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Originally published December 20 2014

1872 law allows open-pit mine in Arizona; mining expected to devastate local environment and health

by J. D. Heyes

(NaturalNews) A 142-year-old law could pave the way for new mining operations in a region of Arizona once known to support silver and manganese extraction a century ago, despite concerns from locals and activist groups about the potential for environmental damage.

As reported by High Country News, the town of Patagonia, Arizona, which sits cradled by 4,000-foot-high mountains just 18 miles north of the U.S.-Mexico border, is part of "a high desert oasis of oak and piñon pines" and is also "home to the rare ocelot and jaguar." In addition, the paper reported, the region is also strewn with "abandoned mine shafts and tailings from the town's not-too-distant past."

In the 1860s, the paper notes, small miners arrived to make their fortune, but a hundred years hence, mining operations ceased altogether and the town simply "moved on," according to long-time resident Wendy Russell. The town's main street is a mere two blocks long now; its string of small businesses survive largely on tourists who come to hike the nearby Arizona Trail, bike on serene mountain roads or bird watch.

But, High Country News further reports:

[M]ore than 145 million ounces of silver and 7.2 billion pounds of manganese lie buried beneath the hills, and plans are underway that could re-start Patagonia's old industry on an even larger scale: an open pit mine 4,000 feet wide and 1,500 feet deep, just six miles southeast of town. Wildcat Silver, a Canadian mining company, is behind the proposed Hermosa Mine, which supporters says will bring 300 jobs and a boost to the local economy.

Perpetual water loss

The site also happens to be in the same watershed that feeds into Patagonia's drinking water, say residents and activist groups. That has some like Russell concerned that mining operations could eventually leach harmful substances into that water supply.

So, in 2011, she helped form the group Patagonia Area Resource Alliance, which is dedicated to stopping the Hermosa mine project. The group believes that new commercial mining operations will poison groundwater as well with acid mine draining.

"From her house," the paper reported, "Russell can see the town's municipal water wells, which have dropped 18 feet since 2008, hammered by drought that has lasted more than a decade. Last year, with water levels at an all time low, the town manager recommended residents begin restricting their water use."

The Hermosa mine would only exacerbate the problem, Russell said.

"We could save all the water in the world and it would still just be a drop in the bucket compared to what this huge mine would consume," she told the paper.

According to an October 2014 report by the nonprofit environmental group Earthworks, which examined the potential impact of mining operations on the region's water supplies, "The 4,000-foot wide and 1,500-foot deep open-pit silver and manganese mine proposed by Wildcat Silver in southeastern Arizona, six miles from the town of Patagonia, threatens both the quantity and quality of area water supplies."

The group said that, according to its research, the mine would consume 670 million to 1.2 billion gallons of water annually, and would "lower Patagonia's aquifer recharge rates."

1872 law makes it hard to stop such projects

"You're creating perpetual water loss that will persist well beyond the mine," Pete Dronkers, an Earthworks staffer who helped prepare the report, told High Country News.

Not everyone agreed with Earthwork's findings. Greg Lucero, vice president of sustainable development with Wildcat Silver, wrote in an op-ed published by The Weekly Bulletin that the report's authors "misuse data to distort the truth and mislead individuals with false claims." He said the company is a "corporate citizen in good standing" with an excellent record of environmentally friendly development.

Opponents say that some federal agencies such as the EPA -- via its authority per the Clean Water Act -- could stop the project dead, but that would mean using power thatthe agency has rarely tapped.

Also at issue is a law passed in 1872 called the Hardrock Mining Law, which "makes it hard for land managers to say no to a mining project, even if the land is already used for other purposes such as protecting a town's water supply," according to the way it was written, High Country News reported.


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