovery.

The Endangered Species Act required the Fish and Wildlife Service to estimate the amount of aquatic and riparian species that could be threatened by the severe reduction in groundwater from the mine. But the court found that the agency used an improper and unworkable habitat “surrogate,” which violated the law.

Background

Hudbay wants to blast a mile-wide, half-mile-deep pit in the Santa Rita Mountains and pile toxic mine tailings and waste rock hundreds of feet high across nearly 2,500 acres in the headwaters of Davidson Canyon, a tributary to Cienega Creek, which replenishes Tucson’s groundwater basin.

In all more than 5,000 acres would be harmed by the mine, including nearly 4,000 acres of public land that would be covered by the mine’s waste dumps, processing plant and infrastructure. The pit and waste dumps would remain as a permanent scar and an environmental hazard.

The Rosemont Mine faces additional legal challenges not addressed by today’s ruling. The judge has stayed two March 2019 lawsuits challenging the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ issuance of a Clean Water Act permit for the mine. The mine, which would threaten critical water resources and wildlife habitat in the area, cannot be constructed without the permit.

On July 31, 2019, Soto overturned the U.S. Forest Service’s approval of the mine, saying the agency conducted “inherently flawed analysis from the inception of the proposed Rosemont Mine.” The Forest Service and Rosemont have appealed this ruling to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. The Forest Service relied on the Fish and Wildlife Service’s opinion in its decision to approve the mine.

The court also ruled in favor of three American Indian tribes ― the Tohono O’odham, Pascua Yaqui and Hopi ― that filed a similar lawsuit challenging the Forest Service’s approval of the mine. Like the environmental groups, the tribes are challenging the U.S. Army Corps issuance of the Clean Water Act permit, and are represented by Earthjustice.

Article Source: Center for Biological Diversity